The Flower in the Asphalt
Motto: “’Floarea din asfalt’ is one of those noble books that call one back to the essence.”
Upon reading Alexandra Svet’s book, you are inevitably reminded of Dostoyevsky’s famous adage: “Beauty will save the world”.
“Floarea din asfalt” (“The Flower in the Asphalt”), a confessional writing worthy of a début award not only in Romania, but in any other great literature of the world, bears witness to the fact that true art is salvific, as it is always the case whenever Beauty, Good, and Truth intertwine therein. As for this book, its aesthetic value, its life-related message, and its ardent search for meaningfulness all come together to convince that Truth, Good, and Beauty are what brings man closer to transcendence and makes them grow. (Simone Weil: “Beauty has double function: it links us to God and is the universal language among people – and that fact alone introduces us into order and harmony. Beauty is what brings unity within diversity and makes eternity manifest.”
The topic of the book – which seems to be taken out of a Hollywood script – is, however, 100 percent real.
In 2009, a young business woman in Eastern Europe (Romania), discontented with the obtuseness and corruption of the political and economic environment in her country, fed up with the frustrations and disappointments piled up over twenty years of “original”, typically-Balcan democracy, launches a fiery manifesto via Facebook: “Wake up! This is not our Romania!” Alexandra Svet’s suggested alternative – “A Romania of values, with ‘balls’ and spine”, led according to a corporate model – attracts unexpected widespread attention. Alexandra’s words ignite the hope of an ideal/model/solution in the hearts of hundreds of thousands of people. Alexandra becomes famous overnight; she is invited to speak on all Romanian TV channels and receives an avalanche of supporters/likes from Romania and every other corner of the world. The first Romanian large-scale, grass-root movement seems to emerge, led by a “young lady who looks more like a fashion magazine cover” and whom some describe, more or less seriously, as a combination between Joan of Arc and Evita Perón. Encouraged by the feed-back, Alexandra decides to start the battle and overthrow a system that everyone is disgusted with.
Yet – coup de théâtre. Romania’s “Joan of Arc” vanishes from the public scene as fast as she had appeared, putting an end to what had seemed to become a promising social and political tsunami. After five years of silence, she unexpectedly returns to the life of the city, with an autobiography titled “Floarea din asfalt”, meant to answer the question on many people’s lips: “Who is Alexandra Svet?” To sum up the plot of the book, we could say that we are faced with a modern-day replica of the most beautiful Romanian fairy tale – where the female hero, Ileana Cosânzeana leaves in search of Prince Charming (as against the actual tale, where he is searching for her) –, whose theme is about acquiring agelessness and immortality. We thus learn that ever since she was a teenager, Alexandra has been haunted by an ineffable longing, by “a recurrent reflection on something that surpassed myself – something way above things like tomorrow’s financial safety, my mother’s wish to see me well and settled down, and above all the things that a girl my age would have naturally wished for”. Not surprisingly, then, that up to the moment of her Manifesto, Alexandra’s life is a roller-coaster. A photo model and manager of a relocation company at 24 years old, working twelve to fourteen hours a day, Alexandra is driven by “thathungry wish to break up barriers, to shred the veil, and to find out the mysteries” and leaves no stone unturned in her quest. She travels half the world (from Ibiza to Chicago, from Frankfurt to Havana, from Hawaii to the Bahamas, from Saint-Tropez to Miami, passing through Ecuador, Jordan, Argentina or Ukraine), searching – and failing to find (whether in love, nature, fun, or drugs) – the answer that had haunted her since her childhood (“What is the infinite? What lies out there, beyond the stars, the Moon, this Universe, and the other universes... and beyond that? Far – far beyond?”) andthe fulfilment she had been longing for (“Is that all that there is? I want more – I want something else.”). At 30 years of age, the girl who wanted to know God and had not hesitated to fly to the end of the world – and would have gone anywhere, even down to hell, to find Him – is out of place anywhere; she feels like a “chrysalis that dreams of becoming a butterfly”, “eager to come back to a new life in a more beautiful, freer, richer form”, but who has neither the force, nor the “madness” to pierce out of the stifling cocoon.
Shortly after publishing her Manifesto (a cry/struggling/call to find and rebuild oneself, to rediscover and rebuild everything that is most profound and valuable in Romania), Alexandra’s life crosses paths with a famous actor. He suggests to her that before trying to change the world, she should read a book dedicated to the martyrs who died in the prisons of communist Romania. The reading has a seismic effect. The book, titled “Fericiți cei prigoniți” (“Happy Those Who Are Persecuted”) becomes a turning point in Alexandra’s destiny, as she finds the benchmark of the “beautiful person” in its pages, the model of perfection she had looked for all her life, the answer to all her existential struggles, and the model of community life she had been yearning for.
Faced with the cosmic distance she senses between her and what should be a person’s Kingdom-like dignity, Alexandra starts off a long and painful metanoia that stands under the Christian sign of the “return of the prodigal daughter”. Her journey into the depths of her own soul is interwoven with the discovery of the layers of profound Romania, a Romania that is too little known, yet holds within it everything that is best, most genuine, essential, and at the same time, exemplary to the whole world. Years follow, full of struggles, falls and rises, miracles and meetings with wonderful people, sins and forgiveness – “perhaps my most difficult years, yet the fullest in terms of blessedness and authenticity”, standing under the sign of the “flower in the asphalt”, of the resurrection of a soul that has been reborn through Grace from the ashes of one’s ego. A time of ripening, of inner turmoil and transformation, which will bring forth the vision of a new path that is infinitely more mature, more profound, more comprehensive and more profitable for one’s soul – a path bent towards reforming the state of affairs deplored in her 2009 Manifesto.
The way to external change through inner revolution – the only way that makes you understand (and act accordingly) that the evil without cannot be beaten unless you first defeat the evil within… that a society cannot be healthy as long as the cells making it up are sick… that the tragedy of man does not lie in eras, neither in historical/political/economical forms; rather, it begins when man forgets his divine origin, when he no longer knows God… that it is not society, but man, who is at the core of the problem and that all man’s problems find solutions within the realm of faith and in a lifestyle that is in accordance with God’s law: “Back then, God was not present, either, in my Manifesto. Today, I understand that nothing is possible without Him”… that one needs more than just competence and management skills – one also needs character; one needs more than expertly-fashioned outer looks, but above all, “beautiful persons” with a generous soul, who persist in doing beautiful things in spite of it all, who dedicate themselves uncompromisingly to their own nation… and who would even give their life without hesitation, for their country or fellow man in need”.
Yet above all, one must absolutely understand – just as Saint-Exupéry’s hero – that in order to go the path of change, one “must start by sacrificing, in order to lay the foundations of love. Love may then require further sacrifice and may use it for all future victories”.
To put it more briefly, the way of outer change through inner revolution: “I remember – and I smile about it – that five years ago I wanted to change the world, my country, and everything around me […]. Today, I see better than never how ridiculous my intention was, since I myself was – and am – at the beginning of a road that is so long and difficult –, at the beginning of such a harsh battle, and taking the first steps on a road so full of thorns – towards the cleansing of my own passions.
I was looking for them then… In the meantime […] I have found my beautiful “fools”… the people with generous souls, who do beautiful things perseveringly, and dedicate themselves completely to their nation… and who would even give their life, unhesitatingly, for their country or their fellow man in need… However, I found that meeting these persons happened only when I worked steadily on becoming a “beautiful person” myself. It was only when I started, in my turn, to work on my moving upwards spiritually – physically/through my actions.
Back then, I had grand thoughts… What about now? I focus on somewhat simpler things: to lead a clean and rule-based life and do the things I do – however small and insignificant – well… to ask God to help me forgive, so that I can be forgiven in my turn. To refrain from casting stones, or judging, or envying… to be able to rise every time I fall and raise the fallen myself, if I can… To do all these things well, first, and thus be able to stay close to my beautiful fools and then we’ll see about changing the world… The battle is just beginning.” So we are before a book of major themes (love, death, the divine, spiritual experience, tradition, modernism, identity, awareness of good and bad, and so on), about one’s superior understanding of humanness, backed by a high-quality writing style as well as high ethical and cultural stance, and harmonious, healing, and deeply moral, stylistics. It is an account of one’s becoming into the divine Being, of finding oneself, and of inner, genuine fulfilment that springs from knowing the mystery of the divine love. It is a story about everything that Romania has best and most luminous: people who lived Christianity deeply and genuinely through the years and above all, inside the inferno of the communist prisons and camps of the 20th century.
The keystone of Alexandra’s book is the “beautiful person” as a reflection of Christ – the full manifestation of Beauty. Just as a new Diogenes, Alexandra Svet leaves in search of Human Beings and in the end emerges more profitably than the Greek philosopher. With a trained eye for seizing the light in her fellow men, she discovers beautiful, good people, people who one would encounter only in fairy tales yet who live in our times and whom she reveals from a world that is permanently under siege by darkness.
“Floarea din asfalt ” is a combination of NicolaeSteinhardt’s “Jurnalul fericirii” (“Diary of Happiness”) and Ioan Ianolide’s “Întoarcerea la Hristos” (“Return to Christ”), transposed into our post-modern age. It is a book about spiritual salvation – but this time, not from the communist concentration-camp inferno, but from a world that looks more and more shockingly like Huxley’s “Brave New World”. As one reads on, one is stupefied and shudders to find that escaping the modern dungeon of comfort, the straps of political correctness, and the claws of soft re-education, as well as the gilt cage of the hedonistic and techno-idolatrous global showbiz is no easier than escaping the brutally-malefic clench of communism.
The writer takes on the role of custodian of the record of transcendence in a world that cultivates running away from God, ostracising the Mystery, as well as a galloping degradation of the sacred. The model of the spiritualised, Tradition-rooted, “beautiful person” is countered by today’s anthropological mutant – the flat, horizontal, post-human robot, disembarrassed of mystery, living in a perpetually-empty present, “in a world that no longer allows you to take time for yourself, or any room for questioning, or the luxury of thinking, and in which you live on automatic pilot”.
“Floarea din asfalt” may be rightfully considered a contemporary Ariadne’s thread, which leads one out of the dizzying labyrinth of narcissistic, nihilism-eaten modernity, and of today’s jumble of artistic, moral, and ideological values.
It is a “beacon of Alexandr(i)a” that sends off the light of meaningfulness into a pathology-stricken, relativistic, universe, populated by a decaying humanity, that is rebelled and anguished, overwhelmed by the grotesque, by violence and immorality, and has a phobia about tradition and true religiousness.
It is a handbook of exorcising times that are defaced by unnaturalness. It is a true existential antidote in an age of spiritual downfall, of assisted suicide of civilisation.
In a time when words are more trampled upon than man himself, squeezed as they are in their new ideological straitjackets, the words in the “Floarea din asfalt” are veritable tracers splitting through the pitch darkness of a world that tries – ever so bitterly – to steal our right to Eternity.
Alexandra Svet’s writing, amazingly mature for a debutant, leaves is mark upon the reader by its epic force, narrative richness, and special stylistics. The ease, joy, and grace with which the authoress uses her pen are striking. Her musical language, its harmonious rhythm, the lyrical dramatism of the ideas presented guarantee aesthetic pleasure and drives us into a euphoria-like state. The incandescent sentences – true torrents of lava flowing down the slopes of the pages crystallise into prose poems that are rich in musicality and sensitiveness. The text has filigree-like delicacy. Its effect is synesthetic and calls upon all of one’s senses. You get the feeling that light comes out from, and beyond, the words – that what you hold in your hands is a solar, inspired, book, which overflows with genuineness and springs out of an overflowing soul.
The author writes with love and whoever loves has insight. The intensity and delicacy, the attention and tenderness with which the world’s mysterious depths are perceived have something of the completeness in which Eve must have looked at the world before the Fall.
The text has a post-modern structure. What is utterly rare is that the author knows how to talk about “heavy” topics in the language of today. She does it with a rare combination of freshness, candour, empathy, and good faith, whilst slaloming effortlessly among heterogeneous literary styles and registers: the essay, the poem, the maxim, the epistle, travel notes, diary notes, and quotes from the Philokalia, Facebook statuses, etc.
Despite the risks involved in approaching a topic of such scope, Alexandra’s narration stays at all times clear of all danger of slide-slipping into a dissertation defense or didacticism. Neither does her confessional lyrical fire veer off into sentimentality or tearfulness. On the contrary.
The text seduces, wins one over, electrifies, and inspires, because the language of the “Floarea din asfalt” is none other than the language of the world of Faith, so brilliantly described by Max Picard: a language where words and ideas are messengers of one’s deep communion with God’s Spirit. Hence their power, magic, and richness, the feeling of roundness and fullness, and the sense of trust they inspire. Let us add that the language of the “Floarea din asphalt” is so alive and full of warmth and closeness because in the world of Faith, Good, Truth, and Beauty, all the words’ trajectories gravitate around the Logos and bring forth a new miracle: “Just as the Unburnt Bush was aflame when God showed Himself in it, so does one’s tongue burn when God speaks through it… what remains is the word’s pure spirit – God’s truth” (Max Picard, “The Flight from God” Anastasia Publishing House, Bucharest, 1998, p. 90).
No doubt, Alexandra Svet writes in the likeness of her name, spreading light around her (svet = “light”, in Slavonic). At the same time, “Floarea din asfalt” is a bridge of light thrown across darkness, attempting to connect with all fire flowers out there – beautiful souls emerging like flames from place to place on Earth’s asphalt expanses.
“Floarea din asfalt” fills an ethical and aesthetical emptiness in a post-modern/post-totalitarian Romanianliterature that is largely devoid of substance, alienated and alienating, obsessed with the ugly, the absurd, and the vain, allergic to verticality, and stuck in a petty horizontality that lacks any meaning, destination, and identity.
The book’s purport is a sizable one: re-discussing Romania in all is fundamentals (spiritual, historical, psychological, sociological, administrative, as well as in terms of its mental collectif [“collective mentality”]) – a mission that is almost impossible after well over half a century of alienation, falsification of its national identity, and distorted history. The author – the last link in a lineage that was heroically involved in Romania’s destiny (a great-grandfather who was present at Romania’s Great Unification event, in 1918, a grandfather who fought during World War II, and refugee grandparents from USSR-occupied Bessarabia, in 1940) – suggests and manages to present a Romania that is radically different from the one seen through the lens of the “Wallachian nothingness”. It is the profound, dignified, vertical Romania, a country of beautiful people, where, during the rule of absolute evil (communism), political adversaries saved one another’s lives, inmates in prisons and camps allowed themselves to be tortured instead of their suffering fellow men, and victims of torturers came to understand and forgive their tormentors. A Romania – today’s Romania – where people help one another, where “beautiful, accomplished young people help children in need instead of spending their week-ends in the mountains or at the seaside”, where people “fill their car boots with ‘goodies’ and take them to orphaned children”’, where a priest and his four children sleep in a neighbour’s house in order to provide overnight shelter to people passing through their town; where discredited public figures secretly save tens of lives, and so on. A mature Romania, capable of exorcising its past demons and taking responsibility for its sins, mistakes, and weaknesses, not in a Manichean manner, but in a Christian spirit: “I do not believe in murder, hatred, and revenge. I believe in everybody’s right to weep for their dead, endeavor to take example from their good deeds,and avoid their mistakes; I believe in everybody’s right to have a faith without harming anyone else; I believe inreaching out your hand to help, to give, to comfort, to bless, to caress, to hug, and to heal”. In her effort to recover her identity-providing history and dignity and re-value her national “being”, the author outlines a big “existential project” [a rule to live by] – perhaps the only one capable of healing a traumatized and deeply-hurting Romania, in the wake of last century’s totalitarian tragedy. Standing at the basis of this project are the positive, luminous figures in Romania’s history, particularly the prison Saints’ and their experience, wisdom, and teachings: “Rather than solving a given crisis by devising a tool that would diminish its bad effects/consequences, one should suppress the underlying causes of the various crises by renewing a particular understanding/perception of man upon himself.” [Hiero-schema Monk Daniil of Rarău (Sandu Tudor)]
In other words, Nihil sine Deo (“Nothing without God”). Without God’s Grace, man will struggle in vain, as everything he builds will bear the mark of his spiritual feebleness. Man’s healing must come before the healing of society. A makeover of consciences is therefore necessary: a cleansing of our passions; a struggle against one’s done, spoken, and thought sin; a life led in the Holy Spirit; spiritual enlightenment; wholesome Christianity; inner and community lifestyle – existence filled with Christian spirit, ideas, and activities; unity and consistency between one’s self and one’s way of living in the world; a new apostolate; Christening the world around one; connecting one’s way of thinking to God; active lucidity; contemplation translated into action; life-bearing meditation; method made actual by Grace; and action transfigured by the Spirit. The resurrection of one’s soul is, therefore, enough – as well as its enlightenment by God – to find solutions to all man’s problems. Through its value and message, “Floarea din asfalt” re-inserts Romanian specificity into the European and universal world and reconfirms the importance of the East within the literary and spiritual geography of the world. * Alexandra Svet appears to be one of those prophetic voices that one of Romania’s “beautiful people” of the 20th century was feverishly waiting for half a century ago: “The world will not be set to rights as long as there are no people out there calling out that it was created as a spiritual destination... that man cannot, may not live like a beast; that the time has come for him to become aware of his personal responsibility vis-à-vis his own destiny and that of the whole world... Today, the world is in urgent need of Prophets like the ones in the Old Testament... and of Saints that would be living examples to people. That is what modern world lacks... I do not see them, I do not really see them, but if the end of the world is not nigh yet, they will appear; God will send them or will render them visible to us, through our own eyes. No need for us to walk barefoot, dressed in sacks and with soot on our heads – no; but we need to insert into our lives (which, in a way, would remain unchanged, outwardly) some parameters that would keep restoring our human image inwardly – our inner image, joy, and peace, our inner solitude, which give life its true tone and meaning” (Alexandru Mironescu, “Admirabila tăcere. Jurnal (1967-1968)”, EikonPublishing House, Cluj-Napoca, 2014, p. 297). * It is hard – almost impossible – to look upon the world in the same way once you have read “Floarea din asfalt”. Its powerful title suggestively sums up the content of a work that is bound to leave a decisive mark on one’s destiny. The author comes before us with a “compass-book”; a guide to one’s transcendent North. It is a plea for Man in his fullness – a man who does not define himself through people, but through God; the opposite of one who – reflected as they are only by what the world offers them – gets shrunken, stifled, and petrified; it is a plea for the man whose true destiny is to become united with his Creator.
“Floarea din asfalt” is therefore a story of inner pilgrimage, a “gastronomic and spiritual journey”, which starts off by chewing on the world’s insatiable, deceitful carob fruit and ends with feasting on the satiable, rich, daily Bread. The book tells us about the deep meaning of life, of the holy madness of leaping off into the abyss of faith, and about accepting sacrifice in the name of truth. It talks about sacrifice and courage, dignity and love, about the importance of having deep-rooted landmarks and values, and the fact that you cannot fly high up into the sky unless you know and value your foundations first. The book reminds us that man is not fulfilled as long as he ignores that he is made to overcome himself again and again, as long as he refuses to listen to that voice that whispers out of the depths of our hearts, warning us that we should not “die of thirst by drinking muddy water from some puddle, when we have the fountain of Living Water within and before us”. Here are a few gleanings from the many memorable thoughts in the book: “If we step out of love and light, we are lost”. “If someone has done something wrong to you, it is perhaps because you did not pray enough for them”. “There is one thing alone that matters: how much and how beautifully we have loved… how close we have got to, and how close we have taken one another to, the only Love that never ends”.
* Alexandra Svet writes with fervor and passion, out of her heart and mind, but above all, with all her life. Her discourse – not only seducing, but also convincing – wins one over in the deepest recesses of their soul. Her book is a true declaration of faith, the fruit of inner simmering and rich, substantial experience. It proves that light can be spread through word. BROTHER JOHN, HOLY MOUNT OF ATHOS
“In a way, with this book, Alexandra saves her generation.” “This is a confessional book, which is put together unpredictably”.
“Among other things, it is a confession aboutAlexandra’s origin… I hadn’t realised that her grandparents were from Bessarabia! You may never find more terrible pages about the Refuge from Bessarabia as in this book… This is perhaps the finest responsefrom a young generation that has come into contact with the eternity of their nation... Do not imagine that this is a book of memoires. It is a book that I find fascinating – precisely because it ‘jumps’ from one thing to another. Now it talks about the refuge from Bessarabia; next, you are suddenly taken to Ibiza, where you see young people dancing... It’s fantastic how it carries you into that magic... you see those young people high on drugs, finished, wasted..., then the book cuts to Father Iustin Pârvu and the people in [the communist] prisons. Then we are off again, to Ecuador… If we were to summarize what Alexandra Svet does with this book… If we think of the amount of foulness, lies, and distortion that is going on – the tons of ‘cement’ that are being poured on this country and Europe alike… it all resembles this story, that Alexandra recounts having learnt in Ecuador (...): The jungle was on fire and the animals were frantically running out, to escape the blaze. A burnt tiger in a sorry state saw a hummingbird (it’s this minute thing between an insect and a sparrow, which has 4000 some wingbeats per minute and I don’t know how many heartbeats per second) that was carrying water – one drop at a time – into the jungle. The tiger asked her: ‘What are you doing?! Can’t you see it’s pointless?’ The hummingbird answered: ‘I am doing my share.’
Given everything that happens in Romania today in terms of how its history is being devastated, Alexandra is that humming-bird. She does take action! And let me tell you, God works through ‘drops’, not through the masses.”
“Alexandra Svet – a conscience that bears witness…” “A book that is in search of the ‘beautiful people’ of the Romanian nation…” “Alexandra Svet’s voice invites us to an awakening and a natural discovery of the core things: the Christian essence and the Romanian essence”.
Pr. MIHAIL MILEA:
“Our nation will not die off, my dear ones, as long as we have young people like Alexandra Svet; it will not die off, because people like her keep the nation’s candle burning – the candle of faith, burning in our souls.
In Alexandra Svet’s book, I have discovered the Romanian soul...”
Fr. NICOLAE TANASE:
“A very bold book, including in terms of its size. Nowadays, if you want your book to sell, you have to write as little as possible, make it look short; maybe even use very thin paper. Why? Because people complain that they do not have enough time… The Holy Fathers mention that this complaining about time is not a good sign.
(...) In my opinion, she wrote vigorously, virtuously, and valiantly – three distinct terms that I believe best describe this book and that we should use when expressing our admiration for it.”