An Afternoon with Herta Müller #TranslationThurs

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.

 

 

Advertisements

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/

 

 

Andrzej Stasiuk: On the Road to Babadag #EU27Project

This is in many ways the perfect #EU27Project read, although three of the countries it refers to are outside the EU.

Stasiuk is a Polish writer who is not smitten with the idea of the West or even Central Europe, as so many other writers and citizens from former Communist states are, in moth-like fascination. Instead he is looking at lesser-known and decaying pockets of Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Moldova, Albania and Hungary. He is therefore doing those neglected and forgotten places a favour. Yet, by deliberately staying away from the tourist route (there is no mention of Budapest or Bucharest or Brasov or any of the more popular sights), he is presenting perhaps an equally lop-sided view as the Tourist Offices of those countries.

Idyllic village image from Publikon.ro

If Britain or the US might be said to have a nostalgia for empire or world domination, Stasiuk here has a nostalgia for marginalisation and oppression, for what he calls the ‘Balkan shambles’. As if suffering confers authenticity and profundity. This is not so much a tribute to a vibrant and resilient community as a eulogy to a dying way of life.

I’m not sure I agree with this premise, which is why I read this book with a mix of feelings. On the one hand, I loved his atmospheric descriptions of everyday life in villages, which reminded me of summers spent at my grandmother’s house:

From occidentul-romanesc.com

Telkibanya, a village that hadn’t changed in a hundred years. Wide, scattered houses under fruit trees… From windows of homes, the smell of stewing onions. In market stalls, mounds of melons, paprikas. A woman emerged from a cellar with a glass jug filled with wine… Old women sitting in front of the houses on the main street. Like lizards in the sun. Their black clothes stored the afternoon heart, and their eyes gazed on the world without motion and without surprise, because they had seen everything.

The author also has a good grasp of the historical and political nuances of this troubled part of the world, and is adept at conveying all this complexity with a frankness which would be unwelcome from a writer who has not grown up there.

…everyone should come here. At least those who make use of the name Europe. It should be an initiation ceremony, because Albania is the unconscious of the continent. Yes, the European id, the fear that at night haunts slumbering Paris, London, and Frankfurt am Main. Albania is the dark well into which those who believe that everything has been settled once and for all should peer…. so I drank black Fernet and tried to imagine a country that one day everyone would leave. They would abandon their land to the mercy of time, which would break open the envelope the hours and months and in pure form enter what remained of cities, to dissolve them, turn them into primal air and minerals.

It soon becomes clear that this is not a typical travelogue. The author criss-crosses these countries, and there is little attempt at chronology or systematisation of his travels. Instead, one memory gives rise to another, themes flow easily from one to the next. Yet he has an uncanny ability to define a region’s main characteristic. Here he talks, for instance, about the fertile hills of Moldova, conveying something of the gentle nature of the Moldavians.

Continual green, continual fecundity, the land undulating, the horizon rising and falling, showing us only what we expect, as if not wishing to cause us the least unpleasantness. Grapes, sunflowers, corn, a few animals, grapes, sunflowers, corn, cows and sheep, on occasion a a garden, and rows of nut trees always on either side of the road. No free space in this scenery, no sudden disjunction, and the imagination, encountering no ambush, soon dozes. Most likely events took place here a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago, but they left no trace. Life seeps into the soil, disperses into the air, burns calmly and evenly, as if confident that it will never burn out.

So what did I dislike about it? I am conflicted regarding his romanticism about the messiness, untidiness, lack of discipline, the sheer ‘Orientalism’ of this part of the world.  He claims to genuinely love the shambles

…the amazing weight of things, the lovely slumber, the facts that make no difference, the calm and methodical drunkenness in the middle of the day, and those misty eyes that with no effort pierce reality and with no fear open to the void. I can help it. The heart of my Europe beats in Sokolow Podlaski and in Husi. It does not beat in Vienna. Or in Budapest. And most definitely not in Krakow. Those places are all aborted transplants.

Yet this to me smacks of traveller’s voyeurism, like the British love for India at arm’s length. ‘Everything half-assed and fucked up’ is a wonderful place to visit for the authentic experience, but it is not necessarily a desirable place to live. I’ve never understood the appeal of disaster movies either, other than a triumphalist affirmation of our own superiority in the face of catastrophe (meanwhile, great swathes of the world are still trying to recover from the previous disaster).

And yet, and yet… expecting all parts of our naughty, moody, spotty continent to behave in consistent and elegant fashion is neither realistic nor desirable. Much of this messiness is not just historically inflicted, but also self-inflicted. So what should those unruly teens aspire to? Especially when some of the older democracies and hitherto solid ‘grown-up’ civilisations seem to be losing their elegance (ahem! naming no names!).

Ultimately, Stasiuk sees himself as a chronicler of the period of transition from East Bloc to post-Communism. Many of the scenes he describes have perhaps already disappeared. So yes, it is a valuable document, rooted in its time and place. Just forgive this reader for not being able to read it entirely objectively.

The depressing and still unrecognised republic of Transnistria, from The Calvert Journal.

Catching Up with Book Reviews: Crime

I’ve fallen far behind with my book reviews, so I will try to remedy that with a quick-fire post containing no less than four reviews of crime novels written by women and set in a variety of locations.

BrasoveanuRodica Ojog-Braşoveanu: Omul de la capătul firului (The Man at the End of the Line)

The ‘grande dame’ of Romanian crime fiction has been compared to Agatha Christie, but in this book at least she shows more similarities to Dorothy Sayers. It features an infuriating, yet charismatic and larger than life main investigator called (appropriately enough) Minerva, who cannot hide her elitism and know-it-all sentiment (she used to be a high-school teacher) this is great fun, though a bit elitist. It was written in the 1970s, so we not only have calls from phone-booths but also Communist censorship in Romania. So, with a topic of espionage and counterespionage, you might expect it to be breast-thumpingly ‘patriotic’ and ideological, but it is quite nuanced and interesting. Not at all what I expected.

atticroomLinda Huber: The Attic Room

Nina’s mother has just died and their content little three-generation-of-women household on the isle of Arran (including Nina’s daughter Naomi) has been disrupted. Then Nina finds out she has received an inheritance just outside London from a man she doesn’t know. Could this really be her long-lost father, as the solicitor seems to believe? But then, why did her mother claim that he died when she was a young child? As Nina gets sucked into her family’s history and dark secrets, the creepy house she has inherited starts to play a big part in her feelings of discomfort and fear.

There is a good story hiding in there somewhere, but I found the plot somewhat predictable and the style a bit long-winded. However, the characterisations are generally strong. I enjoyed the burgeoning relationship between Nina and her solicitor, and her concerns about her daughter.

burntpaperGilly Macmillan: Burnt Paper Sky

Another child in danger, another domestic thriller set-up, but what made this one stand out from the morass of frankly quite average recent surfeit of offerings in this area was the focus on ‘judgement by the press and social media’. Rachel is a single mother, still struggling to come to terms with abandonment and divorce, and she pays dearly for one brief moment of allowing her eight-year-old son to run ahead to the rope-swing in the woods just outside Bristol. She does not live up to the media’s expectations of what a distraught mother should look like or behave, and she is demonised and hounded by strangers and acquaintances alike. Helen Fitzgerald in ‘The Cry’ also touches on this topic, but here it becomes the main focus of the book. We also see the point of view of the investigating team, and how they too struggle to believe the mother.

Strong descriptions, sensitive use of language and great interactions between the characters make this a very promising debut novel for me. Heart-wrenching for any mother, I can promise you, so I had to read it very quickly to find out the worst (or not).

cherryblossomFran Pickering: The Cherry Blossom Murder

The cherry blossom is rather tangential to this story, but the Japanese setting is not, so it was a real pleasure to read it in Japan. It’s the first in a series featuring amateur detective Josie Clark, an Englishwoman trying to survive in the Japanese corporate world in Tokyo. She speaks Japanese and has friends, and she is a fan of the Takarazuka Revue (an all-woman cabaret show with a huge following in Japan). When one of the helpers at the fan club meetings is found dead just outside the theatre, everyone wants to keep a safe distance and let the police investigate. Yet Josie can’t help feeling that the police are just going through the motions, so she uses her Western rebellion and curiosity to dig a little deeper herself. With the help of her wise, if scruffy-looking mentor Tanaka-san, she unravels the mystery in this entertaining ‘cosy in an exotic location’. Perfect for armchair travellers, and reminiscent of Jonelle Patrick’s ‘Only in Tokyo’ series.

So there you have it: travelled to Romania, Scotland, Bedfordshire, Bristol and Japan lately, how about you? Coming up: a physical trip to Quebec, so I can feel another bout of Louise Penny coming on… I’ve been trying to find some Quebecois writers in French at the library here, but no luck so far. Nelly Arcan, Marie-Claire Blais, Elise Turcotte, Gabrielle Roy – there are lots of wonderfully subversive women writers from that province.

 

Friday Fun: Bookshops in Romania

There is a beautiful new bookshop that just opened up last week in the centre of Bucharest, in a recently renovated, gracious old mansion. I’m very excited about this and can hardly wait to go there to ‘visit’ (code word for ‘buy lots of books’).

Bookshop Carturesti Carusel, just opened in the Chrisoveloni House in Bucharest.
Bookshop Carturesti Carusel, just opened in the Chrissoveloni House in Bucharest.
It will be the largest bookshop in the country, extending over 6 floors.
It will be the largest bookshop in the country, extending over 6 floors.
The building was nationalised during Communist times and served as HQ for a bank at one point.
The building was nationalised during Communist times and served as HQ for a bank at one point.

 

 

But there are plenty of other wonderful bookshops round about Bucharest and Romania.

The library in the Institut Francais in Bucharest.
The bookshop in the Institut Francais in Bucharest.
bookaholicHabitus
Habitus bookshop in Sibiu, from bookaholic.ro.
Carturesti bookshop in Brasov.
Carturesti bookshop in Brasov.

Advance warning: there will be a second blog post later on today, for the 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion initiative! It’s not too late: if you want to take part, find out more about it here.

 

25 Years Since

A bit of erasure poetry for you tonight (well, more prose than poetry), which I’m linking to that wonderfully welcoming venue for sharing poems and ideas, the dVerse Poets Pub.

It’s almost exactly 25 years since our revolution in Romania. For many years I called it a ‘stolen’ or ‘so-called’ revolution, as we saw people tarnished by their Communist and security forces links become the most vocal proponents of the free market (and profiting hugely by it). But, no matter what followed, that doesn’t diminish the magic and hope of those few days when we really believed we could change the world. I found my diary from that time and have chosen a few lines from here and there to give you a feel for the atmosphere.

 

21decembrie.wordpress.com
21decembrie.wordpress.com

Dad was called in to the office on Sunday evening.

‘Don’t send any Christmas cards abroad just now.’

Helicopters flying overhead.

In Timişoara, rubber cudgels. Bullets too, so we hear.

We’re all hoping for more.

‘No public gatherings, curfew at 8 p.m., keep your ID card with you at all times.’

The school is strangely empty, profs barricaded in the Dean’s office.

Nearly holidays but no tickets:  trains have been cancelled.

‘Those imperialistic and fascist forces trying to destabilise our fatherland.’

They’ve smashed bookshop windows and burnt Ceauşescu’s books.

They dared the army to shoot:

‘We are the people, who are you protecting?’

Asociatia21decembrie.ro
Asociatia21decembrie.ro

Rumours, rumours everywhere.

This morning he calls a public meeting, shown live on TV,

with slogan-filled banners, portraits of the Beloved Couple.

I’m on my knees, praying for something to happen.

Suddenly, someone interrupted – I heard, I heard the boos!

Utter befuddlement on his face:

‘You mean, they really don’t like me?’

Transmission cut for a few endless minutes.

radardemediaMy parents begged me not to leave the house.

‘All students should resign their party membership:

a party that can kill its own people has lost all credibility.’

Tanks rolled up, shooting continued into the night, dogs barking wildly.

No heroics, more like running, finding shelter.

Smashing glass with your bare head.

Radio switched on every few minutes.

What were we expecting?

All we heard were patriotic songs.

Fotomagazin.ro
Fotomagazin.ro

Then at 12:55 p.m. the music stopped:

‘This is Radio Free Bucharest. We have an important announcement to make.’

Appeals to go out to help, provide medical aid, electricity, food.

It feels like civil war.

I went to a hospital to offer my first-aid skills but they only took the gauze.

We want to hug. We need to run.

Trucks loaded with people, unarmed yet willing.

A joy to see how well-behaved and selfless people are,

even if enemies and sharpshooters lurk atop buildings.

In the breaks between the shooting, we help

provide free drinks.

Companionship of perfect strangers.

I drop the cherries in my pie, keeping time with the machine-guns.

This morning our block of flats was shot at:

it’s Christmas Eve.

From Cartim.ro
From Cartim.ro

 

 

 

 

 

Food for Thought: You’ve Never Had Anything Like This

Over at dVerse Poets, Abhra is urging us to write about our own cultural heritage via the uniqueness of our food and recipes. I thought I’d attempt something different: a prose-poem of sorts about experiencing Romanian food as an outsider, a child who had spent most of her life abroad.

You’ve Never Had Anything Like This

‘You’ve never had anything like this before.’

Uh-oh, here it comes, with warning lights!

As if I’d fall for tricks like that again. They’ve said it before, they can say it again. Too many times.

Usually, it involves something that looks like dog’s vomit covered in mayo.

Or meat wrapped up – for no good reason – in cabbage that’s gone off. They fill my mouth with sour revenge. For living abroad, for escaping them for ten months a year.

But this time, it’s a dessert. I have a sweet tooth, which I’m not allowed to acknowledge. However, this time… my carrot-munching, sugar-banning mother isn’t around. And even she cannot control what my aunt gives me in her own home.

I move in closer.

It’s foamy-white and quivers at the bottom of a bowl. I sink a spoon into its springiness and scoop it into my mouth. It melts on my tongue with creamy-egged smoothness and lingering longings of vanilla.

I gobble it up and ask for more.

‘What is it?’

‘Birds’ milk.’

retetelebunicii
From the recipe website http://www.retetelebunicii.ro