Sebastian, Mihail. “For Two Thousand Years”, Other Press, 2017.
Mihail Sebastian’s haunting 1934 novel, “For Two Thousand Years” is the story of a young Jewish student in Romania who tries to make sense of a world that has decided he doesn’t belong. He spends his days walking the streets and his nights drinking and gambling, meeting revolutionaries, zealots, lovers and libertines. What is happening in Europe casts a darkness over everything. Sebastian wrote this amid the anti-Semitism which would end his career and turn his friends and colleagues against him. He writes of and he remembers the terrible atrocities of that historic period. We read the ideological debates of the interwar period through the young man’s and we see that he is caught between anti-Semitism and Zionism and he struggles with resilience and despair, resistance and acceptance.
Although he faces persistent threats just to attend lectures, he feels disconnected from his Jewish peers and questions whether their activism will be worth the cost and he strives to make peace with himself in an increasingly hostile world. As he struggles against the rise of fascism, we realize that this is more than a fascinating historical document, it is also a coherent and persuasive novel.
Here are the truths about life in anti-Semitic Romania. We see that even before Hitler initiated the slaughter of European Jews, Romania had begun murdering 300,000 of its own people. While this is a fictional memoir that recreates the student’s nightlife and love affairs, friendships and betrayals, it is a look at a world that was falling apart. We feel the tension and paranoia that preceded one of the bloodiest periods in the history of the 20th century, and what is so terrifying is that the same book could have been written today. Sebastian refused to compromise his duties as a civilized human being and even during this very dark time, his prose is filled with beauty and grace.
“For Two Thousand Years” is autobiographical that gives us a glimpse into Romanian life during the years between the world wars, when the Iron Guard and Romanian anti-Semitism were on the rise. Sebastian was a non-believing Jew who managed to survive World War II and the Holocaust while maintaining friendships or relationships with virulent anti-Semitic intellectuals. How he managed to do so is what we read here. The descriptions are wonderful (if I can use such a word when thinking about that period) but what is so striking is that many of the same problems exist today. The great irony that we find here is that after having survived this terrible time, Sebastian was accidently run over by a Red Army truck in 1945.