The Rumpus International Rivers Interview #1: György Dragomán on the Danube

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Dragomán: I have noticed that in countries with a totalitarian past, violence seems to be less of an issue, because I am not as often asked about it in interviews. For me violence is the basic level of oppression, the most direct manifestation of power. In societies with dominant power structures, where communication is about violence and power, violence will become part of the communication process. The boundary between the threat of violence and violence itself becomes fuzzy, and violence will become an inherent part of daily life. Paradoxically, in such a society violence and brutality becomes banal, and absurdly natural. Readers who have experienced this to some degree often tell me of a déjà-vu like recognition.

In the western societies violence seems to have been a bit more controlled, but I would not think it to be unimaginable—quite the contrary. Reading Human Rights Watch reports will quickly shatter all illusions one might have in that respect.

Rumpus: Was the book well received in Romania?

Dragomán: Yes the book got a fantastic reception there. It was well-read and well-reviewed, and I have spoken to many readers who felt the story was their own. I also got a prize for it there—in December 2008 I received a Culture Prize from The Romanian Cultural Institute.

Rumpus: Every stranger on the streets of The White King is ready to lie, steal or cheat. Are these also byproducts of that kind of a totalitarian system?

Dragomán: The fictionalized ideology of a totalitarian system quickly becomes an entity of itself, and once this happens, the rules become unclear. Theoretically, the rules governing such societies should be internalized, as the whole ideology implies a coherently working system of ethics, which in fact does not exist at all. This leads to an erosion of ethics, and an absurd moral cynicism coupled with a sort of paranoid self-disciplining all vented through frustration.

In such a system there is no possibility for compromise, everybody has to pretend, everybody has to cheat, and reality is corrupted. On the one hand this is a very serious matter, on the other it implies a sort of absurd playfulness, a sense of fighting back, or getting even with the system. The iconic saying summing up this mentality would be: “Laws are made for the sweet pleasure of breaking them,” which I heard quite a few times in my childhood.

Rumpus: Did you want to write The White King as a political novel?

Dragomán: When I set out to write the novel it was Djata’s voice which interested me most—I wanted to recreate a child’s experience in the most authentic way possible. Only when the book was finished and I was reading the proofs did I realize that once again I’d written a novel about power and authority (my first novel, The Book of Destruction, is very much about power oppression and the possibility of freedom)

I think the book could very well be read as a cautionary tale. But I hope that the story, the voice and the ambience are strong enough on their own to carry the reader till the end, without being overtly didactic.

Rumpus: Djata is a storyteller and a collector: He snatches everything from photo IDs, to medals, to chess pieces and bottle caps. Is there a similarity here with the writing process?


Michael Zelenko is a freelance writer and editor. He was most recently a writer for the newspaper The Reykjavik Grapevine in Iceland. Born in Murmansk, Russia, he currently resides in San Francisco where he is working on a children's book. More from this author →