The Place of Places - Episode 49: Athenee Palace Hotel, Bucharest, Romania, 1969
This is a sort of sequel to the previous chapter. Here Saroyan encounters more Soviet administrative struggles and ends the chapter, “After I had settled down I began to think, ‘Hell, I went to a hotel called Bucharest, in Moscow, in 1935, precisely 34 years ago. The Manager of the Bucharest lied to me, he was a spy, he didn’t mail my story to New York, he stole it, and now he’s dead, the records are all shot, perhaps the story is lost forever, or even destroyed. Well, forget it, forget it, plenty more where that came from.’ But it’s not so at all. Moscow in Tears is the only one of its kind.”
And this is the punchline of the chapter. It’s unclear how Saroyan wrote Places Where I’ve Done Time – if he wrote each chapter chronologically or edited them all together later, or maybe a bit of both. In this case, it certainly seems like one place reminded him directly of another place, and in this way we feel like we are in a casual conversation reminiscing with him.
But there are other pieces of this chapter that are of interest in a larger contextual picture. He tells us that in 1969 he decided to travel from his home in Paris to Vienna, then sail the Danube to Odessa. He had visited Odessa in 1960 and enjoyed it, including the Jewish cemetery and synagogue. The barnlike synagogue that he describes is the Brodsky Synagogue, built in 1863. Banned from living in St. Petersburg, Moscow, or Kiev, many Ashkenazi Jews ended up in Odessa, where they constituted over one third of the city’s population at the turn of the 20th century. These were the streets of writer Isaac Babel.
He wants to walk the neighborhoods and streets which he imagined Isaac Babel would have noticed as a child. Babel published Odessa Tales in 1931, a collection of short stories about gangsters in his hometown. He also wrote plays and was endorsed by Gorky. Babel was fluent in French, Russian, Ukrainian, Hebrew, and Yiddish. His early works were written in French and inspired by Guy de Maupassant. You can see a trend of similarities arising between him and Saroyan. In 1940, he was murdered by the Stalinist regime and his literary legacy blotted from existence in the Soviet Union until Stalin died and Babel was posthumously exonerated in the 1950s. Babel’s name appears multiple times throughout Saroyan’s memoirs, and though it seems they never met, Saroyan clearly admired the man. He was also tickled that Babel’s grandmother had to told him “You must know everything” and in Obituaries, Saroyan wondered if it was his paternal or maternal grandmother, probably thinking of his own grandmother Lucine, who could have made a similar demand.
Saroyan wrote in I Used to Believe I Had Forever Now I’m Not so Sure, “A lot of great men in Russia were driven to the wall or stood up against it by the tensions, suspicions, fears, and poor mental health of the highest members of the Soviet government during its first three decades. Isaac Babel from Odessa, for instance—not even Maxim Gorky could protect him from the paranoid men who ran the show, and made a success of it, too, as we all know. What we don't know, and perhaps can never be sure of, is that any other government might have made an even greater success of Russia and its people, at no cost at all in humanity, honor, truth, integrity, dignity, and the lives of its geniuses.”
In many ways, Saroyan was drawn to Russia even though he was disgusted by its government. For nearly fifty years he would occasionally find himself somewhere in the Soviet Union. And like any empire, citizens were mostly allowed to travel within the land, and this meant many Armenians lived throughout the member states of the Soviet Union. This was interesting to Saroyan as well. In Here Comes There Goes You Know Who, he wrote, “In Moscow I was at the home of a composer of music who sat at the piano and played a little piece he had just put together out of an old song of the Armenians. It was a good thing to hear, a mixture of sorrow and anger, and a push in the direction of love. I listened to the piano and thought about the Armenians in relation, first, to the Russians, because Moscow is in Russia, and then in relation to the Americans, because I started in America. After I had considered the Armenians in relation to the Russians and the Americans, I began to consider them in relation to the English, in memory of Shakespeare, most likely, and then in relation to the French, because for more than a year I had been living in Paris, and had only lately gone up to Le Havre and taken a ship which had carried me to Leningrad. And then I considered the Armenians in relation to the Italians, the Germans, the Spanish, the Chinese, and the Japanese. I can't imagine why I didn't consider them in relation to the Jews and the Greeks. Perhaps it was because I think the Jews and the Greeks are almost as difficult to understand as the Armenians, but the following day I began to consider them in relation to the Jews and the Greeks, too.” Without being very explicit about it, Saroyan thought about Empires throughout his career and how they interacted with the cultures absorbed into them. And perhaps America and the Soviet Union were two sides of the same coin in that regard.
Saroyan did admire Odessa and had intended to go there in 1969. He wanted to go to the Opera and think about the “great number of concert musicians born and brought up in Odessa – but apparently not one composer.” He was impressed with cultures that celebrated beauty and art even if they suffered in every other way.
However, there was trouble with his passport, according to the Russian Consul in Paris. Furious, he demanded satisfaction, received it, and then canceled his trip entirely out of disgust for the incompetent bureaucracies of countries. He had planned to go to Yerevan from Odessa, but explains, “I just didn’t like the idea of not being able to get a visa in a routine way. I didn’t like the production that was made of granting it.” He made a new plan to go down the Danube anyway, but hit other spots. On a Russian ship, he arranged to take a tour that would allow him short visits to Bratislava, Budapest, Belgrade, Ruse, and Giurgiu, Romania, at which point he would take a bus 50 miles north to Bucharest. These towns were technically not soviet but were part of the eastern bloc of communist countries closely allied with the Soviet Union.
Saroyan had an affection for eastern European and Russian writers, feeling they had a strong understanding of humankind. In Days of life and Death and Escape to the Moon, he wrote, “Take them by geography and nation: Russia and Gogol, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov, Gorky, and hundreds of others. One can almost see, smell and hear them as they arrive at appropriate places to meet one another, to light their nervous cigarettes, to speak and speak, and then to go away, each to his lonely room and desk, to the paper and pen, and to the work that must be done. It is absolutely breathtaking in its beauty: an almost barbaric people struggling with the whole new idea of the soul. And in the midst of their most heroic struggling is heard the sound of their incredible laughter —there is a long joke in all of the greatest writing of the Russians, and then very oddly it is found in their lesser writing, too. Seeing that the joke is central to the human experience may be partly the reason for the never-failing appeal of Russian writing, even in translation, which is the only form it has ever come to me in. Little Father this, and Little Father that, but after the Revolution, there was no more of the Little Father stuff. Instead, there was a long look at the liberated little man himself. The writing class enlarged enormously, moving from the aristocracy to the proletariat, but still the humor, the comedy, the big joke continued to show its color, flash, and face —until suddenly the Government said Stop!—to the great comic writer Michael Zostchenko, for instance, and to the great serious writer Isaac Babel, and to hundreds of others whose names are unknown to us.”
Saroyan doesn’t tell us exactly why he wanted to visit Bucharest, but he had read in a travel brochure that the Athenee was the best hotel in town and he liked to travel. The Athenee Palace was built in 1914 and was a known den of spies from both East and West during World War II and the Cold War. The Romanian Communist government nationalized the hotel in 1948 and famously bugged every room, while every employee and prostitute was an informer. Again, an interesting place for Saroyan to embed himself. At first, he was denied a room because the hotel was full, apparently of international delegates for various conventions. However, upon name dropping himself, and the fact that his works had been translated into Romanian and he had staged plays in Bucharest, the staff did some research and his celebrity secured him a room at the Athenee. Did his American citizenship influence them? Were they interested in surveilling him once they knew he could be of interest? These are the implications that garnered him an FBI report spanning 100 pages from 1956 to 1970. An editor’s note: Forever Saroyan has attempted to acquire this FBI report under the Freedom of Information Act, from the National Archives where it resides. The wait time to access it was 39 months as of August 2020 and there is currently no ETA.
Saroyan tried to see the common ground among us all, though, and maybe he was naïve about the hotel’s surveillance and maybe he felt just fine about it, feeling he had nothing to hide or be ashamed of that would matter to those bureaucrats. In I Used to Believe I Had Forever, he writes, “I am not a member of P.E.N., or of any other official literary group or order, but I do feel a personal responsibility to readers and writers all over the world. There is scarcely a country in which somebody has not read in his own language something I wrote in English, which somebody translated. I do permit myself to notice that nothing I have ever written has been destructive, hateful, anti-people, anti-life, or anti-God—anybody's God. And so, thinking of readers of my stuff in faraway places and among some of the smaller tribes of the human family, I feel that I am a friend, and I am pleased and proud whenever I read that I am taken for one.”
PEN refers to the nongovernmental organization of "Poets, Essayists, Novelists", that promotes friendship and intellectual cooperation around the world.
As an addendum to the previous chapter, and taking place 34 years later, this chapter is a testament to Saroyan’s lifelong ethos, the one that Mark Twain popularized with his quote from the book Roughing It: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
And of course this chapter is also about Saroyan’s ability to hold a serious grudge. He really did regret losing Moscow in Tears. And by 1969, he had seen enough bad times in life that recalling his salad days and the impressive product his mind was creating then would have been a release for him. This chapter meanders a bit, like the Danube itself, but it’s also the kind of writing that welcomes the reader in, coffee and a snack in hand, to listen to an old campaigner tell his tales.