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For Two Thousand Years

Mihail Sebastian’s <br><i>For Two Thousand Years</i>

Mihail Sebastian’s
For Two Thousand Years

Reviewed by Lauren Goldenberg


“I will never cease to be a Jew, of course,” the narrator of Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years declares. “That is not a position I can resign from. You are or you’re not. It’s not a matter either of pride or shame.” The speaker of these words is unnamed, but is so closely modeled on the author that the novel itself is nearly autobiographical. In some ways it feels more like a historical document: it was published in Romania in 1934, and has only now been translated into English by Philip O Ceallaigh, a famous Irish writer and translator. For Two Thousand Years begins in December 1923, when a new constitution making Jews Romanian citizens takes effect and recounts, from the narrator’s perspective, the experience of being a Jew in Romania between the two world wars. The narrator, a law student, is trying to focus on his intellectual endeavors while suffering regular anti-Semitic attacks and beatings, which have increased in reaction to the new law: “I received two punches during today’s lectures and I took eight pages of notes. Good value, for two punches.” He chronicles that year in a notebook that he eventually loses but refers back to throughout the novel. This notebook is the novel’s heart, and through it we witness how he suffers this violence with discretion and dignity, how he tries to make sense of his being a Jew, and how he remains mostly a silent witness to debates among his friends and acquaintances on Communism and Zionism, all while he tries to forge his own space of freedom to think...