Changing the software

My love story with the English-speaking world began when I was about four years old and it’s still burning hot.

I had a great-aunt who lived in New York City — she passed away in the early 1990s — and she used to visit her relatives back in Romania when I was a kid. She was married to a famous Jewish-Romanian architect, Harry Schonberg, and they left the country in 1938, before the Second World War.

I first met her in the late 1960s and I remember her sitting on a davenport, surrounded by admiring people, smoking long cigarettes and speaking in a strange accent. There was something of a movie diva about her. She used to bring us wonderful gifts, things you couldn’t find in Romania during the communist regime, when the whole country was drab and grey. So to me America gradually became a kind of magical land, and the city of New York was, of course, the epicentre of that fantastic realm. Later, I learned everything I could about American history, culture, and civilization. Then rock music and movies were yet more bridges between me and the English-speaking world, even though I was living behind the Iron Curtain.

At the same time, I’d been in love with English and American literature since childhood, from O’Henry and CS Lewis to Salinger and Golding, and from Mark Twain and Walter Scott to Hemingway and Fowles. I’ve read hundreds of great non-English writers, of course — including Camus, Sartre, Boll, Frisch, Grass, Mann, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Sholokhov, Kazantzakis, Llosa, and Durrenmatt— but I have always felt that the American school of prose is the one closest to my heart and the one that speaks to me the most.

I started learning English in school, when I was 10. As for the decision to write in English, I would say it was more a matter of being able to reach an international audience and to make a living from writing, because I always dreamed of becoming a full-time writer. I couldn’t submit my work to a British or American literary agent in Romanian, of course. If I were German, French or Spanish, I probably wouldn’t have made that decision, because German, French and Spanish are international languages too, with a huge audience all over the world. On the other hand, the English language has always been singularly connected to so many things I’ve loved since childhood.

For a writer, changing the language you write in is probably the toughest test in the world, because you essentially have to abandon your working materials: vocabulary, grammar, and so on. On the other hand, though you’ve decided to express yourself in another language, you are still the same writer, neither better nor worse, and you can carefully transfer your storytelling abilities into your new “home”, which is the language you’ve chosen. Of course, you have to reconstruct your “toolbox”, and this is not an easy task, because it takes a lot of patience and time.

But the result might be wonderful: you discover a new world, with new rules, and, of course, new challenges. And because you are not as self-assured as you used to be when writing in your mother tongue, you are forced to kill the speed of your writing, which I guess is always a good thing for an author. So writing in English has had an impact on my style, too. I believe that changing the language of your prose isn’t just a matter of grammar or vocabulary, but something intimately connected to the “software” you use in the process, and to your way of thinking. Had I chosen another language to write in, my books probably would have been different in many ways.

Eugene Chirovici is the author of The Book of Mirrors (Century), written as EO Chirovici.