Panait Istrati (Romanian: [panaˈit isˈtrati]; sometimes rendered as Panaït Istrati; August 10, 1884 – April 16, 1935) was a Romanian working class writer, who wrote in French and Romanian, nicknamed The Maxim Gorky of the Balkans. Istrati was first noted for the depiction of one homosexual character in his work.
Born in Brăila, Istrati was the son of the laundress Joița Istrate and of a Greek smuggler from the village of Faraklata in Kefalonia (whom Panait never met).
He studied in primary school for six years in Baldovinești, 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 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 Dimineața, Adevărul, and Viața Socială.
In 1910, he was involved in organizing a strike action in Brăila. He went to Bucharest, Istanbul, Cairo, Naples, Paris (1913–1914), and Switzerland (where 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 Romain Rolland, the French writer he admired most and with whom he had long tried to get in touch. Rolland received the letter through the Police and immediately replied. 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 parts of his work in Clarté, the magazine that he and Henri Barbusse owned. The next major work by Istrati was the novel Codine.
Istrati and communism
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, accompanied by Christian Rakovsky during the first stage of the journey (Rakovsky was Soviet ambassador to Paris, and by then already falling out of favor with Joseph Stalin). He travelled through large sections of the European part, witnessing celebrations in Moscow and Kiev. He was joined in Moscow by his future close friend, Nikos Kazantzakis; while in the city, Panait Istrati met Victor Serge and expressed his wish to become a citizen of the Soviet Union. He and Kazantzakis wrote Stalin a congratulatory letter that remained unanswered.
In 1928–29, after a tumultuous stay in Greece (where 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 such as the Moldavian ASSR (where he got in touch with his friend Ecaterina Arbore), Nizhny Novgorod, Baku and Batumi, 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 and André Gide. Istrati dealt with the mounting persecution of Old Bolsheviks and the gradual victimization of whole population groups. His views were also harshly made clear in a two letters he sent to the GPU leadership in December 1928.
Thereafter, he suffered a crisis of conscience mainly due to being branded a "Trotskyist" or even a "Fascist" by his former communist friends, the most violent of which proved to be Henri Barbusse. Rolland had praised Istrati's letters to the GPU, but he nonetheless chose to stay clear of the controversy. Istrati came back to Romania ill and demoralised, was treated for tuberculosis in Nice, then returned to Bucharest.
The political opinions Istrati expressed after his split with Bolshevism are rather ambiguous. He was still closely watched by the Romanian secret police (Siguranța 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").
At the same time, Istrati started publishing in Cruciada Românismului ("The Crusade of Romanianism"), the voice of a left-leaning splinter group of the ultra-nationalist Iron Guard. As such, Istrati became associated with the group's leader Mihai Stelescu, who had been elected as a member of Parliament for the Iron Guard in 1933 and whose dissidence was the reason for his brutal assassination by the Decemviri later in the same year; Istrati was himself assaulted several times by the Guard's squads.
Isolated and unprotected, Panait Istrati died at Filaret Sanatorium in Bucharest. He was buried in Bellu Cemetery.
Adrien Zograffi's Accounts
- Kyra Kyralina (or Chira Chiralina; also translated under the title Kyra My Sister)
- Uncle Anghel
- The Haiduks (or The Bandits)
- Presentation of the Haiduks (or Presentation of the Bandits)
- Domnitza de Snagov
Adrien Zograffi's Childhood
- Codine (or Codin, Kodin)
- Michael (or Mikhaïl)
- Mes Départs
- The Sponge-Fisher
Adrien Zograffi's Life
- The Thüringer House
- Le Bureau de Placement
- Mediterranean (Sunrise)
- Mediterranean (Sunset)
- Kyr Nicolas
- The Perlmutter Family
- Nerantula (or Neranțula, Nerantsoula, Nerrantsoula)
- The Thistles of the Bărăgan (or Ciulinii Bărăganului)
- To the Other Flame and The Confession of a Loser (published also as Russia unveiled: 1927-1930)
While in the Soviet Union, Istrati wrote a screenplay based on his own work entitled, The Bandits, a project that was never completed.
Kira Kiralina was filmed in 1927 as a Soviet silent film. The novel was filmed for a second time in 1993, as a Romanian-Hungarian production directed by Gyula Maár. A third production, the Dan Pița-directed Kira Kiralina, appeared in 2014. There is also a 1958 Franco-Romanian film, Ciulinii Bărăganului, and Codine (Codin), a Franco-Romanian co-production of 1962.
Critical works on Istrati
- Roger Dadoun, Panait Istrati, L'Arc, Aix-en-Provence, 1983.
- Elisabeth Geblesco, Panaït Istrati et la métaphore paternelle, Anthropos, Paris, 1989, ISBN 2-7178-1665-8
- Mircea Iorgulescu, Panaït Istrati, Oxus Éditions, collection Les Roumains de Paris, Paris, 2004, ISBN 2-84898-037-0
- Monique Jutrin-Klener, Panaït Istrati: un chardon déraciné: écrivain français, conteur roumain, Éditeur F. Maspero, Paris, 1970
- Monique Jutrin-Klener, Hélène Lenz, Daniel Lérault, Martha Popovici, Élisabeth Geblesco, Catherine Rossi, Jeanne-Marie Santraud, Les haïdoucs dans l'œuvre de Panaït Istrati : l'insoumission des vaincus, L'Harmattan, collection Critiques Littéraires, Paris, 2002, ISBN 2-7475-3199-6
- Édouard Raydon, Panaït Istrati, vagabond de génie, Les Éditions Municipales, Paris, 1968
- David Seidmann, L'existence juive dans l'œuvre de Panaït Istrati, Éditions Nizet, Paris, 1984, ISBN 2-7078-1040-1
- Jean-François Bacot, "Panaït Istrati ou la conscience écorchée d'un vaincu" in Moebius : Écritures / Littérature, Numéro 35, hiver 1988, p. 95-114, éditions Triptyque (Montréal). http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/15212ac