THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF ZACHARIAS LICHTER

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THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF ZACHARIAS LICHTER, BY MATEI CALINESCU, TRANSLATED BY ADRIANA CALINESCU AND BREON MITCHELL

The eponymous Lichter of the 1969 Romanian novel The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter, by Matei Calinescu, translated by Adriana Calinescu and Breon Mitchell, would look poorly on the very concept of a book review.

This shabby, wild-eyed, Zarathustra of the streets is filled with the sublime fire of the Lord’s angels. He wishes to turn the world upside-down; to excoriate utility, reason, and possession; uplift perplexity; praise the holiness of beggars, alcoholics, the blind and the infirm (physically or mentally so—ideally both at once); and scorn the very act of writing in favor of the spoken word. “The one-who-speaks requires a spiritual energy and a continuity of creative tension that may be lacking, and often is, in the one-who-writes.” And even then, he is only in favor of divinely inspired spoken words—how would such a person react to a book review, especially one of his own biography?

Zacharias Lichter would probably say something like: “Writing, I’ve said time and again, is a lost cause, a mortification of the mind, the art of creative forgetting, but writing about writing? This may in fact be the most insidious, satanic form in communication in existence!”

The prognosis, dear readers, is grim. But for your sake I will soldier on, hoping only to avoid the wrath of the street prophet once described by the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran as “a Baal Shem Tov imagined by Sterne.”

The Life and Opinions is framed as a series of Sudelbuch-esque fragments compiled by Lichter’s anonymous biographer. It contains poems fished out of trashcans, diatribes against psychoanalysis, Lichter’s brief history, anecdotes and anti-picaresques, a mapping of his spiritual metaphysics, and his ranting opinions on everything in the world—mathematics, the elderly, comfort, suicide. . . The text is short yet comprehensive, giving the reader a full picture of a man who reflects Witold Gombrowicz, Pierre Menard, Maria Sudayeva, a thousand eccentrics and iconoclasts whose minds alight with luminous messages for a tainted and fallen world. Calinescu’s Zacharias Lichter is the abyss gazing back into us and our souls are better for it.

New York Review Books.

Review by J.T. Mahany