End of a regime – Patrick McGuinness: The Last Hundred Days

I was waxing nostalgically about the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall and the end of Communism, and someone suggested this book by Patrick McGuiness. I’d somehow never heard of it before (perhaps because I was moving to France when it was published in 2011 and missed the fact that it was longlisted for the Booker Prize). Naturally, I was intrigued to see how an outsider would bear witness to such a tumultuous period in my country’s history (as well as my personal history). It was a quick read and brought up many memories (both good and bad), but I have very mixed feelings about it.

We have to bear in mind that it is a novel rather than a memoir, so of course the dramatic incidents have been heightened to make things more exciting. For anyone familiar with the Romanian personalities of the time, certain names and anecdotes will resonate. Some have got paper-thin disguises: the shameless opportunistic poet Adrian Paunescu becomes Adrian Palinescu, the first post-1989 president Ion Iliescu becomes Ilinescu. There are other characters who seem to be modelled on historical figures: Sergiu Trofim the sly old fox and manipulator is a perfect shoo-in for the real-life Silviu Brucan; the slippery Manea Constantin with his endless capacity to walk across borders and his secret links to both domestic and international espionage is probably based on the first post-revolutionary Romanian Secret Services Virgil Măgureanu (who had a celebrity daughter, although she looks nothing like the Cilea character in the book).

Most English-speaking readers, however, will be more interested in the storyline rather than in spotting historical figures. The plot is probably semi-autobiographical sprinkled with a lot of wishful thinking: a callow English student eager to get away from his home and memories of his family tumbles almost accidentally into a teaching position at the University of Bucharest in spring 1989, although he hasn’t quite graduated yet. He stares wide-eyed at the topsy-turvy world and the greedy, selfish but also desperate people he encounters, but then stretches the limits of our disbelief by positioning himself at the heart of a tangled web of black marketeering, people smuggling, dissidents and secret police posing as dissidents, party faithfuls and their families.

Suddenly, we are expected to believe that this rather uninteresting young man (with a colour-by-numbers back story) moves suavely among the many complicated layers of a paranoid regime in its death throes, a society he doesn’t really understand and in a language he doesn’t speak at all. The very Westernised and Cilea Constantin, the enigmatic daughter of a party bigshot, has an on/off affair with him. I might just about buy that, because maybe someone with her privileged upbringing felt herself to be above the laws of the country, although the descriptions of her dark, tanned skin and ‘her mix of carnality and untouchability’ smacks of Orientalism to me. But when another Romanian female doctor moves in with our young lad later on, and when you read that his profiteering British colleague and mentor Leo also has a Romanian girlfriend living in his flat, although neither of them are much to look at, you start to see it as a far too common male fantasy. All women throw themselves at you, the powerful Western saviour, when you are visiting countries that you consider poor and less developed.

I’m not denying that there were both men and women desperate to leave Romania at the time, and who might have got entangled with foreigners hoping that they would be swept off their feet and safely deposited in a Western democracy. However, unless you were working for the Securitate (secret police), relationships with foreigners were not only discouraged but punishable with imprisonment. Of course, humans being humans, these relationships did happen, but in secret. One of the reasons the Romanian orphanages were full of racially mixed children is because they were an obvious proof of having done something illegal. I don’t think anyone would have sacrificed their future for a 21 year old loser, who describes himself as:

… I was a passer-by; or, more exactly, a passer-through. Things happened around me, over me, even across me, but never to me. Even when I was there, in the thick of it, during those last hundred days.

It is this breezy ‘passing-through’ mentality that bothered me as I read the book, although he is perhaps not even the worst offender in its pages. The diplomatic personnel he describes seem to care even less about the common Romanian people than he does, they are merely eager to report back about any unrest and get their OBE. Yet I have to admit that the author’s descriptions, the incidents and the characters he encounters, seem to dial up the horror, but not actually get beyond the facade. His colleague Leo, who has been able to negotiate any loopholes in the system, claims to have found happiness there:

It’s all here, passion, intimacy, human fellowship. You just need to adapt to the circumstances… it’s a bit of a grey area to be honest.

But we never really get to see that passion, to see any of the good bits or the moments of happiness that Romanians managed to create amidst the sea of repression. [Incidentally, this is the aspect of their lives that East Germans tried and tried to explain to their Western brothers. To no avail.] Most of the scenes he describes feel more like hearsay, as if he has been collecting other people’s stories. It takes an awfully long time to get to the actual uprising in December 1989 and when it does come, what could have potentially been the most interesting aspect of the book is hastily dispatched in just a few pages. Perhaps because the narrator watched Ceausescu’s fatal speech on the 22nd of December on TV rather than in person, and stayed well away from the streets during the protest that followed, finally fleeing to Yugoslavia.

This is how I remember that day, photo credit Agerpres.

The book is at its best when we hear less about the expat and more about the Romanians he has conversations with. I suspect the author had some leftist sympathies himself, and although he saw the horrors of a full-blown socialist republic, he also questions capitalist aspirations. Below is a young musician, Petre, talking; he still has some faith in Communism, although not with the way it is implemented:

‘I have known freedom in my life. I live in a place that is not free, but I have made freedoms that have gone deep. Short freedoms, only moments here and there, but freedom… The mistake you make in the West is to think we are just victims, bowed heads… to think that we do not keep safe a part of our lives in which to be normal and happy… I know how you look at us because we are not free the way you are. But what are you free for? To buy things? To choose twenty different models of camera? To give your children six different brands of cereal for breakfast… Is that why my friends are leaving the country, risking their lives to cross borders to live in places where they can make a big choice about eating Cheerios or Coco Pops in the mornings?’

Aside from the fact that no one in Romania at the time could even believe that people ate nothing but cereal and milk for breakfast, let alone would have heard of specific brands of cereal, this passage and other similar ones sound like transcripts of interviews. I almost wish that McGuinness had given us more eyewitness accounts and memoir, like Svetlana Alexievich, instead of a half-hearted attempt to create a Mafia-like plot line which doesn’t satisfy either lovers of historical fiction or crime fiction aficionados.

Not quite sure who filmed this, probably undercover policemen, but there is a brief film of that day, with the university building in the background.

And I won’t even mention the small geographical discrepancies when the narrator seems to teleport from the town centre to a street 30 minutes away by simply turning a corner. I don’t want to be that pedantic friend! Yet, in spite of its flaws and exaggerations, I did enjoy parts of the book. If it takes an ‘Anglo’ to cast a bit of a light on my home country and its recent history, I’ll take it!

I’ll end with a quote that should give pause for thought to us here in the UK as we prepare for the election:

‘Ioana, it’s just some harmless crap poetry… only Nic and Elena believe that stuff… Most people just want to get along and reach the day’s end unscathed, not weigh up the moral rightness of everything they do and say…’

‘It’s the lies,’ Ioana said, more despondent than angry, ‘all the lies. They eat away at you until you believe nothing, you feel nothing. That’s what I’m saying – if everyone believed it, they’d be idiots, but they’d actually be believing. The part of themselves that believed would be there still, still getting used,but not dying away like this, dying into irony and cynicism.’

#EU27Project: Bulgaria

Although Bulgaria is Romania’s southern neighbour, and although one of my best friends at primary school was Katya, a Bulgarian, I know next to nothing about the literature of this country. So I rather randomly picked Georgi Tenev’s novel Party Headquarters, transl. Angela Rodel. Partly because it was the Winner of the 2015 Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest, but mostly because it was easily available to order online.

I read it back in February or March and have very nearly forgotten what it was about and what I thought of it. The plot is not the most important thing here, which is just as well, since I found it quite difficult to follow: it skips between the present-day, soon days following the fall of Communism and the summer of the Chernobyl disaster. The narrator is a man who has been tasked by his dying father-in-law, a former high-ranking Communist Party official known as K-shev, to transport a suitcase containing one and a half million euros. Many ex-Communists were suspected of squirrelling their ill-gotten wealth abroad so as to start new lives after regime collapse in their countries. The narrator hated his father-in-law and remembers all of the key moments that cemented that hatred, while wandering around Hamburg, cavorting with prostitutes and generally being a bit at a loss.

Disjointed and disturbing, just like its narrator, the novel is perhaps designed to show the lingering after-effects of a dictatorship, that keeps people in mental prisons long after they are nominally set free. But it does so in such a convoluted way, combining the sexual excesses of Philip Roth with the pretentiousness of David Foster Wallace, that I soon lost interest.

But I do remember sighing as I put it away and saying to myself: ‘Why do all the books that get translated from the former East Bloc have to be such hard going?’ After reading the books for Slovakia, Estonia, Slovenia, Latvia for my #EU27Project, I can’t help feeling that publishers of English translations from these countries have certain expectations, because they all share certain characteristics: experimental prose, anti-chronological narrative, grim subject matter about repression and dictatorship or war, very earnest and ‘worthy’ literary works.

Yet each of these countries has no doubt got a huge variety of literature, covering all genres, all tastes. I recently mentioned Lavina Braniste, who gives us a very Romanian Bridget Jones. Estonian author Indrek Hargla has a fantastic crime series set in medieval Talinn, but only one has been translated into English (and rather sloppily at that). Bulgarian short story writer Deyan Enev has been compared to Lydia Davis for his lyrical, almost flash-fiction short pieces, but there are others who have yet to be translated. It’s a shame that we only get a very one-sided view of literature from these countries.

Why It’s Painful to Watch The Handmaid’s Tale

Watching the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is proving to be a very traumatic experience for me, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to watch it to the end. Let me share a little bit of the reason why, although it is far bigger than the examples I mention below.

It’s not surprising that when the book was published in 1985, it was banned in Romania. This, despite the fact that it was set in America (we liked showing the corruption and failure of capitalist society) and  showed the pitfalls of a society heavily influenced by religion (religion is the opium of the people and us Communists were proudly atheist).

Scene from the recent TV adaptation on Hulu.

It’s obvious, however, that the Republic of Gilead symbolises any totalitarian state which imposes a single way of thinking, is harsh with anyone who dares to be different and brutally suppresses any form of dissent. Above all, it provided a striking parallel to Romania itself, that ‘paradise’ where everybody knew their place and worked for the greater good, and enjoyed the illusory safety of law and order (never mind how it was achieved). It was also one of the few countries of the world at the time where the state controlled women’s reproduction. The reason behind it was to produce enough citizens to lead the socialist revolution and build our glorious communist future.

I was a product of the law, one of the so-called ‘decreței’ (children born following Decree 770 introduced in 1967), banning any form of contraception and abortion. My mother suffered from heart disease and the doctors were not sure it was wise for her to have a child. She had me, but her health deteriorated sufficiently after that, that she was allowed to get away without having any more children. Other women were not so fortunate. There were only a few cases where you might be exempt from the rule:

  • if you were over the age of 45
  • if you already had 4 children (later raised to five)
  • if you had a life-threatening disease and would be unable to bear to term
  • if your pregnancy was the result of rape or incest (but see below about pregnancy tests for 14 year olds)

Contraceptives were not available at all and any doctors or nurses found giving them out (let alone performing abortions) were imprisoned.

Families continued to attempt to obtain black market contraceptives from abroad (there would be day trips to special markets for these in Yugoslavia), but many of them had expired or had potential side-effects, since they were given without any medical supervision. Plus you were always in danger of getting caught smuggling them in. Many women died or were permanently damaged having illegal abortions.

Stadium celebrations for national day under Ceausescu.

It was worse, of course, for those who could not afford children or smuggled contraceptives, since your extra bonus from the state for being a ‘heroine mother’ (additional benefits) only kicked in once you had eight or more children. Many women tried to disguise the pregnancies for as long as possible, wearing tight corsets or drinking strange concoctions to provoke a miscarriage. As a result, there was a high proportion of children born with malformations, health problems, general failure to thrive. Most of them ended up in orphanages, as did the children of women who had illicit affairs with foreign students (any physical contact with foreigners was punishable with imprisonment), especially when it was obvious that the child was mixed race.

From the age of 14 until 45, all women were required to go twice a year to have a gynaecological test. In fact, if you went to the doctor with any other ailment, you were sent to have a check for pregnancy anyway. Of course, if you were pregnant, you were then strictly monitored to make sure that you carried to term. If you suffered a natural miscarriage, you could be taken to court and had to prove your innocence.

Head down, blinkers on, pretend not to see a thing…

So that is the general picture. We all knew someone who had suffered from this law. A family friend who was a nurse was constantly persecuted and questioned, although she had only once referred a woman who fitted the legal criteria for an abortion. The wife of another friend, who was a talented professional singer, died following an infection after an illegal abortion and left behind two young children. (The reason I mention her profession is because there was the mistaken belief that only the poor were subjected to these harsh conditions, but it affected everyone.) Two of my classmates were forced to marry in the final year of high school when she could no longer disguise her pregnancy, but their child was born with severe birth defects and died less than a year later. Their marriage only lasted two years.

So there was suffering by proxy and also the direct experience. I was 14 when I returned to Romania and had barely ever kissed a boy, let alone had sex. Yet there I was, obliged to go through the rough handling by (always male, as far as I can remember) doctors. I will never forget my first time there, which marked the end of any trusting relationship with my mother.

Pioneers and Falcons, the glorious future of the Socialist Republic of Romania, archive image from latrecut.ro

I had scoliosis, but before I could get a referral for physiotherapy, I had to undergo the obligatory gyno-examination. A whole generation of doctors had not used contraceptives for 20 years, so they were very ignorant about anything to do with birth control or even developments in female sanitary products. Sanitary pads and tampons were not available in Romania until after the fall of the Wall, so the brash middle-aged gynaecologist had no idea that I was using Tampax or what effect it might have on the female anatomy. Of course, he didn’t bother to ask any questions, although I was so young.

So, after much prodding and shaking of the head, he turned and said to my mother: ‘So… she’s been a bit of a naughty girl, hasn’t she? No longer a virgin, I can see…’

The most painful part about this is that, despite all my protests, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, my mother (who has an almost grovelling belief in the infallible god-like nature of doctors) believed him and lost faith in me that very day. Everything that followed, all the policing and monitoring, shaming and punishing, reading of diaries and interference in my private life even after I left home has come about as a direct consequence of that day.

It’s very difficult for me to talk about these things, even though I believe we should never forget the mistakes of the past if we want to build a more humane future. Alas, I don’t think I have many illusions left that personal stories give us an insight or change people’s minds. Even celebrity stories are just there for titillation and tut-tutting.

But fiction can. Especially when it is well-written. If the book and the TV series The Handmaid’s Tale can alert those who have not lived through this trauma to fight against such extremism, they will have done their job. Even if I cannot watch it to the end.

I’ve just been made aware there is a documentary about abortion policy in Romania, directed by Florin Iepan. 

http://abortionfilms.org/en/show/3487/das-experiment-770-gebaren-auf-befehl/

 

 

Friday Fun: Gates, Walls and Freedom

I’ve always been fascinated by doorways and gates, especially if someone is trying to close them in front of me. I cannot resist peering in and imagining what lies beyond.

In this period of celebration of 25 years since the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of Communist regimes in most of the East Bloc countries, events which marked me profoundly and changed the course of my life, I do wonder if the landscape we espied beyond those walls quite lived up to our euphoric expectations. Or if it ever could.

But I do know that I am forever grateful that we could open those gates and discover for ourselves.

 

The world is all gates, all opportunities, strings of tension waiting to be struck. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

From Blessedwildapplegirl.com
From Blessedwildapplegirl.com

Explanation separates us from astonishment, which is the only gateway to the incomprehensible.
(Eugene Ionesco)

David Freedman sculpture gate.
David Freedman sculpture gate.

The world is full of people who have never, since childhood, met an open doorway with an open mind. (E. B. White)

From English Spirit.
From English Spirit.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion. (Albert Camus)

Architecture Art Design.
Architecture Art Design.

Look on every exit as being the entrance to somewhere else. (Tom Stoppard)

Leith Hall Gardens, from their website.
Leith Hall Gardens, from their website.

We are afraid of the enormity of the possible. (Emil Cioran)

This is dedicated to East Berliner journalist Thomas Otto, whom I met in late October 1989, and who had the first open and honest political discussion with me. ‘All you need is more choice…’

Photo from 1989, used by Prof. Sonja Kuftinec.
Photo from 1989, used by Prof. Sonja Kuftinec, Institute of Advanced Study, Univ. of Minnesota