Review by Caroline Froh
To enter An Instinctive Feeling of Innocence (Seagull Books, 2019) is in many ways to enter a feedback loop, to attempt to sustain a stable output in the face of a continuous stream of destabilizing external forces. The novel foregrounds Victoria, who has just experienced a traumatic bank robbery at her work and embarks on a process of self-discovery. Reflecting on her childhood under the Ceausescu regime, Victoria’s grasp of the past and present, real and imaginary become increasingly destabilized. Dana Grigorcea feeds the reader a simulation of the same experience, which Alta L. Price renders in her translation with close attention to the tonal and temporal shifts between multilayered dimensions of reality. What follows is a study of time, of self and trauma, of what it is to live with a backdrop of terror.
Drawing from her own experience, Romanian-born Swiss writer Grigorcea alternates between Romania under the Ceausescu regime and Romania of the early 2000s. The narrative unfolds from this later perspective, following Victoria, who has recently moved from Zurich back to her childhood home of Bucharest. In the opening scene, the bank where Victoria works is robbed, and she is put on leave to process the trauma. Victoria spends her newfound free time exploring and attending to administrative family duties, including the recently returned family land and cemetery plots, where she’s warned that someone still comes at night, just as they did when she was growing up, to perform ‘a complicated ritual cursing an enemy.’ She visits with old acquaintances, shares details of her neighbors’ lives with her boyfriend Flavian, rides the same 368 bus she did as a child, wandering streets that are now overlaid with a Westernized, adult perspective.
Scenes jump between past and present, often without warning. The Bucharest of Victoria’s childhood floods the Bucharest of her present: every street evokes its own chain of stories, every familiar face a stream of memories. Teetering between her past and present selves, forced to face darker realities formerly masked by a child’s misperception, Victoria becomes a modern Scheherazade, stringing memories together that jump and interlock, and so the story goes on in a dizzying loop, until the walls of the delicately constructed world begin to crumble. Rather than a complete, cohesive plot, Grigorcea constructs a fragmented, disjointed experience that mirrors the dissociated consciousness of a traumatized subject.
Victoria’s impressive capacity for recall frames much of her childhood. She proudly recounts being tasked with committing a complex ticket hole-punching system to memory, which allowed her family to ride without tickets. This ‘iron-clad memory’ was one of her defining features: she used to be able to recite play-by-plays of soccer matches she overheard on the radio and became a national chess champion. ‘Sometimes even a quick glance at a page of some book was enough, and I’d remember everything, against my will.’ But the fact of will is no longer the resisting force for Victoria; it’s the shifted state of each memorized detail, the darker underbelly revealing itself now in her process of rediscovery.
Victoria meets weekly with a therapist, who just so happens to be the mother of her ex-boyfriend. She remarks that their sessions feel more like conversation hours–friendly chit-chat – and that she’d likely visit her regularly anyway, even without being ordered to. The visits, from what Victoria shows us, are characterized by the informality she describes, and yet the bank robber surfaces intermittently, an unsettling signpost reminding us of the reason she’s there. Victoria seems unbothered by mentions of him, remains casual, makes jokes. Her trauma is never obvious, parceled out instead in little glimpses elsewhere: in Victoria jumping when her boyfriend touches her on the shoulder, in mentions of other bank robberies in the news, which come frequently enough to hint at a hyper-alertness, despite the offhanded tone they’re relayed in. The bank robber himself pops up intermittently in Victoria’s everyday life: in the face of an old man she once knew at a dinner party, on the street – he and Victoria pass without saying anything to each other, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. A surface-level reading suggests this unsettling device is a function of Grigrocea’s characteristic fondness for the absurd. While this might be the case, it also seems to function as part of Grigorcea’s deeper commentary on the workings of trauma.
The perceived threat of the bank robber overwhelms Victoria’s consciousness, precluding any sort of intellectual rationalization. In a similar way, Victoria’s unearthed memories growing up under the Ceausescu regime become destabilized as they take on a darker hue, shifting in repeated iterations. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Dutch psychiatrist and pioneering PTSD-researcher Bessel van der Kolk argues that in coping with the constant dread that follows the event of a trauma, survivors shut down those brain areas responsible for transmitting the alerts signaling those emotions. The problem with this is that those very areas form the foundation of a person’s sense of self, their self-awareness. In creating a child-Victoria who was once lauded for her impressive capacity for recall, Grigorcea signals the chasm between her and the Victoria of the present, whose sense of reality – whose memories – are beginning to crumble all around her.
Where Grigorcea delivers a plot that functions as a poignant commentary on the experience of trauma and identity, Alta L. Price’s translation serves as a constant, confident guide through the sometimes-muddled thickets of memory and imagining. In the face of frequent narrative leaps, Price maintains a careful attentiveness to Grigorcea’s shifts in tense in her translation, which often function as the only signposts to critical lurches in time. Additionally, her prose shares a deep kinship with Grigorcea’s, reflecting the clarity and spareness the author’s German is often lauded for, without shying away from longer, winding sections of lyricism.
‘I’d only go down unknown streets on my walks with Dinu. Oftentimes we didn’t even notice, or would only realize it as we turned back onto a well-known street, melding the current of one into the other, and slightly changing pace. Our usual gait, starting out, was a toddle of sorts. And we’d talk as we walked, as if our steps somehow determined the flow of our words.’
Price’s ear for sound and rhythm lulls us into step with the characters, melding their currents with our own. Her precision also helps to orient the reader as they float between Victoria’s layers of reality. So many of Victoria’s memories are tinged with darkness; the trauma and horrors of the Ceausescu regime lurk constantly in the background, in scene but also living in the very prose itself. In an interview with the Center for the Art of Translation, Price focuses on the difficulties of capturing these associations in the title, specifically, saying:
‘This book’s title is drawn from a sentence in chapter two. We toyed around with the right adjective: instinctive, primary, primal. But these didn’t address my main concern about the feeling itself: the fact that Schuldlosigkeit is, yes, “innocence,” but that word has completely different baggage in English; it’s also “blamelessness,” “guiltlessness,” “sinlessness.” All very different. And none of them captured the conceptual overlap, in the root word Schuld, between having blame and being in debt.’
As Victoria’s memories loop and gradually unwind, we’re reminded of the delicate state of our own minds, the frightening fact of their mutability. An Instinctive Feeling of Innocence explores the fragmentation and dissociation resulting from trauma, both immediate and sustained over time. It is a novel about identity, belonging, and self-discovery, but also the deconstruction of a self. This is Dana Grigorcea’s second novel, which was met with high acclaim in German-speaking Europe, winning the 3sat Prize in Klagenfurt at the Ingeborg Bachmann competition in 2015. It has already been translated into Bulgarian, Dutch, Italian, and Romanian, and now Alta L. Price brings it into English in a translation brimming with sensitivity, daring, and grace.
Caroline Froh is an MFA candidate in the Iowa Translation Workshop. She translates from the German, with a fondness for Swiss-German prose.