cover image Compulsory Happiness

Compulsory Happiness

Norman Manea. Farrar Straus Giroux, $22 (259pp) ISBN 978-0-374-12785-5

This taut, sophisticated collection of four novellas, set in the author's native Romania, conjures up a land of disturbing contrasts in which political and personal dramas unfold against the backdrop of a grotesque police state. With beautiful control, Manea ( October, Eight O'Clock ) uses icy, polished language to describe the Romanians' Latin passion and humor, worn down by years of humiliation and brutality. In ``The Interrogation,'' a woman who has been tortured and starved finds the eloquent grandstanding of her newest interrogator, a brilliant but mad individual, more exhausting than physical punishment. ``Window on the Working Class'' contrasts the stubborn rebelliousness of an enterprising factory worker with the brooding resignation of an intellectual. ``The Trenchcoat'' acknowledges a debt to Gogol as it describes a woman's slow descent into insanity after she discovers an unfamiliar coat following a dinner party; eventually it is revealed that her home is being used in her absence for clandestine purposes. Manea's sharply analytical prose is studded with stunning, bizarre details--at one point all glass-enclosed balconies are ordered dismantled because they offend the sensibilities of President Ceausescu's wife. Manea, who left Romania in 1986, now teaches at Bard College; his book sheds light on the agony of a country about which Americans know too little. ( May )