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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
Explanation separates us from astonishment, which is the only gateway to the incomprehensible.
The world is full of people who have never, since childhood, met an open doorway with an open mind. (E. B. White)
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)
Look on every exit as being the entrance to somewhere else. (Tom Stoppard)
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…’