‘For Two Thousand Years’ by Mihail Sebastian

My rating: 3 stars

The structure chosen by an author to tell a specific story can result to be either beneficial or a hindrance. While reading For Two Thousand Years, I wished more than once that the Romanian author Mihail Sebastian hadn’t decided to write this novella as if it were a notebook, since many of the events and relationships presented were only briefly mentioned, despite them being interesting enough to be further delved into. My reading experience ended up being saved by the social and historical themes touched on, including anti-Semitism and Zionism.

The entirety of the book consists of journal entries written by a Jewish man, who at first is attending university in Bucharest. During the time between the two world wars, he starts to be ostracised because of his religion and ethnicity and seems to feel lost, being unsure about what he should be studying. As other students don’t want Jews to attend classes, there is fighting at the university. For that reason, the narrator decides to give up on some classes, while considering others worth of the punches. However, he wonders if he is fighting back as much as the other Jews.

Almost all notebook entries feel like scraps of information taken from a bigger story. Overall, they are not fully connected in order to create a coherent and gripping plot. That seems to have been done on purpose, though, to mimic a real notebook. But it didn’t make for a great reading experience in my opinion. The narrator himself admits that his notebook lacks parts of his life, mainly when it comes to his involvement with Marga Stern. It’s a shame that his relationships with friends and colleagues are not further delved into throughout the book, because he appears to be a really good reader of people.

When a book doesn’t have a strong plot, I expect it to be almost poetically written. But this is not the case. Although For Two Thousand Years is in no way badly written and is even gripping at times, when the subjects being mentioned are interesting, overall the book lacks emotion. One of the few exceptions can be found almost at the end. I was astonished at the dim beauty of the following passage:

“Now I need to accustom my eyes to the falling darkness. I need to contemplate the natural slumber of all things, which the light calls forth, yet also causes to tire. Life must begin in darkness. Its powers of germination lie hidden. Every day has its night, every light has its shadow.”

Throughout the book, there are various mentions to social and political issues. The debate around Zionism is particularly interesting, since two different points of view held by Jewish people are presented. One of them is defended by Mr Jabotinsky, who firmly believes in the need to build a country based on a national Jewish identity. The other is presented by S.T.H., a Marxist who considers Jewish national unity absurd, as it shares similarities with fascism, and wonders what would happen to the Arabs living in Palestine if that idea was realised. The narrator is unsure about this subject.

The last part of the book is quite thought-provoking, since it raises important and relevant points about the question of identity and anti-Semitism, which can generally be applied to all bigotries. Unfortunately, the prejudices faced by Jewish people for two millennia (as the title of the book suggests) are still around. So, I was expecting for this book to be much more powerful, but I didn’t connect with the characters as much as I was expecting to, seeing that I didn’t feel like I really got to know them.

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