Panait Istrati

Panait Istrati, born Gherasim Istrate (August 10, 1884 — April 18, 1935) Romanian writer of French and Romanian expression, nicknamed The Maxim Gorky of the Balkans.


Born in Brăila, Istrati was the son of the laundress Joiţa Istrate and of a Greek smuggler (Gheorghios Valsamis - Panait never met him). He studied in primary school for six years in Baldovineşti, after being held back twice. He then earned his living as an apprentice to a tavern-keeper, then as a pastry cook and peddler. In the meantime, he was a prolific reader. His first attempts at writing date from around 1907, when he started sending pieces to the socialist periodicals in Romania - debuting with the article Hotel Regina in România Muncitoare. Here, he later published his very first short stories - Mântuitorul (The Redeemer), Calul lui Bălan (Bălan's Horse), Familia noastră (Our Family), 1 Mai (May Day). He also contributed pieces to other leftist newspapers such as Dimineaţa (The Morning), Adevărul (The Truth), and Viaţa Socială (Social Life).


In 1910, he was involved in organizing a strike action in Brăila. He went to Bucharest, Istanbul, Cairo, Naples, Paris (1913-1914), and Switzerland (were he settled for a while, trying to cure his tuberculosis); Istrati's travels were marked by two successive unhappy marriages, a brief return to Romania in 1915, when he tried to earn his living as a hog farmer, and long periods of vagabondage. While in the sanatorium, Istrati met Russian Jewish-Swiss Zionist writer Josué Jéhouda, who became his friend and French language tutor. Living in misery, ill and depressed, he attempted suicide in 1921 on his way to Nice, but his life was rescued in time. Shortly before the attempt, he had written to the French writer he admired most, Romain Rolland, with whom he had tried to get in touch for long. Rolland received the letter through the Police, and immediately replied to this letter. In 1923 Istrati's story Kyra Kyralina (or Chira Chiralina) was published (with a preface by Rolland). It became the first in his Adrien Zograffi literary cycle. Rolland was fascinated with Istrati's adventurous life, urging him to write more, and publishing part of his works in the magazine he and Henri Barbusse owned, Clarté. The next major work by Istrati was his Codine novel.


Istrati shared the leftist ideals of Rolland, and, as much as his mentor, placed his hopes in the Bolshevik vision. In 1927 he visited the Soviet Union on the anniversary of the October Revolution. He was joined in Moscow by his future close friend, Nikos Kazantzakis. In 1928-29, after a tumultuous stay in Greece (were he was engaged in fights with the police and invited to leave the country), he went again to the Soviet Union. Through extended visits in more remote places, Istrati learned the full truth of Joseph Stalin's communist dictatorship, out of which experience he wrote his famous book, The Confession of a Loser, the first in the succession of disenchantments expressed by intellectuals such as Arthur Koestler, André Gide and George Orwell. Istrati came back to Romania ill and demoralized, was treated for tuberculosis in Nice, then returned to Bucharest. In fact, the political opinions Istrati expressed after his split with Bolshevism are rather ambiguous. He was still closely watched by the Romanian secret police (Siguranţa Statului), and he had written an article (dated April 8, 1933) in the French magazine Les Nouvelles Littéraires, aptly titled L'homme qui n'adhère à rien (The man who will adhere to nothing).

Isolated and unprotected, Panait Istrati died at Filaret Sanatorium in Bucharest. He was buried in Bellu Cemetery. Among his major novels are Nerantsoula, The Thistles of the Bărăgan, To the Other Flame, Adrien Zograffi's Accounts (5 novels), Adrien Zograffi's Childhood (4 novels), Adrien Zograffi's Life (4 novels); his works were translated in over 30 languages

3 comments:

Karin said...

Thank you for this more informative article than anything possible to find in wikipedia or such! I've been wanting more about Istrati, I've found some of his books in thrift stores & I love them so much! //Karin from Sweden

Adrian said...

@Karin - Indeed, Panait Istrati was an amazing writer and is one of my favorites, too. His writings have the perfume of old days, and their action is located in an eclectic environment, the meeting point of all the nations of Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean Sea...

renan said...

I remember Istrati books from my childhood in Turkey when I lived there in the early 70's. All his book were in translation and in repeated prits. I too loved the stories. But, what i would like to say to you is that, i have not come across him since. Not in Europe or anywhere else I have travelled to. I doubt there is a single edition in any of the bookshops in Melbourne now. I often wonder why?