Yesterday, the protagonist of my series Our Borders asked me to change his name on this website, for privacy reasons. It seemed like an easy thing to do, just Replace All in each of the ten blog posts I have written so far (including the comments), and I’d be done. An hour’s worth of work on my website—tops. (It took a bit longer than that.)
But something strange happened. First there was a feeling of uneasiness creeping in, as if I had lost something very important. I couldn’t quite figure out what bothered me, but during the evening I started to put into words how I felt. And the words “What’s in a name?” kept going through my head.
O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
[Aside] Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
I take thee at thy word:
Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.
– William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)
I beg to differ, Juliet. For me, a name is a pact of staying true. For my writing, a name can be a choice of genre. Nonfiction versus fiction.
I tried writing my friend’s story before, as fiction, during my MFA program at Goddard College. I worked on that novel from 2007 to 2010, but something else strange happened back then too. The crazy adventures my friend had had in real life didn’t translate well into fiction. For a real person, yes, it was incredible what he had been through. For a novel character, the stakes were never high enough. And the worst of it all was that there was no antagonist in his story. Nobody working against my main character, sabotaging his attempts to cross the Romanian borders. There were tons of threshold guardians in his story, but no villains.
Back then, I tried the best I could to tighten up the structure of the story, to focus my main character’s struggles along lines determined by his relationships with his family and friends. I could always create a villain and set her against him, but that felt artificial. I could also make the protagonist be his own worst enemy—the villain within—but that meant betraying the real person behind the story. So there I toiled, with no structure to my story, no character arc, no transformative journey, no catharsis. And I failed.
When I began this blog series, I didn’t know if I could make it work, but the new medium and the new format allowed me to create structure on an episodic level. Every time I work on a piece, I sift through thousands of words of interviews, I read anything I can find online about those times in Romania, I look at maps and pictures, and, like a detective, I try to find connections. Where my friend describes the mechanics of trying to cross a militarized border, I ask him questions about his friends, wife, mother, trying to create a personal connection between a reader who doesn’t necessarily know or care about the historical context of 1980s’ Romania and a protagonist who’s on a universal quest for freedom. In my blog posts, history is the background of story. And the story is that of a man with an extraordinary life and an incredible level of determination.
But now that I’m obscuring my friend’s name, history must take first place, the things that are still fact and not fiction—and I’m afraid that I will lose the personal connection between the reader and the protagonist.
Last night, I remembered reading a fascinating article a few months back on Simcha Jacobovici’s website called Palestine: History of a Name.
The ancient Romans knew that a name was powerful when they began to call Judea Palestine in 135 CE. Simcha Jacobovici explains that Palestine means “the land of the Philistines,” who “are the people of Delilah and Goliath. (…) they were an Aegean people from the area of modern day Greece.” In the Old Testament, the Philistines were the villains, the arch-enemies of the Jews, and the Romans chose to rename Judea Palestine for clear political benefits.
“After the Philistines disappeared from the historical stage, the name “Palestina” lingered on. Meaning, the people were gone, the name lingered. It appears in references here and there in classic Greek writings e.g., Herodotus. By the time Jesus was born, there hadn’t been any Philistines in the area for some 600 years. The name does not appear anywhere in the Gospels. And the people living in Judea at the time of Jesus—including Jesus and all his disciples—would never have referred to their country as “Palestine”. Even the Romans didn’t call the area Palestine. Remember, when they crucified him, the Romans put a plaque over Jesus’ head with the inscription—in three languages—“King of the Jews”, not the “Philistines” (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19).” – Simcha Jacobovici
The Romans began using this name after a long series of revolts that followed the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE.
“When the Bar Kochba revolt was finally put down in 135 CE, the Romans exiled the majority of the Jewish people and renamed Judea “Palestina”. To be clear, “Syria Palestine” officially became a Roman province about a century after Jesus’ crucifixion. The idea was to erase the Jewish presence from Judea and to designate their homeland with reference to their Biblical enemies. It was a last humiliation. To also be clear, there were no Philistines at the time and even if some had miraculously survived, they were not Arabs but Greeks.” – Simcha Jacobovici
A name is powerful, the Romans knew that. In my neck of the woods, after the emperor Trajan conquered the Dacian kingdom of Decebalus in 106 CE, he razed the capital, Sarmizegethusa Regia and built another one, a mere 24 miles away, called Sarmizegethusa Ulpia. To this day people are confused about the two sites because they have the same name, and that was the whole point of Trajan’s decision.
Today, as I was writing this blog post, I looked up The Name of the Rose (1980) by Umberto Eco, one of my favorite novels of all times, which ends with the following paragraph:
“It is cold in the scriptorium, my thumb aches. I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom; I no longer know what it is about: stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.”
Eco, Umberto (1994-09-28). The Name of the Rose (Kindle Locations 7420-7421). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
The last words of Eco’s novel translate approximately to “Of the pristine rose only the name remains, we hold empty names.”
People wondered much about this ending, so Umberto Eco explained in 1984:
“the verse is from De contemptu mundi by Bernard of Morlay, a twelfth-century Benedictine, whose poem is a variation on the “ubi sunt” theme (most familiar in Villon’s later “Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan”). But to the usual topics (the great snows of yesteryear, the once-famous cities, the lovely princesses: everything disappears into the void), Bernard adds that all these departed things leave (only, or at least) pure names behind them. I remember that Abelard used the example of the sentence “Nulla rosa est” to demonstrate how language can speak of both the nonexistent and the destroyed.” – Umberto Eco, Postscript to The Name of the Rose.
I was going to use these quotes today to illustrate the importance of a name—a geeky thing I like to do sometimes, illustrating—but then I discovered that in a 1996 lecture at The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, Umberto Eco admitted that he might’ve got the verse wrong:
“Moreover someone has discovered that some early manuscripts of De Contemptu Mundi of Bernard de Morlay, from which I borrowed the hexameter “stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus”, read “stat Roma pristina nomine”—which after all is more coherent with the rest of the poem, which speaks of the lost Babylon. Thus the title of my novel, had I come across another version of Morlay’s poem, could have been The Name of Rome (thus acquiring fascist overtones). “– Umberto Eco, The Author and his Interpreters.
Which changes everything about this book, doesn’t it?
Changing a name turns out not to be as simple as a Replace All.
Changing a name is a rite of passage that needs to be acknowledged as such.
Changing a name is breaking a pact and making another: that I will stay true to the story, even though I will lie about this one detail. Will you trust me after this?
If you do, my series continues with its old new protagonist, Radu Codrescu.
Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.