After a few months of geographical reading, which I hugely enjoyed and which I intend to continue in 2020, I am having a ‘free-form jazz’ December. I will read whatever I please whenever I please, no plans, no judgements, perhaps no reviews?
I’ve started with Shirley Jackon’s Raising Demons, because I instantly thought of her when I finished the Euridice Gusmao book – the talented woman beset by domestic drama scenario. I will also finish Austrian writer Gerhard Jäger’s All die Nacht über uns (The Night All Around Us). I started it last week for German Literature Month but have only reached page 66 so far (I love it, but it’s a book to be savoured slowly and besides, I had a very full weekend). The only other book that I have lying on my bedside table and fully expect to pick up this month is The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuiness, because it will be 30 years this month since my generation (predominantly) brought down the Communist regime in Romania. As a side note, there’s a conference on this topic in Bucharest on the 21st of December that I’ve been invited to attend, but it’s too much of a logistical challenge. I’ll try to send a filmed contribution instead with the title: Thirty Years On: Illusory Revolutions?
Meanwhile, it’s only two weeks and a bit to go until I will be back in my beloved Genevois area, hunkering down to a lot of reading and writing, eating chocolates and fondue, and meeting some lovely old friends. I will probably buy some more books (on the French side of the border), so am travelling light on my way there, with just my Kindle, which contains a lot of goodies. For example, Will Dean’s Red Snow and Friederike Schmöe’s Drauß’ vom Walde – two crime thrillers set in snowy landscapes (Sweden and Germany respectively). I also have new books (even if they are not that new, but I simply haven’t got around to reading them yet) by authors whose career I like to follow, such as Lily King, Jenny Offill, Attica Locke, Deborah Levy, Valeria Luiselli, Yoko Ogawa… so plenty to keep me busy.
In terms of blogging, well I can’t let the end of the decade go by without at least attempting some personal literary (and perhaps film or theatre) highlights, so expect a few blog posts with ‘best of’ in their title. It’s been quite possibly the worst decade in my life, but even so there have been many happy moments and achievements. Happiness has been skiing, living in mountain country for a while and finally getting a cat, the perfect cat. And my main two achievements have been: returning to writing (after more than a decade in the wilderness) and even having some small things published here and there; and raising two intelligent, opinionated, occasionally lovable scamps.
Last year we had a magical holiday in Romania. This year the holidays were much shorter, we stayed mainly in Bucharest and I didn’t expect any magic (and, indeed, none was forthcoming).
My parents are getting old and frail, so they wanted to talk mainly about what to do in case of ill health, emergencies or if one of them should die. I also tend to forget just how difficult it is to live in the same house as my mother until I am confronted with it on a daily basis. Last but not least, Bucharest is as chaotic, busy and polluted as most capital cities, plus a generous extra portion! So it was not the most restful of holidays.
However, there were some good bits, most of which I tweeted about while we were there.
I was discussing with my boys why Bucharest can feel like a shock to the system to those who live in other capital cities. It has all the traffic jams, lack of parking, crowded places, noise and building sites that we also associate with Paris and London. But, unlike those two cities, wealth and poverty jostle here more openly side by side. You can live in your protected bubble in the 6th and 7th Arrondissements in Paris, or in Chelsea and Hampstead in London, without ever coming across the less salubrious examples of daily life. That is simply not possible in Bucharest. You come out of the most extravagant restaurant and end up in a back street with crumbling old buildings. You drive your fancy Lamborghini through terrible potholes. On public transport you see fine ladies with expensive haircuts and camelhair coats as well as bow-legged peasant women with knotted scarves covering their hair – and both of them might be making the sign of the cross whenever the tram passes by a church.
If you are a foreign tourist with a bit of money, you can have a great time in Bucharest. For me, it will always be a city where pain and joy, anger and nostalgia blend. I can never ignore the dirt or inequality or those who have been left behind. I cannot unsee the price of foreign investment: people of my generation and younger who are being eaten alive by the Western corporations, a form of indentured labour for the present-day. The city will never be relaxing because there are too many threads binding me to it and never enough time to meet and greet all the people that I want to see – or that my family feel that I should see.
If you know the Cavafy poem ‘The City’, you will understand how I feel about this fascinating, infuriating, sleazy, beautiful, ugly city.
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighbourhoods, tunr grey in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
(transl. Keeley and Sherrard)
My dream of trawling through bookshops and cafés remained just that: a dream. Nevertheless, I did experience two nice restaurants while meeting up with people and one café for breakfast. I only entered three bookshops (two of them quite small), but somehow managed to return with a massive pile of books. More about that in my next post!
Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I was not aware of this novel by Mihail Sebastian (if I thought about it at all, I thought it was an essay). It is actually somewhat uncharacteristic: most of his other works, which I loved and poured over, were romantic, idealistic, more about the artist’s place in society, avoiding loneliness, finding love. All the things guaranteed to appeal to a teenager. But they weren’t sickly sweet like Ionel Teodoreanu (alas, yes, I have to admit it now, although I loved him at the time too) or Cella Serghi. There was always an element of sharp psychological observation and a few hints of social critique (especially in the plays).
In For Two Thousand Years, the love story plays an entirely secondary role to what is predominantly social critique. The plot hardly qualifies as a plot: it describes key moments in the biography of a young Jewish architect in Romania from 1922 to about 1932, with references to his friends and acquaintances, and how they react during periods of virulent anti-semitism and more relaxed, tolerant periods.
The first few chapters are like diary entries (very similar in fact to Sebastian’s later diary, written in the run-up to the Second World War), so readers may feel somewhat discombobulated as the narrator talks about things that would have been obvious to those living in Romania at that time, but are not widely known nowadays. Anti-semitism was alive and well in Romania at the time (something they had in common with many European countries) and the first constitution of Romania (after the unification of Wallachia and Moldova) in 1866 stated quite bluntly that only Christians could be considered Romanians. The Versailles Treaty in 1918 (which led to Romania’s unification with Transylvania) had a special clause about granting equal political rights to all ethnic groups, but this was often taken to mean the Hungarians and Germans living in Transylvania rather than the Jewish population who was scattered all over the country. In 1922 a numerus clausus was introduced at universities, limiting the number of students from a particular ethnic group (guess which one?) and there were student riots and aggressions against Jewish students.
The narrator not only witnesses all of this, but also has discussions about the Jewish soul and Zionism with both Romanian and Jewish friends. In a sense, he is forced to discover his Jewish roots, which he hadn’t thought much about hitherto. His own family history shows him that there is no such thing as the ‘Jewish archetype’. His father’s side of the family were strong hulks, workers in the port town of Braila, while his mother’s side from North Bucovina contained sickly intellectuals, but neither were particularly urban or rich.
He has always spoken Romanian and is not sure how he feels about Yiddish or Hebrew, until he meets the elderly book collector Abraham Sulitzer, who has Cervantes, Moliere, Shakespeare and modern authors all translated into Yiddish. Abraham berates the narrator for not appreciating this language:
Jargon! Broken German! Ghetto dialect! That’s what Yiddish is to you. If I tell you, though, that it’s a language neither beautiful nor ugly, but a living language, a language that people have suffered in, sang in, expressed their thoughts and fears in for hundreds of years, you’d stare at me open-mouthed… It’s a living language, with its own nervous system, its veins, its joys and sorrows, with its homeland in the ghetto…
As a student, the narrator is dazzled by one of his professors, Ghita Blidaru (a thinly disguised Nae Ionescu, who wrote that horrible preface). Blidaru is an idealist, all about the cultural heritage of the Romanians, the superiority of the rural traditions, where the true, pure soul of the Romanians lie, harking back to an imagined glorious past. For a while, the narrator buys into his theories, but there are strong hints of his teacher’s thoughtlessness and indifference to those who are different to himself. The narrator’s surprise and disillusionment as he discovers the indifference and apathy of his friends to the plight of minorities, as they tell him that they don’t mean him of course when they launch into anti-semitic speeches, will sound very familiar to those living in Brexit Britain.
So will the desire to protest against the government, to make sure your voice gets heard, even if that is done in a truly destructive and hate-filled way. His friend Stefan Parlea, for instance (likely to be a portrait of his real-life friend at the time, Mircea Eliade, although Sebastian took care to deny that any of the characters in the book were drawn from real life etc.) justifies aggressions of the right-wing Iron Guard against Jewish shops (way before Kristallnacht) thus:
I don’t regret what happened. I regret how it ended: in indifference, forgotten… It’s great to smash windows. Any violent action is good. Of course, crying out ‘Down with the Jews!’ is idiotic, but what does it matter? You need to shake things up in this country. And if that means starting with the Jews, then so be it, it can’t be helped, but it will end with a major conflagration, an earthquake that will spare nothing. That was my ambition, that was my hope.
The narrator survives all this, although getting sadder and sadder in the process. He becomes an architect and works on a project funded by a wealthy American to extract petrol and build a large refinery in a village in the picturesque Valea Prahovei, which leads to the destruction of the natural beauty and traditional way of life, as symbolised by the plum trees that they had to cut down. The narrator cannot help but feel that this time he is not innocent, he is actively contributing to the destruction of a way of life, but not because of his ethnicity. Here he has conversations with another friend Mircea Vieru (most probably a fictionalised version of Sebastian’s great friend and fellow writer Camil Petrescu). This is where the tensions arise, between the rational Western Cartesian values (often associated with urbanism and economic development) and the more emotional Balkanic approach, equated here with rural traditions, being a proud peasant, returning to the ‘soil that made you’, thereby excluding the Jews, because they were never ‘created’ by this soil, but are doomed to be forever migrant.
Funnily enough, when the book was published, the author was hated equally by both the Romanian and the Jewish community. Clearly, for the Romanians, he was showing an aspect of their society that they were not comfortable admitting to, but why was he considered anti-semitic? Not only because of his association with Nae Ionescu, who denounces the whole book with his virulent preface, but because Sebastian is remarkably clear-eyed and unsentimental about the Jewish propensity to be almost complacent in their victimhood. Self-doubt and self-flagellation are very Jewish characteristics, and perhaps the persecution they have suffered over the centuries has added to their feeling that they are the ‘special, chosen’ nation. He is also sceptical about the Zionist movement, and he has characters discussing the pros and cons.
The author is almost thinking out loud (which explains why I thought this was an essay):
To be persecuted isn’t just a physical misfortune, but above all an intellectual one, because it deforms your thinking bit by bit… I never enjoyed being a martyr, although I do recognise a certain Jewish propensity in myself towards that… For a long time I couldn’t understand Parlea as the enemy territory, because of all the barbed wire separating us. It’s so easy and comforting to think of your adversaries as evil and stupid…
I could go on and on, there are so many juicy quotes, but instead of posting the whole book here (in my own translation), I would urge you to read it. It has been translated into English and published by Other Press in the US and Penguin Modern Classics in the UK. Don’t expect a conventional novel with a satisfying story arc, but do expect a disarmingly patient, honest, puzzled account of the rise of fascism. An inquiring mind that seeks to understand others, even when what they say is indefensible, as well as a scrupulously honest dissection of his own beliefs and blind spots.
For me, a complete revelation, adding to the portrait of the talented, dreamy, idealistic young man that I knew from his novels and plays. As a Romanian, I cannot help but be ashamed of the venom that Nae Ionescu spits at him (and compare it with some of the things I have heard lately being spouted about gays in the recent referendum about family and Orthodox values):
It is an assimilationist illusion, it is the illusion of so many Jews who sincerely believe that they are Romanian … Remember that you are Jewish! Are you Iosif Hechter, a human being from Brăila on the Danube? No, you are a Jew from Brăila on the Danube.
Don’t get me started about the tenuous connection between Transylvania and vampires! I suppose we have Bram Stoker to thank for tourism to this part of Romania, but there is no historical connection between Vlad Ţepeş and Dracula. According to the latest research, Stoker was inspired by a book written by a Scottish lady, Emily Gerard. She spent two years in the 1880s in Romania and wrote about the belief in strigoi, as we call them in Romanian. The belief was far stronger, however, in the rest of the Balkans (Greece, Albania, Serbia and Bulgaria), with outbreaks of mass hysteria in the 18th century and people being accused of vampirism, much the same as they were accused of witchcraft in Western Europe. When Bram Stoker heard about Vlad Dracul, the nickname of Vlad Ţepeş’s father, he could not resist using the name with its satanic connotations for his novel. And so a myth was born – and, even if it’s not really our myth, why should we turn down a good money-spinning venture?
There is a link to Transylvania in the person of Elizabeth Báthory, Hungarian noblewoman related to the Báthory family who ruled over Transylvania in the 16th century. She was allegedly the most prolific female serial killer and kidnapped, tortured, killed and dismembered predominantly young girls between the ages of 10 and 14.
While Elizabeth Báthory never lived in Transylvania, there are plenty of castle/fortresses in that part of the country that were in the hands of fierce and strong females, wives of Hungarian, German or Romanian noblemen whose husbands had gone off to war. Of course, they also had a small contingent of soldiers to defend them, but the women were the ones who took the lead in economic, political and social decisions in their community. One such place is the Fagaraş Citadel, about halfway between Braşov and Sibiu, and this is where we stopped on our road trip.
Făgăraș was built over a wooden fortress razed to the ground by the Tatars; most of the building dates from the 14th-15th centuries, but was added to until the early 17th century. It was built on marshland, surrounded by a moat, which made any approaches by horse or heavy cannons virtually impossible; thus, the fortress was under siege many times but never conquered. It was initially a military fortress, but also became the seat of the local lord and his wife, so you can visit their restored chambers and view collections of old furniture, glass, local costumes and other traditional treasures.
It has also been used as a prison in the past – and there is a rather stark scaffold for hanging in the courtyard and some torture instruments in the basement, which I did not take pictures of. The fortress has a sad history even in modern times: from 1948-1960 it was a prison for those who protested against the Communist regime. There was a small but fascinating exhibition there about the mothers, wives and sisters of the resistance fighters from the Făgăraș mountain area.
The road to Sibiu runs parallel to the Carpathians, although sadly it was not the clearest day to admire the views and acres of mountains. Those mountains feature in my novel set in Romania, and a fatal accident takes place there. (I feel much more inspired to edit the novel now after my trip to Romania, by the way.)
We have visited Sibiu many times, as my younger son’s godparents live there. They have two boys of very similar age and are almost a microcosm of traditional Romanian culture: he is of Hungarian extraction, she is Romanian, but they both speak German and met while studying in Germany (which is where I too met them). So their children are trilingual and have grown up in a home free of prejudice or biased interpretations of history.
By way of comparison, here is a picture of three of the same boys a few years back. It is delightful for us to see the friendship extending to the next generation as well!
One side note: In the past, the only language my boys and their boys had in common was Romanian, so it was lovely to hear them chatter. Sadly, this year it became clear that the Sibiu boys’ English has become better than my boys’ Romanian, so they mainly spoke in English. Still, we all spoke Romanian at the table, and my sons understood everything and by the end of the trip, their tongues began to loosen a little. I have to make more of an effort to speak to them in Romanian consistently at home, a habit I lost while we were in France (when I was concerned about keeping up their English).
When I was young, I always wanted to go to the seaside on holiday in Romania and couldn’t understand why we had to follow the national tradition of a week at the seaside followed by a week in the mountains. Nowadays, however, I much prefer the mountains (at least in my home country – for beaches are pretty similar everywhere in Europe).
The first part of our road trip was heading north out of Bucharest up the picturesque Prahova Valley (particularly colourful at this time of year) to Braşov. We only stopped for lunch because both the cable car at Buşteni and the Peleş Palace in Sinaia were closed on a Tuesday, but if you ever go that way, you should stop and check out both. (By the way, the s with cedilla is pronounced ‘sh’).
We stayed a few days in Braşov, also known as Kronstadt in German, because its symbol is of a crown on an oak tree. Not to be confused with the Russian Kronstadt near St Petersburg, it was a bustling medieval and Renaissance town of craftsmen and merchants, where German, Hungarian and Romanian ethnicities lived together in something resembling harmony.
While it does not have the grand architecture of Sibiu (which is where the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy lived), it is still full of beautiful old buildings, some of them more renovated than others.
It is also home to one of the narrowest streets in Europe, appropriately known as ‘Rope Street’. Each window looking out onto the street has been decorated by a different artist.
I have a soft spot for Braşov, though, and not just because it has been the scene of many an escapade during my high school and university years (it is only 2 hours from Bucharest, so we went skiing or hiking nearly every other weekend). It is also surrounded by mountains, so in just a few minutes you can be in the forest and feel that you have left all the urban hustle and bustle behind you.
The weather was not as kind to us here as it was throughout the rest of our trip. It only rained a little bit, but there was cloud cover, which meant we didn’t get the best views of or from the mountains. And it was very cold for two days, with some snowfall, especially up in the ski resort Poiana Braşov, where I learnt to ski again as a grown-up after a ski accident in my childhood put an end to winter sports for me, as far as my parents were concerned.
But it was the interplay of nature and architecture, as well as the friendly cats, which made us love Braşov.
This is getting too long, so I will have to tell you about the next stage of our journey in a separate blog post. I had some hard choices to make about which route to take to Sibiu, where my younger son’s godparents live. I was initially planning to go via Sighişoara, which is the most beautiful medieval towns in Romania, but a bit farther away. In the end, time and other circumstances made us opt for another route. But, as you will see, we discovered a lesser-known treasure there as well.
If you go there, try their Bulz (a sort of polenta and cheese mix rolled up into a ball) and their Papanaşi – enormous doughnuts traditionally served as a pair with blueberry jam and cream. Extremely filling – I can’t believe I used to be able to tackle those as a dessert. I now could barely finish one as a main course!
For those of you not interested in Romania or holiday pictures, look away now, as the following few posts will be all about my holiday there. I’ve had a fraught love-hate relationship with my home country all my life (more about the whys in a later post), but this time almost everything clicked to make it a magical experience. Two days of cold and snow (up in the mountains), but the rest of the time we had temperatures in the mid-20s, blue skies and ravishing autumn colours.
I’ll start with the place we stayed in last, as it was the most memorable. Lost in the fertile and beautiful landscapes of the sub-Carpathians in the centre-west of Romania, Pensiunea Dacica was like a place in fairy tale. We had to follow nearly 5 km of unpaved, narrow road alongside a stream, going deeper and deeper into the forest as night was falling. At first I thought the wolves would come to get us (we still have bears, wolves, wolverines, lynx and the like in our mountains), but when we arrived, we found all mod cons awaiting us: running water, heating, electricity, comfortable rooms, good food, lots of books and even Wifi.
Not forgetting, of course, the array of friendly dogs, cats, donkeys and occasional stray cows to give you that authentic countryside experience.
The reason for this seeming miraculous retreat in the depth of the forest? This guesthouse is the brainchild of a team of archaeologists who have been working on the Dacian remains which are abundant in this part of the country. [The Dacians were the native population (related to the Getae and Thrakians of the Balkanic peninsula) before the conquest by the Romans in 105-106 AD, as witnessed in the carvings on Traian’s Column in Rome.] They established a publishing house and foundation for educating children and people more generally about history and traditional culture, not just the Dacians.
They have a library and study room, ideal for a historian or writer wishing to work in peace, a common room for socialising, plenty of outdoor spaces to settle down and read. And, of course, lots of mountain trails and archaeological sites nearby to explore. Sometimes the dogs and cats would accompany us to the top of the hill.
I can’t forget the delicious food – with Ioana, the cook, fussing around my children to find out what they would like best for the evening meal and worrying if they didn’t finish off everything on their plate. In the morning, we had more than 20 jams to choose from, home made on site, including unusual varieties such as lilac flower, watermelon, peony petals and even carrot. In the evening, we could choose between home-made apple or plum brandy, mead or sour cherry liqueur. Everyone working there showed the legendary Romanian hospitality and kindness (which is sometimes more legendary than real in the bigger cities).
We only stayed there two days, but I could easily imagine myself staying there for a proper holiday or even a writing retreat for a month. It was quiet when we were there, as there’s no half-term holiday in Romania and so it was off-peak, but the few people who were there were regulars, who kept coming back every year. I am almost reluctant to share details of this little piece of paradise, as I don’t want it to become trampled by too many tourists.
While there, we went to visit Sarmisegetuza Regia, the ancient capital of the Dacians. It is situated in a nature reserve and it’s the most peaceful, inspiring location, even if you don’t believe in ley lines and building for solstice sun positioning.
The Dacians put up a fierce fight against the Romans. Their last king, Decebal, waged three wars against the Romans, but was finally defeated in 106 AD. Together with a few of his generals, he retreated to the fortified capital tucked away in the mountains and they all committed suicide rather than allow themselves to be captured by the Romans and marched through Rome in chains. Traian had to content himself with only the head and right hand of the dead Decebal. The Romans razed the city to the ground and forbade any access to it, for fear of the growth of cults around the deceased leader or possible rebellions. So, rather like in Sleeping Beauty, the forest grew around it and it was forgotten for over 1500 years, until archaeological interest arose in the early 19th century.
The interpretation of the Dacian legacy since its rediscovery has been very interesting. At first, the Romanians chose to emphasise their civilised Roman ancestry, probably in an effort to underline their Latin origin in contrast to the Slavic populations surrounding them and also to show that they were equal to the Austro-Hungarian empire that one third of the country was part of. From the 1930s onwards, the Dacian roots and the proto-population theories were used for nationalistic purposes. The Dacians were presented as fearless and noble, yet never as aggressors. (The Greek cities on the Black Sea coast, the Boii, Bastarnae and Illyrian tribes might all disagree with that, as they were all conquered or driven out under the first Dacian king to unite all the territories, Burebista.)
Yet, despite the bloody past and biased interpretations, this feels like such a blessed and happy spot. You can imagine people contentedly pursuing their agricultural and animal-rearing occupations here. The stones on the ground all glitter enchantingly, since these hills used to contain gold. Gold treasure hordes have been found in the region as recently as 2014.
You could be forgiven for thinking that people can still live as happily as their ancestors in these spots, albeit with all the mod cons. Pensiunea Dacica certainly makes you believe that all is still well with the world. But you would be wrong. The whole area is under threat from big corporations for fracking, with the government happily issuing licences (so as not to be overly reliant on Russian oil and gas), despite protests by the local population. In an earthquake-prone country, that could be even more of a disaster than in England. And, although this particular area around Sarmisegetuza is a nature reserve, huge swathes of forests everywhere else have been privatised and are being sold off and chopped up for timber or building.
One of the surprising promoters of Romanian tourism with an authentic flair and trying to protect the Romanian ecology is Prince Charles, who has bought a fortified village called Viscri. His foundation has turned this into a guesthouse but he seems to be ploughing the profits of it back into the local communities, attempting to revive local arts and crafts, encouraging the renovation of old houses and using local produce for food.
Just back from a holiday in Romania, where I am always stunned by the diversity of traditional architecture (and the often disappointing standardisation of modern architecture). Here are a few of my favourites.
One way of dealing with traumatic historical events is by using satire or black humour. The Romanians have an expression for it ‘faci haz de necaz’ – making fun of misery/trouble. Coincidentally, two of the books I read recently for two very different projects #EU27Project and #DavidBowieBookClub, both deal with painful subjects in recent history, but they have very different approaches.
Dan Lungu: Sint o baba comunista! (I’m an Old Communist Biddy)
The collapse of the Berlin wall and the so-called Second World (that uncomfortable compromise between developed First and undeveloped Third World) was accompanied by a near total erasure of Eastern Europe with all that it stood for. It was not just a political system that collapsed but a whole way of life, culture, set of values, and they were replaced virtually overnight by something that wasn’t necessarily always better. Furthermore, things that were flawed but nevertheless precious to this generation were now openly derided, everything they ever built or contributed was sometimes brutally torn apart. So many of them felt that their whole lives had been wasted – a painful realisation.
I have heard this complaint from many of my elderly relatives, and this is described very realistically by Dan Lungu in this book. Ten years after the fall of Communism in Romania, Emilia is an old-age pensioner, who now has to deal with the fact that the world she has known all her life and learnt to live in (with all its imperfections) has gone forever. Her daughter Alice is now settled in Canada, married to a Canadian, and phones to ask her how she is planning to vote. This simple telephone conversation (repeated many, many times over in all of Romania in the late 1990s, early 2000s) represents the perennial struggle between generations – the nostalgia for a past that never quite existed in the way we fondly remember it now vs. the more forward-looking, able to cope with uncertainty and complexity attitude of the younger generation. It triggers some soul-searching in Emilia, as she remembers fragments of her past. Her life had been relatively sheltered: she was working in metallurgy, producing special orders for export, so had access to money and goods, compared to others. For her the fall of Communism has spelled nothing but disillusion and disaster.
‘Don’t you remember the massive queues, going all the way round the corner?’
‘OK, there were queues, but now when you go into a shop, you admire the cutlets, swallow hard and head back out, ‘cos you can’t afford them…I see families starving on TV, with children sleeping on the streets… You wouldn’t see that kind of stuff under Communism.
‘That will change. It takes time – we’re in transition right now, but I’m optimistic.’
‘Of course you’re optimistic when you’re living in Canada or France or America… You just come and live here for a while. You’ll get optimism then with spots on!’
‘What about freedom, Mum? That’s got to be worth something. We were frightened of our own shadows back then. Now you can say whatever you please, write what you want, travel where you like, shout “Down with the government!”‘
‘Travel? Sure, it’s the newly rich who do that, stealing from the things we built. And shouting, of course we can shout till we’re hoarse, no one’s listening anyway.’
There are many funny moments and culture clashes in this story (receiving the Canadian son-in-law in their house is one such classic moment), but it is the kind of ‘sad-funny’ situation that has no resolution. The ending feels a bit rushed – Emilia is questioning her memories of happy life under Communism, or at least understanding that not everyone was equally happy, but there is no real growth or change or resolution. However, it’s a touching portrayal of the dilemma many people were facing at the time (and subsequent corrupt governments have not necessarily made things better.) I’m both happy and sad that it has been translated into English, as I think I would have been the ideal candidate to translate this – I would certainly have loved to do it!
Spike Milligan: Puckoon
As you might expect with Spike Milligan, this is more of a farce than a sad/funny type of satire. It has a very cinematic quality – the detailed descriptions of each character and situation would lend themselves to a madcap TV series, although perhaps some of the (often quite pointless but hilarious) back stories would get lost.
Puckoon is a village in Ireland north east of Sligo. At the time of the partition of Ireland it is accidentally cut in two by the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This leads to ridiculous situations such as having a funeral procession pass through customs to cross the border which lies between the church and the graveyard.
‘What have you got in the coffin?’
‘You must be joking,’ said the priest, his face going purple with anger…
‘I’m not joking, sir, I am merely doing my duty.’
‘Very well. Inside the coffin is the body of 98-year-old Dan Doonan. Now let us pass!’
‘Not quite finished yet, sir. You intend to bury an Irish citizen in what is now British territory?… I presume the deceased will be staying this side permanently?… Then he will require the following: an Irish passport stamped with a visa, to be renewed annually with a visa for the rest of his – ‘ Barrington almost said ‘life’ – ‘stay,’ he concluded.
While the absurdity of government bureaucracy is really well presented in the excerpt quoted, in other instances the satire is less successful. My objection is perhaps influenced by the fact that the eccentric villagers are so ridiculous and larger than life, that it reinforces stereotypes about the Irish: permanently drunk, garrulous, easy to anger, doing things the wrong way round.
The other thing which made me uncomfortable was that, although the book was published in 1963, so before the Troubles proper started in Ireland, the farcical way in which it handles the rather traumatic subject of national identity and sense of belonging would have made it almost unbearable to read during the period that followed, when violence became so common-place both in Northern Ireland and in England. At heart I suppose I agree with Milligan that nationalism and religious fanaticism is ripe for satire, but I missed the undercurrent of sadness that would turn this into a moral lesson.
The book was adapted for a feature film in 2002, so after the Good Friday agreement, when people could laugh once more about the border. I wonder if it will become once more an unbearable topic in future…
Since starting work, it’s been difficult to find the energy to write any blog posts in the evening, but I wanted to share with you the wonderful event with Herta Müller, organised by the University of Swansea (see their storification about the event on Twitter) and held at the British Library on Sunday 17th of September, in conversation with American translator, playwright and theatre director Philip Boehm.
I had heard of Herta Müller before she won the Nobel Prize, but had only read small fragments of her work. Of course I was proud that she was the only Romanian Nobel Prize winner in Literature, but the truth is she writes in German, so I shouldn’t really claim her. Nevertheless, I became enamoured with her eloquence in the moving acceptance speech about the power of language. I have since explored her work and her themes of oppression, submission, guilt and inner revolt resonate very powerfully with me.
In person she is as passionate about language and writing and storytelling as you’d expect, but also much funnier than you might think, given her sombre topics. She is delightfully modest and thoughtful and politically engaged as well. It’s safe to say that I fell completely under her spell and have found my role model. [Interestingly enough, although the Romanian Cultural Institute was involved in sponsoring the event and many Romanians were present, she is not very popular in Romania because she is so critical of life there under the Communist regime – much like Thomas Bernhard is criticised in his home country for ‘washing Austria’s dirty linen in public’.]
She read from Atemschaukel (translated as The Hunger Angel), which is the story of the German minorities in Romania who were deported to Soviet work camps after WW2, because they had fought on the side of the Nazis. In practice, the people deported were often not the men who had been soldiers, but those who were too young or too old to have been conscripted, or women. Herta’s mother had been in such a camp for 5 years and she spoke movingly about how old and strange her mother seemed, and what a morbidly intense relationship she had with food (she would always eat hurriedly, in standing, for instance, and chide her daughter for not peeling the potatoes thinly enough and wasting food). However, the main inspiration for the book was Oskar Pastior, a poet who was also deported after the war and pretty much invented afresh the German to describe the horrors of what he had experienced there. After working intensely with Pastior in preparation for co-writing a book, she was devastated when he died suddenly of a heart attack at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006. For 18 months she could not bear to touch the notes – ‘sometimes literature is not enough’ she said wryly – but then she felt she owed it to him to tell his story and it became a way of expressing her grief.
Above all, I was fascinated by what Herta said about her place somewhere in-between languages (which I feel so acutely myself). ‘No language belongs to you – you are only borrowing it, given it on loan.’ She grew up with a local Swabian dialect, then learnt high German at school and only learnt Romanian at secondary school, but she was fascinated by the differences between the languages. Romanian to her feels very sensual, humorous, frivolous, excellent at heightening everyday language, without trivialising it. She could often empathise with the more interiorised world of the Romanian language. The lily of the valley is ‘May bells’ in German, but ‘little tears’ in Romanian, for instance. A falling star is something to wish upon in German, but the sign that someone has died in Romanian. A pheasant is a boastful, show-off, winner kind of person in German, but a loser in Romanian, because it is a highly visible bird which cannot fly well, so it’s the first one to get shot by hunters. As Herta said: ‘The Germans look at the superficial appearance of the bird, while the Romanian see the inner life of the pheasant.’ Her genuine love for the Romanian language moved me tremendously and it certainly helps to explain why her use of German in her writing is so innovative, poetic and unique.
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.