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Ion Vartic


Cluj. A Small Cultural Geographic Guide



On September 3, 1903, Caragiale1, the greatest Romanian writer of the moment, set foot unannounced in Cluj. It was a secret, exploratory visit that would finalize his attempts, dating back to 1891, to settle in Transylvania in a voluntary, desired exile. It was with this intention that he returned to Cluj on March 18, 1904. (By a subtle coincidence, this second visit occurred during the period that the Cluj city government, together with the Austrian firm, Fellner & Helmer, was preparing to build the National Theatre amidst heated public debate.) What was Caragiale doing in Cluj, at the margins of the Empire, so to speak? Very intentionally and systematically, he was looking for a place that would not remind him of anything familiar (of the "little country" that Milan Kundera would later conceive in theoretical terms when experiencing a similar situation). He was in search of a place that would not remind him of Bucharest, "the little Paris", or of Mitică, "the little Parisian". He was looking for an "unfamiliar" space. For this reason he considered Sibiu, Brasov, and Cluj, but finally - postponing a coherent option - chose Berlin, in an offensive and radical way. There he settled, categorically rejecting Paris and Rome. His project to exile himself in a concrete way thus came to a close, since the three Transylvanian cities explored by the writer, together with Berlin, form a compact territory, a central European space, in other words, Mitteleuropa.


Yet a few months before settling in Berlin, Caragiale came close to choosing Cluj as a place of exile, if circumstances proved favourable. Where did his fascinat with Cluj come from? The answer to this mysterious question is to be found half a century later in the reflections of the musicologist Mihai Rădulescu. Few people today know of Rădulescu, a remarkable thinker and essayst who died (a suicide, most likely) in a communist prison while still a young man. He was a member of the intellectual group around Noica2 and a close friend of I. Negoiţescu3 (one of the few great writers born in Cluj) and of the Transylvanian literary societies. He also authored an exquisite Romanian essay about Mozart. During the 1950's, he was constantly followed by the political police and so ran away from Bucharest, living an underground life in Cluj as a stage-hand and violinist for the Romanian Opera.


His writings serve not only as a chronicle of life on stage and behind the scenes of the theatres of Cluj towards the end of the 1950's, but are also an intense reflective exercise on the significance of this city. He tried to catch its essence in a phrase that would allow for a better understanding of its cultural complexity. In defining Cluj as a cultural geographic concept, Mihai Rădulescu started from the following premise: "Cluj is a city that is neither ‘provincial' nor capital, and therein resides its drama and its existing grandeur." Cluj is not "provincial", because a bovine and culturally unaccomplished province "assumes a satellite condition, gravitating around the capital which is its central sun." Whereas Cluj cannot be "bovine and planetary, but is egocentric and self-sufficient inside the borders of its small scale metropolis", since "all signs point to the refashioning of Cluj as a ‘miniature capital'". Three arguments underpin the cultural concept of Cluj constructed by Mihai Rădulescu. The first argument is a geographic one. Cluj is "the centre of Transylvania's homogenous citadel, far from both Bucharest and Budapest, isolated between the mountains within its small Transylvanian state". The second is an ethnic one since this city is a "melting pot of nations", from where, hypothetically, "people can be equally drawn towards either Bucharest or Budapest, creating a circular movement ever turning around its core". Last but not least, the third argument is one of architecture and style. The history and architecture of Cluj make it a genuine central European city with "buildings that stand in between the purely uniform, functional German houses and the 18th century French private hotels", that of necessity go well together with the house or the typically Austrian palace with its inner passage-balconies. Historically and, therefore, stylistically, "it becomes clear that the period which decisively defined Cluj was that of Maria Theresa4. Cluj, the capital of Transylvania's self-governing Principality, was separate from the Hungarian territory and directly subordinate to the Habsburg crown. Architecturally and ‘stylistically', Cluj is neither Romanian nor Hungarian, but Austrian". (Mihai Rădulescu's evocation of the Gothic and Baroque churches, together with the "Florentine statue of Saint George", should be read side by side with Blaga's5 wonderful later poem, Medieval Corner in Cluj and with Nicolae Balotă's6 notes from The Blue Notebook.) All these facets are completed by the civil spirit and decency of the city's inhabitants, who are generally "respectable", "refined", and "formal", or simply very Transylvanian, devoid of "sly ease and superficial imposition".