Fallout from a real revolution can be worse than its cause. Mass murder, reckless replacement of proven agrarian practices, and imprisoning the educated are just a few documented aftershocks. Fictional revolutions and their resulting chaos can be equally atrocious, as it is in Bogdan Suceav?‘s Coming from an Off-Key Time.
Using the 1989 Revolution in his native Romania as the catalyst, Suceav? depicts a dystopian society caught up in religious and nationalistic fervor. If a book bled color, Coming from an Off-Key Time’s would be grey.
The novel’s central conflict is between two burgeoning sects. The Tidings of the Lord is a model of organized religion in the 21st century. It is no accident Tidings resembles a mega-church with its own cable channel:
The grammar of matter, this is what must be sought in the Bible, in the Old and the New Testament, and if we want to understand the world, we will require a church that is like a research institute, and research institutes will have to become churches. A militant church, which strives to solve problems, to research and study as if it were praying, a church that is organized like a Macedonian phalanx, like a Roman legion, like Hamburg University, like a mound erected over the footprints of the Lord God. It is no joking matter.
Tidings’s spiritual leader is Vespasian Moisa. He is a “twice-born” 33-year-old with a map of Bucharest on his chest. He “sees” in the dark and reads minds. Suceav? compares Moisa with Christ but also makes him a modern-day Holy Fool. Unlike those poor souls in czarist Russia, Moisa is looked after and treated with respect—as long as he is useful.
Along with Moisa’s map, Tidings of the Lord espouses a Theory of Vibrations causing followers to believe that Bucharest is the New Jerusalem. Readers must be patient learning the Theory because it is revealed piecemeal. The Theory argues that:
In the world there exist vibrations left over from the time of creation, and we can reach these vibrations left over from the time of creation, and we can reach these vibrations via a suitable code. And this code, which unshackles and clarifies everything, proved to be the Romanian language.
Their rivals the Stephenists are more direct. It is a pure-race movement guided by the opportunistic Darius. He manipulates followers by evoking the legacy of Romania’s 15th century warrior prince Saint Stephen the Great:
What he did we too should do in every hour. Just as the hermit monks practice ceaseless prayer, so we too should ceaselessly live like Stephen the Great. All that he did let us do also. If he could move a church over a mountain in one night, then we too should be able to do it. If he could defeat the Turks, Hungarians, Polacks, Mongols, and the Wallachians of Bucharest, then we too should be able to do it. And let us thank our God, the God of the Romanians, that He will have helped us to victory. For the message that comes to us from the past is very clear: we need only open the history book and read. That is our Gospel. We ought to conduct Mass using the history book, to pray from it, to take communion with it.
Tidings of the Lord and the Stephenists are of the same mindset regarding the Romanian language, “the combination of the safe of the universe.” Unfortunately they are too suspicious of each other to realize it. Besides, the military, media, and Romanian Orthodox Church play off the two groups for their own agendas. Suceav? adds all kinds of historical, religious, and literary subtext to his Coming from an Off-Key Time but makes it clear his fictitious state is no different than Byzantium or Communism.
Everyone is so distracted fighting and posturing that no one can explain how a monument of “the sun with inwardly pointing rays” mysteriously appears in University Square…site of the 1989 Revolution.
Suceav? also incorporates a few devices common in dystopian literature. One common to imaginary and real coups is that victory is never claimed until the airwaves are secured. The dark humor of Off-Key Time’s debates and newscasts come from—not surprising considering the author’s emphasis on language—people not listening to each other.
Regarding communication, Suceav? cannot resist poking standardized Sovietized Russian, the USSR’s failed attempt at 100% literacy. At a Tidings rally, the speaker Lakatos apologies for his incoherence due to the “tragic” circumstance of “not being able to study in his native language” that was made worse when the army “forced him to learn the dreadful idiom of the majority.”
As in Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, there is a hideaway containing contraband that miraculously survived mass destruction and censorship. The Tidings follower known as Saint Peter has little but:
in something resembling an air-raid shelter, there could be found the largest library in Bucharest, vastly superior in terms of its number of volumes to the Library of the Romanian Academy, which, according to the statistics of the Library of Congress, is supposed to be the ninth largest in the world.
Finally, talking animals are a sure sign things are Off-Key. Bulgakov’s Behemoth the black cat is a kitten compared to Suceav?‘s Lieutenant Tr?istaru. Still on active duty, Tr?istaru was literally transformed into a cat when the KGB was “preparing a new weapon, something based on cosmic rays, absolute vibration or the devil knows what they call it.”
Coming from an Off-Key Time is a disturbing and ambitious dystopian novel, which it should be. Suceav? blends Romanian history with universal fringe elements that conquer rather than comprehend. The scrutinized use and abuse of language makes this a unique read—though, as history demonstrates, a far from unique situation.