Matéo Maximoff

Kalderaš (father), Sintica-Manouche from Renard family (mother); wrote in French (book publications) and Kalderaš dialect of Romani (stories published in "Les Études Tsiganes" and unpublished stories). [Roma – Sub Ethnic Groups / Index of appellations]

Matéo Maximoff was one of the first Roma writers ever, and he was decidedly the most prolific, if we may judge from the great number of novels, stories and tales published in France and in other lands. He wrote mainly in French because opportunities to publish in Romani were very limited. He did publish a few stories and tales in his mother tongue, that is, the Kalderaš dialect of Romani, in the magazine of Gypsy studies, "Les Études Tsiganes" (in existence since 1966). His translation of the entire "New Testament" in elegant Romani is an admirable work.

For several centuries, the ancestors of Matéo Maximoff, like other Kalderaš families and several Roma sub-ethnic groups, lived as slaves in the land that is today's Romania. Roma slavery was abolished in Moldavia on December 23, 1855, and in Wallachia on February 8, 1856. But the Roma had to wait until 1864 for complete freedom under the law after Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania had united to form the state of Romania. [History of the Vlach-Roma]

The abolition of Roma slavery in Romania was followed by one of the greatest waves of Roma migration. First, entire large families left the land and headed for neighbouring countries, mainly Hungary and Russia. Some Roma stayed there; others later travelled farther west. Matéo's great-grandfather on his father's side immediately left for Russia with his relatives in 1855. Matéo surely never met any of those relatives who still remembered life in Romania, but the family memory has been kept alive until today with storytelling about those ancestors, and, as a child, Matéo learned the Romanian history of his family at storytelling sessions of relatives. Here, then, his work "Le Prix de la liberté" ("The Price of Liberty") took artistic shape.

In an interview I had with Matéo Maximoff along with Hana Šebková in his "study" – a little Algerian café, "La Fontaine du brouillard" ("The Fountain of Fog") in Romainville, a suburb of Paris (Sept. 15, 1997) – he told us how his great-grandfather had found a twelve-year-old Jewish girl in a street in Temesvar. He took her in and, as soon as he could, he began to live with the beautiful židovajka (Jewess). They stayed together as long as they lived. The name and figure of the židovajka were carried over by the author into his novel "Ce Monde qui n'est pas le mien" ("That World which is Not Mine"); in it she is the wife of one of the main heroes, Vorta, a vajda (head of a Roma community) from a Kalderaš family.

Matéo Maximoff had his great-grandfather's surname. His great-grandfather died in Russia in 1910 at the age of 98. Since he was allegedly two meters ten (six feet nine) tall and weighed 160 kilograms (352 pounds), he said that he had grown "to the maximum", and from there he got his surname Maximoff.

Matéo Maximoff describes the life of the Kalderaš Roma during their three-generation "Russian stopover" in "Ce Monde qui n'est pas le mien". He called it a récit (tale) because, from his early youth, he heard about Russia from his father and his uncle, who were born somewhere in Siberia and had spent their early youth there. "Family history" in Russia naturally does not mean what a Gadžo would imagine the term "history" to mean: precise data, precise place names; precise "when-where-what". "History" is what was important for the community of relatives travelling together as one group: in which market the Kalderaš could do the best business, where friendly gendarmes were well disposed towards the "Gypsies; where a great family occasion took place that was still told about several generations later. Similar events developed into mythological fantasies by the storytellers – and the unsurpassable fantasy of Matéo Maximoff – are included in the reality of the "history" of fateful beings such as mamijori (literally, "grandma", a feared being who destroys but also protects); the fateful death of one twin – because one twin must always die; troublemakers; duels to defend honour, and further and further dramas that go beyond Gadžo interpretations of history. Nevertheless, Gadžo history expels Roma from Russia. First the war and then the revolution. "The Reds are fighting against the Whites. They are seriously ridiculous people! That's what the Roma think. Such matters don’t concern them. At least not directly." Only then they understand that they, the Roma, might have been the victims "no matter who won, one or the other, Whites or Reds" ("Ce Monde qui n'est pas le mien"), and thus families that can, leave this stop, Russia, and go where they can. Some aim for Western Europe; some for Latin America; some even consider China.

Matéo's grandfather, his wife and their fourteen children, one of whom was Matéo's father, had already left Russia in 1914, earlier than the heroes in the novel "Ce Monde qui n'est pas le mien". In an interview in Paris (1997) Matéo Maximoff told us that his ancestors made their livelihoods in Russia in two ways: as musicians and through the traditional profession of the Kalderaš (cauldron makers) [Coppersmiths and tinkers] – they produced and mended cauldrons. (By the way, another Kalderaš family – the Taikons – made their living in Russia in the same way. They settled in Sweden. Two famous sisters came out of the Taikon family: the late Katrina, a writer, and the silversmith Rosa, famous for her silver jewellery.)

The majority of the Maximoff family moved to Spain, the rest to Poland. Twenty-seven of Matéo's relatives were murdered there by the Nazis during the Second World War. Grandpa Maximoff ended his travels with his sons and daughters in Spain. There, while Kalderaš cauldron-makers' wagons were passing through the Chinese quarter (barrio Cino) of Barcelona, Matéo came into the world as the first-born son, the oldest of six siblings. The date of his birth is given as January 17, 1917. "Perhaps I was born a day earlier or a day later – at any rate, I was born. My parents did not report me at the town hall and I never got a birth certificate."

Matéo's mother came from a Manouche family. She was a cousin of the great Roma musician Django Reinhardt, the founder of "Gypsy jazz". She died young during the birth of her sixth child in Belgium. Of Matéo's siblings, two brothers and two sisters survived to adulthood. The Maximoffs left Spain for France when Matéo was three years old (1920). At that time, his first language was Kalderaš Romani; his second, Spanish. Later, apart from Romani, his main means of expression was French, the language of the land where he lived the rest of his life. He did not forget Spanish; he inherited his language talent from his father, who allegedly spoke twenty-three languages.

The Maximoff family – Matéo's father, his father's brothers and their families – travelled around France; sometimes their work took them to neighbouring lands. Mainly, though, they moved around Paris, where, according to Matéo Maximoff, between five and six thousand Kalderaš Roma lived. In France, they worked mainly as cauldron makers. Matéo practiced this trade like his brother and other cousins. He worked from his early youth because, at the age of fourteen, he was orphaned and had to feed his four younger siblings. He worked with his uncles and they looked out for the orphans.

Apart from the cauldron making, Matéo could do something else which, except for him and partially his father, no one in their vast family could do – that is, read and write. "I never in my life spent even an hour in school," he told us (1997):

"My father taught me to count to ten and the letters. The rest I taught myself. At that time I was around seven or eight years old. My father also taught himself to read and write as a soldier in Russia. The world would be flooded with Roma writers if Roma could write! Just to put on paper those fantastic histories that my uncles told so colourfully and grippingly about life in Russia! You wouldn't have to change even one word; it would be enough to write them down just the way the Roma told them."

Dramas from the life of his family, mythicised over time and distant places and mainly by the fantasy of storytellers, had already been temping Matéo in his youth to apply his knowledge of writing and to record them. Only writing Romani, that language in which the stories were told, was something completely unimaginable, "non-existent", unprecedented. In reality, there was a precedent for writing: At first, the Soviet state supported the development of small nationalities and their language and culture, and written Roma tales and poems were published from the beginning of the 1930's. But had any Rom anywhere else in the world ever heard of the Roma prose writer and poet Aleksandr Germano, the writer Rom Lebedyev, etc? And hence the idea that Roma literature did not and could not exist; the non-existence of literary ambitions in a traditional Roma community suppressed in Matéo the desire to pass on family stories in any way other than orally.

The coincidence of two factors helped Maximoff to realise his embryonic literary impulses: a bloody fight between two Roma families resulting in Matéo's being put in prison with other Roma and the insistence of his lawyer, Monsieur Jacques Isorni, that he write down a description of the fight and Roma customs in general.

Karl Rinderknecht writes in an epilog to the German translation, "Die Ursitory" (1954), about how Matéo Maximoff's first novel, "Les Ursitory", came into being. We are going to quote the introductory part of the epilogue:

"It happened in the summer of 1938 in the center of France. Between a clan of Gypsies (Kalderaš Roma, from whom came Matéo Maximoff, note MH), and a clan of Romanichels (English Roma) there flared up in nearby Issoire in Auvergne one of the famous Gypsy fights that so often absorb the French courts. The dispute arose because a girl was kidnapped from the Maximoff family. The inter-family fight resulted in dead and wounded… One day then, those who participated in the fight stood before the court. During the interrogation it was established that Matéo, of all the youths, was not in the fight, but he was charged only with watching(…)"

Matéo Maximoff was fortunate that his court-appointed attorney, Monsieur Jacques Isorni, who later earned a reputation as an outstanding Parisian lawyer, was assigned to defend him. At the time he represented Matéo Maximoff, he still worked as a young beginning provincial lawyer. Isorni had the unusual gift of recognising a person's character. He was immediately aware of the human value and talent of the young Gypsy and represented him in a way that by far exceeded the framework of a lawyer's responsibilities. Until today, Matéo Maximoff is deeply bound to him. Monsieur Isorni wrote of his first meeting with the young defendant:

"I was the first person to visit him. I was immediately attracted by his vitality and vividness with which he described his experiences. For a long time we spoke about his life and the habits, customs and traditions of his race, which has kept them up in an admirable way for entire long centuries. He told me he was one of the very few Gypsies who could read and write. He taught himself by the light of campfires and in a travelling caravan, which in their language is termed a vurdon. During these confidential conversations was born the literary road of Matéo Maximoff, cauldron maker, world traveller, defendant in a murder trial(…) Matéo Maximoff was bored in his cell. I suggested to him that he buy a pad of school paper in the prison cantine and write me about Gypsy life. I wanted to use the notes in my defense plea in Puy-de-Dome.Only his creative fantasy led Maximoff beyond the bounds of my request. I wanted him to write down his memories, his ideas, a couple of notes – and instead of that he delivered the spontaneously written novel, "Les Ursitory" ."

Matéo Maximoff wrote his first novel on order, as "notes" - the basis for a defense plea. The dramatic character of the plot and the stirring momentum of his accounts bear witness to the fact that Matéo needed only a slight impulse to turn from being a very popular story teller at community gatherings into a writer.

The novel takes place in Romania, in the eighteenth century. The (only) two Gadžo principal characters of the novel are Count Tilescu and his daughter, Helena; from this we can assume that the plot of the story takes place at the time when there were still noblemen in Romania although Roma were no longer living there in slavery.

The Romanian-Roma cultural milieu also gave rise to Ursitori – angels who predict the fate of newborns, Fates. They are three in number. One predicts that the newborn child, Arniko, the son of Tereina, will have an illustrious future. The second predicts immediate death. The third, head angel, makes a compromise: She points to the fire on a burning log, near which are lying the new mother, the infant and Tereina's mother, the drabarni (sorceress, witch) Dunicha, and stipulates that the little boy will live until the log is completely burned. The sorceress Dunicha then immediately pulls out the log, extinguishes the fire and gives the log to the mother for safekeeping. The life of the child hangs upon the log. As long as the log does not burn up, no illness, no danger can harm Arniko. But if the whole log burns, no force can protect him from death.

Why is Tereina not living with her husband's family? A real bride (bori) follows her husband, becomes the property of his family and is "subjugated" to her mother-in-law (sasvi). Perhaps, though, the relatives of her family threw her out because the drabarni accused her mother of the death of her own son, Tereina's husband: he died six months after his marriage to Tereina. Dunicha knew about the death of her son-in-law (džamutro). She was present at his birth and heard what the Ursitori had predicted. She also knew that her daughter would die if she did not give birth before she was twenty years old. If she did give birth, the length of her life would be doubled. The mother, Dunicha, thus permitted the union of the young people to take place. Dunicha also knew that she herself would die a violent death shortly after the birth of her grandchild.

Tereina wants to "baptize" Arniko. The "baptism" or a similar ceremony performed by a "professional" (priest) is enormously important: It admits the child into the society of humans, and the forces of the "other world" no longer have supreme power over him. You need a godmother and/or a godfather at a christening. No one wants to be a godparent to Tereina because everyone is afraid of her mother-sorceress. Finally, one of the daughters-in-law agrees – and she dies three days after the christening. The Minesti, Tereina's husband's family, again see in the death of the daughter-in-law the sorcery of Dunicha and, in a fit of drunkenness, the men kill Tereina's mother. With little Arniko in her arms, Tereina escapes because she is afraid that she will share the same fate. She tries to find relatives of her late father or mother, the Ilikesti. It is cold; there is frost and deep snow; a blizzard overturns her wagon; her exhausted horse dies; and the young woman, holding her child, falls unconscious in the snow.

Count Tilescu finds Tereina and Arniko. He takes them in out of human kindness, but the fate that guides the plots of all of Maximoff's novels – because it guides the lives of the Roma - also plays a role. Count Tilescu was mortally ill as a young boy. When his family lost all hope of his recovering, a travelling "Gypsy" appeared in the area and she healed him. The "Gypsy" was the drabarni Dunicha – Tereina's mother.

Instead of one week, Tereina remains in service at Count Tilescu's home for seventeen years. Tilescu is a widower. His wife died during the birth of their daughter Helena not long before the count found Tereina in the woods with little Arniko.

Tereina speaks Romani with Arniko and teaches him Roma customs. At the same time, however, the kindly count indulges the boy in an education and imparts to him his knowledge of fine noble customs.

The motif of bi-cultural education is often repeated in Maximoff's works. In the book "Ce Monde qui n'est pas le mien", the main character is Ruvaa (Wolf) who, as a four-year-old child lost in the woods, was saved by monks. He stays in the monastery for a few years, teaches himself to read, write, and play the balalaika – but then he leaves and goes back to his own people. Into these figures the author probably projects creative modifications of his own experience, which, at his time and in the situation of the Kalderaš in France, was quite exceptional: the Roma hero is a Rom in all of his being, but chosen representatives of the Gadžo world, not unfriendly towards Roma, enriched him with the Gadžo value of literary culture. In the case of Matéo Maximoff, in first place is his lawyer Isorni. In the foreword to his novel "La Septième fille", the author mentions a Monsieur Robert Guizelin, with whom he stayed after the war and "had time to think and write". In relation to Arniko, the magnanimous Gadžo is the nobleman Tilescu. The hero, Ruvaa, is educated by the monks who represent God, and God does not draw distinctions among people. Neither monks nor the nobility had the attitude of the average Gadžo toward Roma.

The Rom Arniko and the nobleman's daughter Helena grow up together and fall in love with each other – without either telling the other. Arniko, as a Gypsy, does not dare to admit that he is in love with Helena, and Helena, as a girl, does not dare to ask him.

It is not clear whether count Tilescu would object to the union of the young people. He has warm feelings for Arniko and when, on a hunt, the valiant youth saves his life and shoots a raging bear, he feels even more obligated to him. When Arniko is seventeen years old, Tereina resolves to leave. However, the Ursitori granted her forty years of life and so only three years are left for Arniko to marry a Roma girl and for her to present the "log of Arniko's life" to her daughter-in-law.

Arniko finds himself with the Minesti, his father's relatives. Although his father is a member of that family, the ill will towards the drabarni Dunicha, his grandmother on his mother's side, has not been forgotten. He is saved from a fight only by his perfect knowledge of Roma customs, traditional Roma courtesy and his gift for cultivated behaviour. Thus, he is accepted as a guest.

In the Minesti camp, he falls fatally in love at first sight with the vajda's (head of the community) daughter, Parňi (Bianca or Blondie, a name bearing witness to the beauty of the girl). After long deliberation, the vajda is willing to agree to the marriage, mainly when Arniko offers to work for him for a year without pay. (A trial period for a daughter's suitor who works without pay in the home of her father is the usual custom in several pre-Aryan castes in India, e.g., among the travelling blacksmiths, gade lohars. Note, MH [Rom-Ḍom]) The other men – sons and brothers in the Minesti family – are, however, fundamentally against the marriage of Parňi to Arniko. They prepare a villainous trap for Arniko. When he goes to his mother's to request that she go and ask for Parňi's hand, they send twenty-two of the strongest youths after him to kill him in an uneven fight.Arniko defeats them in the woods. He must defeat them because the Ursitori had stipulated he would die only when the log of his life burned up. Thus, he must live.

Meanwhile, Parňi stabs herself with a knife: she learned of the trap and doesn't believe that Arniko can escape alive and, besides, her family has speedily prepared her engagement to another. Parňi 's death and the shameful defeat of twenty-two fighters, again fans their hatred toward Arniko and his mother's family, the Ilikesti, to inextinguishable proportions. The belligerence of the Minesti family is transfixed with terror of Arniko, who they believe is gifted with supernatural powers.

Matéo Maximoff resolves the situation of inter-family hatred through the kris, the Roma court. He takes advantage of the opportunity to describe in detail the principles and procedure of the kris. Ultimately, the excessive number of fights, their causes and solutions, which overload "Les Ursitory", bear witness to the author's willingness to fulfill the request of his lawyer Isorni and give him information about this particular field concerning the traditional life of the Roma. (Let us not forget that Matéo Maximoff wrote his first novel in prison, very shortly after the enormous inter-family fight.)

To continue the plot, it is important that Tereina's mother finds a wife for Arniko. She chooses a girl named Orka. The days go by and the time that is left to her before her predetermined death is approaching. Orka is not objectionable to Arniko, but he does not love her. As a young boy he was secretly in love with Helena; he fell passionately in love with Parňi at first sight – and he marries Orka because obedient sons marry the girls chosen by their parents. "She will give you sons. She will be the mother of your children. You will get used to her", say Roma mothers. And so it really comes to pass.

Arniko lives peacefully with Orka for more than a year. She bears him a son. Their life is guided by Roma customs and does not differ from that of other normal marriages. The mother confides the precious log of Arniko's life to her daughter-in-law and prepares herself in peace for her departure from this world. In a short time, she will be forty years old, and she knows that she has not been granted more time. She dies at forty.

By chance, Arniko learns that Helena Tilescu, whom he has not seen for three years, is about to get married. She is to marry an older, respectable nobleman. It occurs to Arniko to go and wish Helena happiness in her marriage. He goes to the castle, where he is warmly welcomed. But scarcely does he see his love from his early youth before both fall in love again. At the behest of Helena, Arniko stays at the castle and "takes away Helen's honour".

It is not entirely clear if Count Tilescu agrees to the marriage of his daughter with the Gypsy Arniko. Nevertheless, Arniko goes to tell his wife Orka that he does not love her. Although Orka implores him in the name of his son to stay, Arniko leaves her.

Orka, in a fit of despair, fury and jealousy, hurls the log of Ariko's life into the fire. Arniko goes through the woods and, without realising it, finds himself at the place where his murdered grandmother, Dunicha, was buried. On this very spot, he feels a weakness in his heart. As the his log of life burns, Arniko's strength leaves him. The log burns up and Arniko dies.

"Les Ursitory "can be read in one breath. To find fault with this story for its romanticism, its lack of logic, its unreality would be absurd. "Les Ursitory" is a typical mythologising Roma tale in which supernatural beings and forces are components of a complex, multidirectional reality, the dimensions of which rational leaders of "western civilisation" are deprived. Matéo Maximoff began to write the story of Arniko in September 1938.

"I wrote the tale my grandfather and grandmother told me. When I was let out of prison, I went to Paris – that was in July 1939 – and handed my manuscript to Monsieur Isorni. The lawyer glanced through the manuscript and apparently said, "This is in the style of Hugo! The style of Maupassant! No – the style of Maximoff!" And then began negotiations for the publication of the book."

On the day of October 3rd, 1939, France declared war on Nazi Germany and then "anti-nomad" hysteria started with the rationale that "Gypsy nomads" conducted espionage for the Germans. Several French départements expelled Roma from their lands and many Roma families tried to flee to Spain. Very few managed to cross the borders. The Maximoffs were among those who succeeded. They were arrested and interned in the Gurs camp in the Pyrenees on the French-Spanish border. Jews and members of the Spanish international brigade were already imprisoned in Gurs – and now about two thousand Roma were added to them. The Maximoffs lived with the others for 42 days – the men separate from the women – and then the police transferred the "Gypsies" to a "Gypsy camp" in Tarbes. After Tarbes (from August 1940 to May 1941) followed an internment camp for "nomads" (that is, for Roma) in Lannemazan. During the war, Matéo's marriage with his first wife dissolved, as did many others. His wife belonged to a different Roma clan and when the Maximoffs were interned, she left with her relatives.

Matéo Maximoff did not give up thoughts of publication of "Les Ursitory" even in the internment camp. He hoped that publication might help him and his family to freedom. But he got only a five-day pass from the camp – and that was again on the basis of the intervention of his lawyer, Isorni. Matéo Maximoff went to see him in Paris.

"I gave him my power of attorney so that he could sign contracts for me with the publisher Flammarion (a prestigious French publishing house. Note MH), In 1942 I got a contract… but the book was published only after the war in 1946."

Relatives of Matéo Maximoff – roughly four hundred people – were interned for 31 months during the Second World War. Matéo Maximoff wrote the book "Routes sans roulottes" ("Roads Without Wagons") about this sorrowful time. French internment camps for "nomads" were not so grimly horrible as the german "extermination camps", but even here living conditions were desperate. In an interview with sociologist Eva Brabant, Monsieur Maximoff says, " When I came to the camp at the age of twenty-three, I weighed 75 kilos. Thirty-one months later, I weighed 44 kilos and looked like a skeleton covered with skin. I was so skinny that people thought I had tuberculosis. Even I cannot understand how I survived at all. But I wasn't the only one who looked like that. The other Roma were in the same condition."

French internment camps for nomads were surrounded by barbed wire, but the interned Roma, Manouche and Kale were permitted to leave the camp for a certain time and look for food in the permitted surrounding area. In many camps, the prisoners did not get any food or fuel. In Tarbes, Roma were interned in a former old hospital with windows and doors full of holes, and in winter the temperature dropped to below freezing.

The Maximoffs were better off than other Sinti or Kale because, as menders of cauldrons and various domestic equipment, they found work in the area, earned some money and, in addition, earned the affection of the surrounding population.

According to Kenrick and Puxon, of the 40,000 Roma in France, 15,000 became victims of the war. Of Matéo's relatives in Poland, in one day 27 cousins, uncles and aunts were killed. In Holland the Nazis later murdered his father's second wife and her daughter. [First Deportations and Internments in Internment Camps]

After the war, Matéo Maximoff sued in a German court for fourteen years for recognition as a racial victim of war. Finally he won his case, and he got a not unimportant sum monthly as reparations for as long as he lived. On the whole, though, Roma have been recognised as victims of racial persecution only since 1982.

Maximoff's first novel "Les Ursitory" was published in 1946. The success of the book proved the author's ability to write and confirmed his long-time, dormant wish to communicate stories, ideas and messages in a form that was, until then, quite unusual – in writing. Through the words of his literary heroes such as the illiterate Roma woman Mameliga, Matéo Maximoff expresses his wish and need to write down noteworthy events in the lives of Roma so as to make them known beyond the frontiers of the Roma community. When Mameliga was a girl, she had a blood-curdling experience: her dead fiancé tried to take her to his grave. She was saved by tearing her dress into little pieces and throwing them at him. (A motif frequent in Russian Roma literature. A Czech analogy is "Svatební Košile" [ "The Specter's Bride"] from Karel Jaromír Erben's "Kytice" [ "Bouquets"]. Note MH) Mameliga relates her experience at a vartování (wake) to imprint it on the memories of those present and to allow them to hand it down to their descendents. " Perhaps one of you can write ", she turns to the men, " but none of us women can. If I could, I would write down my story, but I am not able to. What a pity "!

In all of the other novels, stories and tales of Matéo Maximoff, what we indicated in the detailed discussion of "Les Usitory" and "Ce Monde qui n'est pas le mien" is characteristic: the presentation of a complex "Roma reality", which non-Roma consider as "unreal" or "surreal-supernatural", is an essential part of Roma lives. Destiny, dreams, spectres or dead souls (mulo, sing.), beings from "another world" are an inseparable part of every-day life. But above all stands a supreme force – the embodiment of good, pat'iv (honour), order – God.

Philosophy is perhaps most clearly - even if not directly – apparent in various places in the fourth novel of Maximoff, "La Septième fille" ("The Seventh Daughter") (1982). The seventh (youngest) daughter of a mother who is also the seventh daughter of her mother, becomes a drabarni (witch) (page 41). Now a witch, even if she has never done anything harmful to anyone, has a bad reputation and rarely gets married. Her reputation is bad because she manipulates forces that do not belong among the powers of humans; they belong only to God. Then why does God permit a girl to be born as the seventh daughter of the seventh daughter and thus become – against her will – a drabarni? That is fate. It is an enigma. It is a "problème bien mystérieux" ("a very mysterious problem") – and man is too limited to understand it. And so, in the novel "La Septième fille", Silenka reveals herself in her earliest childhood as a being with "magic powers". The old drabarni, Dharani, chose her to abet her with her powers, apart from other reasons, because a witch cannot die without passing her knowledge on to another woman who masters all of her magical powers. In opposition to Dharani stands her lifelong "philosophical" adversary, Voso. He is a modern man, a humanist who, with an all-embracing overview, accepts even Gadže into his circle of honour and love. And despite this, Voso, the hero with whom the "modern" reader sympathises – and with whom even the author sympathises - loses in his fight with the drabarni – not with the concrete Dharani, but with the force possessed by every witch. Dharani dies at the end of the novel. The father of little Silenka holds his daughter in his arms in the hope that now she is finally saved from the witch. With relief he says of Dharani: " This is the death of the old witch." And Voso answers, having in mind the four-year-old Silenka: "And the birth of another." This is the last line of the novel, thus, the credo.

It is interesting and fantastic that the "birth of a new witch" occurs during the war on the grounds of an internment camp, where Roma were imprisoned. The story is penetrated with a description of the wretched situation: hunger, cold, fear, desperate struggles to survive. Silenka's terror of Dharani, who continually leaves the child to wander around somewhere, get lost and disappear so that Dharani can pass her science on to her in a secluded place is worse than the fear of the reality of war.

Matéo Maximoff very unobtrusively inserts into the plot of his novels information about the ancient cultural customs of the Roma: how they sit (on crossed legs); how the women cook (the first plate of food is offered to someone in the community outside of the closest family); how a wife must behave toward her husband and a husband toward his wife, and more and more important details in which romipen (Roma identity) are expressed. Matéo Maximoff presents the culture of his nation in a programmed way. In the foreword to the novel "La Septième fille", he says,

" When you hear the word "Gypsy", there immediately comes to your mind an image of "freedom", song, dance, magic. Films have popularised scenes in which a sensuous Gypsy girl dances barefoot around a fire and attracts men by provocatively showing off her partially revealed breasts. Meanwhile, no non-Gypsy or Gypsy could ever see a scene like that anywhere for one simple reason: no Roma girl dances barefoot around a fire with half-bared breasts. Those who write such things know absolutely nothing about Roma laws. If a young girl dared to show her naked legs or naked arms or reveal her breasts, she would immediately be called a whore and sometimes be whipped or excommunicated."

Despite Matéo Maximoff's description of what one could call "ethnographic" Roma (Kalderaš ) customs, they are always inconspicuously wedged into the plot and do not disturb the action. Without the reader's being rationally aware, information about Roma and their lives, culture, beliefs - their čačo čačipen – real, true, authentic reality – penetrates his thoughts and heart.

In the book of horror stories about dead spectres, "La Poupée de Mameliga" – subtitled "Le Livre de la peur" ("The Book of Fear") – the author solves his need to inform about details of Roma culture with extensive notes after each tale.

People are usually curious about the private life of famous personalities. What can we say about Matéo Maximoff? In an interview (1997), apart from what has already been said, we did not learn much more. Matéo had four wives. His first marriage was dissolved during the war. There was a son from that marriage. In 1997, the son was 61 years old and he provided Grandpa Matéo with five grandchildren. The second wife, who was of a Sinti family, died soon after the war. Matéo did not speak about the other two. For many years he lived alone very modestly in a little flat in Romainville, a suburb of Paris. His daughter or granddaughters cleaned and sometimes cooked for him. He often ate in the nearby restaurant of his Algerian friend. Maximoff had the restaurant decorated with photographs of Roma and photos of his own life, the Roma flag, which he had crocheted himself; posters of Roma events, and mainly photos of his pastoral activity.

We have left to the end his pastoral activity – something that Matéo Maximoff considered immeasurably important in his life.

In the foreword to the novel "La Septième fille", the author writes: " …My people are freer than before. Despite that, there are many barriers before us. I have also thought of the fact that people can really free themselves only through their culture and through their religion… God wanted me to turn to Him and I became an Evangelical pastor. I have been one since 1961. Since then, I have changed a great deal. I no longer have the same opinions as I did before. Fortunately."

Matéo Maximoff spoke to gatherings of Roma and tried to imbue his audience with the ethic of love and brotherhood going beyond the Roma-Gadžo frontier. The literary work that expresses his turn to the Christian faith is his translation of the entire New Testament into Kalderaš Romani. Matéo Maximoff also began to translate the Old Testament, but his illness and death prevented him from completing the work.

We would not be answerable for this portrait of Matéo Maximoff if we avoided one striking contradiction: how did he reconcile his Christian faith and pastoral activity with his evident tendency to believe in the existence of mamiori, drabarni, mulo and other forces that Christianity does not recognise?

Matéo Maximoff writes about this in a footnote to his story, "La Poupée de Mameliga", from his eponymous collection of terrifying tales:

"The story of the dead man who visits his wife is very frequent in our culture. (The same is true among the so-called Servika-Roma of Slovakia. Note MH). It exists in dozens of versions. Sometimes they even tell that a widow is impregnated by her late husband, but her child does not live long. This story (the story of Mameliga, see above. Note MH) has been tenaciously preserved in our literature and for a long while it was believed that it really happened. In the last half-century it has been falling into oblivion, mainly since Roma became Christians and joined the Gypsy Evangelical movement. I myself hesitated for a long time whether to tell these chilling stories because I am a pastor of the Evangelical Gypsy Mission. But I think it would be a pity to lose the rich folklore of our race. Therefore, read these stories as mere testimony without trying to find out if they are true or not. I have heard them told hundreds of times and I can assure you that they absolutely do not come from my head and my fantasy. They continually rocked me to sleep and at the same time terrified my youth. Besides, I believe that not all of it is fictitious. I myself have certain experience with the devil (beng), sorcery (čohano) and spirits of the dead (mulo, sing.). I have been witness to strange phenomena that I still today cannot manage to explain. But I know… that I am in God's hands and that God destroys the work of Satan, as it is written in the Bible…"

It is said, Šaj tuke vakeren jekh gono lava, savo hino o thud - aže džikim les na pijčal tu, na džaneha, savo hino (literally: "They can suggest to you a bag of words about what milk is like – but, until you have tasted it yourself, you will never know.") And thus it is with the works of Matéo Maximoff – and, besides, of every author: until the reader has read them himself, he will not recognise their taste nor even understand the author himself. It is only a question of making the works of one of the first and most important Roma authors available, from the linguistic point of view, to readers all over the world. Let the question of the language in which Matéo Maximoff wrote the overwhelming majority of his works be a postscript to this discussion.

Although the Roma writer told us in our "Parisian" interview (1997) that the language closest to him was Romani, he wrote all of his works, apart from a few of his mostly unpublished stories, in French.

If he had started to write ten or fifteen years ago, perhaps he would have written only in the Kalderaš dialect of Romani into which he translated the New Testament. In recent times, thanks to the growing international Roma emancipation movement [Emancipatory activities on an international level], books by Roma authors in the Roma language have been published in many European countries, and this understandably has been encouraging more and more authors to write in their ethnic languages. At the time Matéo Maximoff wrote his first novel – for the purpose of his defense conducted by his French lawyer – the publication of Romani books was unimaginable. A few translations from the Bible, a few works of literature in Romani published for a short time in the Soviet Union, and samples of folklore collected by non-Roma specialists came into exclusive informational circles that were too narrow to become inspirations for Roma writers to express themselves in Romani. It is high time that the noteworthy, great works of art of the Roma writer Matéo Maximoff be translated from French, not only into other European Gadžo languages, but also into Romani.

His works would certainly merit this, and so would the Roma language, which would undoubtedly be enriched by such translations.


Brabant, Eva (1999) Entretien avec Matéo Maximoff. In: Etudes Tsiganes 13, pp. 180-185.
Guerdavid, Anne de Mes Rencontres avec Matéo Maximoff (manuscript).
Hancock, Ian F. (2001) Země utrpení. Dějiny otroctví a pronásledování Romů, Praha.
Kenrick, Donald S. / Puxon, Grattan (1972) The Destiny of Europe's Gypsies. London.
Maximoff, Mateo (1954) Die Ursitory. Zigeunerroman, Zürich.


Romane lila. http://www-gewi.uni-graz.[...]/romani/lila/index.en.htm.
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Matéo Maximoff (1917-1999)