The RomanianOctober 10, 2006 at 4:28 pm | Posted in books | 12 Comments
I know I’m supposed to be finishing Madame Bovary, but less than twenty-four hours after reading the brilliant litpark interview with Bruce Benderson, I found my way to an English-language bookstore and purchased a copy of his memoir, The Romanian. To those who know me well, this should come as no great surprise: it’s the story of a torrid (if mostly one-sided) homosexual love affair, carried out in a succession of exotic locales, and tempered by the regular ingestion of opiates in various forms. Basically, if there is a blue print to all of my favorite books, this story follows it to the letter (indeed, those who have read drafts of my own novel will notice certain common themes).
But ultimately, despite the mechanics of the plot, this book was not really about homosexual love, or sex, or even the age-old exotification of eastern flesh. For me, it was about the grim realities of the free market, placed in sharp contrast to the (admittedly also grim) repressions of communism and fascism.
In 1999, Bruce Benderson went to Budapest to research an article, and came home with a remarkably persistent obsession with a Romanian rent-boy named Romulus. Over the next few months, Benderson returned to Eastern Europe again and again to pursue a kind of relationship with the object of his affections.
On the surface, The Romanian reads as a love story, and for the first three quarters of this 400 page saga, the author conveys an almost frightening depth of denial of the true nature of his relationship with Romulus. Again and again, he refers to Romulus as his “lover”, to their relationship as a “love affair.” Although money is mentioned regularly, after their first encounter Benderson almost never makes explicit references to paying for sex. Instead, he draws the reader into his fantasy world, in which he graciously donates cash to his young heterosexual friend out of pure generosity of spirit, and in turn, Romulus donates his body out of… what, exactly? Admiration for Benderson’s intellect and sophistication?
As you can see, the reader never succumbs to the fantasy as fully as Benderson seems to have. Parts of the book I read almost cringing, all too aware of economic deprivation which has forced Romulus into this sham-affair. Aside from an assortment of other petty crimes, Romulus has no obvious way to support himself in this new, post-communist world he inhabits. We in the West are used to thinking of communist governments as the ultimate evil, but in one poignant passage, Romulus’ brother explains, “My father don’t like capitalism, Bruce. He old-fashioned. Saying under Ceausescu he not worry, everything paid for. Now he only make maybe sixty dollar a month as construction worker.”
Perhaps it is true, as Benderson sometimes allows himself to believe, that Romulus genuinely likes and respects him, views him as a true friend. But if it’s not true, would Romulus be able to tell him without compromising his very livelihood?
The whole thing reminded me repeatedly of Lolita, in which the reader can’t help but be seduced by witty, captivating, sophisticated Humbert, and yet is nevertheless always revoltingly aware of Lolita’s predicament. She is often sweet and affectionate with her step-father, which seems to give him some kind of license. But given the terrible power inequity of their relationship, what choice does she have? Anyone who knows what it is to adore someone past the point of all reason must be sympathetic to Benderson’s situation. And yet, how can we forget Romulus’?
Romulus, for his part, seems to live in a fantasy world of his own. He sells his body in exchange for American dollars, but also for American dreams — he hopes his relationship with Benderson will eventually culminate in a visa, and the right to emigrate to the United States. He yearns for the freedom of the west, but what exactly is this freedom? The freedom to buy and sell at will, to possess dream objects — shoes, fancy cars, sound systems — just as he himself is a dream object possessed by Benderson.
And ultimately, Benderson suggests, one winds up enslaved anew by the desire for these possessions, as he is by his lust for Romulus. In the free market, everything and everyone has a price, but acquisition doesn’t equal love.
As a theme, this may come across as a bit demoralizing. But it only makes the climax of the book all the more thrilling, when both Benderson and Romulus finally admit to themselves and each other the true nature of their “affair”. Benderson builds to an exhilarating crescendo by recounting the tale of Dragomir, a beautiful boy who is imprisoned by various doting masters, offered every possible luxury, but winds up revolting against his gilded cage.
And just as Benderson seems ready to acknowledge the degree to which his own relationship mirrors this story, Romulus steps forward and, throwing Benderson’s money to the floor, declares at last, “I am not your slave!”
It’s a beautiful moment, filled with hope for a possible future in which money and will not define the relationships of humans to objects or to each other.
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