Monday, March 22, 2010

MATEO MAXIMOFF, Writer from an Oral Culture

He did not start out with exposure to the written word, although unlike
most Roma his father, a Kalderash Rom from Russia taught him how to
read, write and count. What he did bring to literature was a long
tradition of poetry and storytelling. His ancestors created poems for
special occasions, poems to be recited at funerals and left behind like
their history, without leaving a written trace. At the fall of night
nomadic Roma used to sit around roaring fires, letting their minds roam
free, creating wild stories of adventure and creatures only the mind can

He told me, for I was fortunate to be his friend toward the end of his
life, he started to write in prison, where he landed because of a family
feud. He translated that feud into his first novel, the Ursitory, the
novel that led me to Mateo. I was struck at once by the musicality of
his writing, although he wrote in French, not Romani. Yet even in a
language not his own, the sounds of his words were a major dimension of
the text. At the time I was studying Joyce and Chaucer, both giants of
the rhythm and sounds of their words enveloping their text. By
comparison Maximoff was a child of nature, an enchanting, seductive
artist drawing you into a world of natural magic. And like most true
writers, writing was the truest, richest form of living for him, to the
very end. I was supposed to meet him once again in Paris, but he was
already in a hospital for the last time. The year was 1999. There was no
way for us to communicate. No cell phones to reach each other. As a
result I did not see him while his life was fading, instead his image,
his husky Roma voice remained alive for me, as alive as the surviving
sounds and visions of his writings.

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