Novel, "Ego Prose" series, Polirom, 2007, 243 pages
Translation rights sold to: Filmat Naklada (Croatia), Actes Sud (France), Residenz (Austria), Pre-textos (Spain), Jelenkor (Hungary), Faber Print Ltd. (Bulgaria), Czarne (Poland), Gruppo Editoriale Zonza (Italy), Apollon Yayincilik (Turkey), Kastaniotis (Greece)
The profound premise of Dan Lungu’s novel resides in an examination of the following paradox: how is it possible that many, even very many, people who formerly lived under a totalitarian, inhuman regime, without having enjoyed privileges or favours, can now be capable of nostalgia ? The author, through the intermediary of an old woman, who relates her life in the first person, attempts to deconstruct the mechanisms of nostalgia and to unravel this psychological enigma.
The novel is set ten years after the fall of the Ceauşescu dictatorship and shortly before the general elections. Emilia Apostoae, a pensioner, the greater part of whose life has been lived under the ”people’s regime”, receives a telephone call from Alice, her daughter, an immigrant in Canada, who urges her mother ”not to vote for the former communists”. This telephone call, followed by other arguments, casts Emilia into a veritable crisis of identity, from which she tries to save herself by recollecting the past and seeking to justify her nostalgia in her own eyes and those of her daughter. We thus go back to her childhood and adolescence during the time of the dictatorship ; we enter the rhythms and problems of daily life during that epoch.
The story moves at a brisk pace, the dialogue is engaging, humour shows its fangs, and mindsets are revelead by degrees. Apparently simple occurrences progressively develop their power of suggestion and range. Little by little, we are presented with a ”normality” constructed by the regime and decanted in time, a normality that stirs regrets in Emilia but chills the reader. Dan Lungu does not accuse, but rather is empathetic : he describes the atrocity of an evil that has become banal, while at the same time being attentive to the dignity of his characters. His writing is rich in significant and redolent detail, but it does not even for a moment lose sight of the broader picture.
The novel continues the ‘experiment in mentality’ begun by Dan Lungu in Hens’ Heaven – the descent into a communism residual not at the political or social level but at the level of an ordinary person who has lived through that system and been profoundly marked by it. I’m a Communist Biddy ! forces you to smile, to laugh uproariously, to grow sad, but above all to interrupt your reading for a few moments and go outside in order to convince yourself that reality is otherwise, that people are otherwise. However, after such an exercise, the only thing left will be for you to conclude that the author has met the old woman who is a neighbour in your block, that he has met her daughter who has emigrated to Canada, that he has met your former workmate who used to tell political jokes while at the same time informing on you to the secret police behind your back. And then he wrote this book precisely in order to hold a mirror up to us all, in which we can see ourselves as we are and as, more often than not, we should not like to be.
“I’m a Communist Biddy !” is more than the tale of an old woman : it is a museum on paper of daily life in a totalitarian society, a compendium of political humour, a lesson about the incommensurability of human experiences and, why not, the unpredictable story of an abstention from the vote.
It’s nine in the morning and we’re working like daft. We’re giving it our all, so that we can take it easy after the break. The doorbell, loud and hoarse, like a hooter, informs us that there’s someone at the door, a stranger. The bolt is drawn and the foreman appears, with a face like a funeral. Next to him, an elegant bloke holding a cigarette, none too jolly either. Aurelia whispers to me that it’s the new director. I heard a few months ago that they’d changed the director, but I hadn’t had a chance to see his mug until now. Shaven to the bone, with an impeccable haircut, but forbidding at first sight. I’m thinking that the foreman is in hot water or that one of us has put our foot in it, really deep, if the director has condescended to take his fancy suit for a walk among our greasy overalls. Comrade Suit puts his hands over his ears and scrunches up his eyes, and the foreman makes a sign for us to shut down the machinery. As soon as you can hear yourself think, the foreman tells us to gather around, because the comrade director general has an announcement for us. We form a circle around him. Comrade Suit stubs out his cigarette end with the toe of his 420‑lei‑a‑pair shoe, clasps his hands together, and lets rip, solemnly :
“Dear comrades, I have some good news for us all. Because your workshop has for many years been foremost in ‘Socialist Competition’, the comrades from the County branch of the Party have entrusted us with a lofty and privileged mission.”
We’re obviously in for it now, I tell myself. They’re probably going to increase our hours.
“A mission of which we should be proud. That of presenting and making known the fruits of our labour at the highest level possible, to comrade Nicolae Ceauşescu...”
Blah, blah, blah. We all freeze to the spot. In three days, Ceauşescu is going to visit our workshop, to stimulate production for export.
“Please start preparing for this edifying moment immediately !” the director concludes his speech.
This means military discipline, we all know it.
Gaffer Mitu has a pasteurised look about him, as he himself says. Either he’s got a hangover, or his morning dose of holy water was a bit too large.
The foreman tries to obtain a day’s delay from the director, before commencing the cleanup, because we have to finish an order for Thailand. Any delay will result in docked wages.
“Comrade, Ceauşescu is coming, don’t you understand ? Is export what matters to us now ?” the director snaps at him, lighting another cigarette.
They both go out, and we remain, pensive.
“On my life, I won’t budge until I take a photo of Ceauşescu right here next to my lathe, says gaffer Mitu, chewing his words.
“Gaffer Mitu, if Ceauşescu shakes hands with you, you won’t wash until your dying day,” gaffer Pancu goads him.
“Noooo, I want a kiss from Lena. I’m going to dress up as a pioneer and give her flowers, just so she’ll give me a peck on the cheek.”
We all laugh, but without pleasure.
The foreman comes back sharpish. He reads gaffer Mitu at a glance and sends him off to sleep for an hour. He hasn’t managed to budge the director on a delay, so we all get ready to make everywhere squeaky clean. He warns us that if we don’t make a good job of it, we’ll all be in the lurch. The director, especially given that he’s new, is also quaking in his underpants, so he’ll be keeping a close eye on us in the days to come. In three days and three nights we’ll have to sort out everything that hasn’t been repaired or cleaned for the last twenty years. If need be, we’ll work in shifts. We won’t be alone, because the entire factory will be in on the act. Our workshop has been picked out, but you never know where Ceauşescu will have a mind to poke his nose in. I’ve never seen the foreman so agitated. He’s talking and walking among us. He’s thinking out loud. He’s giving orders for today and the following days.
He changes his mind. He contradicts himself. He stutters.
He’s in a panic !
In the end, we manage to get ourselves organised somewhat. We decide to start with the whitewashing, because that makes the most mess. Then we’ll go on to painting everything that hasn’t seen a paintbrush for years, cleaning the windows, polishing the machinery, and after that we’ll see.
The scurrying begins. At first we all get under each other’s feet, but little by little we each settle down to business. Where they’ve passed by with the whitewash, Aurelia and me clean up the splashes and do the windows. Sanda couldn’t be luckier – she’s on maternity leave.
It’s afternoon already and things are progressing nicely, but we’re far from having finished. We’ve only had a quarter of an hour break. My back is aching and my hands are stinging. At first, me and Aurelia chatted about this and that, but now we’re working in silence. The only thing you can hear is the swishing of the brush and the creaking of the windows.
From the storeroom appear two women with piles of overalls and all kinds of protective gear. We receive new kit. On the day of the visit we’ll have to look like in the textbook, as the foreman says. With helmets and goggles, with gloves and leather aprons where the case.
On this occasion, the boss decrees a break. He sends someone to buy food for all the others. Plus mineral water, in spite of some murmured protests. He brings the coffee from his own office.
Each person has to sign for the new kit. For the first time ever, the people from stores have the patience to let us try the gear on. Up to now, they always used to give us it and that would be that. If it was too small or too large, you would have to pester them for a week before they would change it for you. We lay out the table for everyone, and we go off one at a time and come back with our effects under our arm. We munch without speaking, lost in our own thoughts.
Gaffer Mitu appears, with a helmet on his head, goggles, apron and bulky pigskin gloves. He walks swaying, with his arms spread out in front of him, as though he wanted to throttle somebody.
“My name is Dumitru Prunariu,” he says, “the first Romanian in space. At this solemn moment, I want to convey to you greetings from our Martian friends.”
I take advantage of the moment of relaxation to make a phone call to Tzucu and tell him I don’t know when I’ll be getting back. He’s just got in, immediately after Alice, and is warming up the dinner. I explain to him what it’s all about and he says he knows about Ceauşescu’s visit, that they have been mobilised too, and that he’ll tell me all about it at home. Today they got away quickly, but tomorrow looks set to be grim. I ask him to take Alice round to Sanda’s, for a day or two, until the storm passes. It’s not the first time the lass has stayed at her auntie’s, because they get on really well.
The street is all a bustle too. Barrels of tar are boiling, and the tipper trucks are unloading asphalt. Down the hill, the steamrollers are already at work. At last, they are laying some asphalt round here. Up to now, you had to do the slalom in the car just to avoid the potholes. By the entrance on the hill, the tall dusty pines are being washed with a hose. Next to our fence, facing the street, mounds of black earth are being carried off in buckets. The gravel and dry grass disappear, and here and there flowerbeds are being made. The watchmen are painting the large gate at the vehicles entrance.
The other sections aren’t sitting idle either. Everyone is on the move. Inside, they have already gone on to painting. In the first place, the flange that runs around the workshop, then we go on to the metal parts, the posts and all the rest. Everything in green. Although the windows are wide open, the smell is making us dizzy.
It’s ten o’clock at night and, the same as everywhere else in town, the power has been cut off.
We light a few lanterns, but you can’t see much. The foreman is in despair. He’s talking on the phone in his office. He’s roaring :
“Ceauşescu is coming, don’t you understand ? Turn the power on, otherwise it will be you who has to answer for it.”
We wait. We’re exhausted. The boss keeps making phone calls. Not even gaffer Mitu has any more appetite for jokes.
At last, the electricity comes back on and, with difficulty, we start work again. We don’t make much headway. He leaves us to it for another hour and then lets us go home. When I get back, Tzucu is asleep. I don’t wake him. I fall asleep like a log.
Here we are the next day, at the crack of dawn. Among us, two unknown persons in new overalls. The foreman makes the introductions, glumly :
“These are your new colleagues. They are called Andrei and Maria. They will be the workers’ representatives in the official delegation that will accompany the comrade President. Now they will give us a helping hand and familiarise themselves with the workplace.”
Andrei is athletic, with short hair. Judging from his jaw, I would sooner see him in shorts and boxing gloves than in overalls. Maria is very pretty, just right for handing over flowers.
The plan for today is as follows : in the morning we’ll finish painting inside and polish all the machinery until you can see you face in it, and in the afternoon we’ll move on to fixing up the exterior. I’m in the same team as Aurelia again. We start on the machinery. We remove the oil‑soaked dust from all the crannies, scrub with emery paper, and buff with felt. The boss passes it on, from one to another, for us to mind what we say in front of the new pair. There wasn’t any need to tell us. The hardest will be for gaffer Mitu, who has a bit of a loose tongue.
I peek from the corner of my eye at our new workmates. Andrei is looking at a lathe like it’s a giraffe, and it’s as though Maria is holding a hedgehog not a rag.
“It’s hard to change your trade from one day to the next,” I whisper to Aurelia.
Aurelia laughs to herself.
Comrade Suit passes by to see how the work is going and to encourage us.
At one point, Maria comes over to us. She asks us for a plaster, because she has got a blister from the emery paper. She has delicate hands, but the nails are not polished. I bring her a roll of leucoplast from the first aid kit, to cut off as much as she wants. She asks us if we usually work like this.
“Not quite at this pace, but it’s hard work,” says Aurelia prudently.
Maria stays next to us. She has begun to get used to it and is scrubbing vigorously. She tells us she has a bairn in the fourth form and that the lessons are hard, they have a whole heap of subjects. I say that it’s better that way, so that they’ll get used to hard work from an early age. After that I regret saying it. Who knows how she’ll interpret it.
We scrub in silence.
The boss calls me to one side and tells me it’s my turn to go and talk to the secret policeman responsible for the factory. He explains which office I have to go to. He tells me not to be frightened. It’s nothing serious. Everyone has to go. (…)
“Apostoae Emilia ?” the secret policeman asks me, leafing through some documents.
I nod yes. He is a man of about forty, going slightly grey, with a placid face and a bored voice. I’d expected to see a harsher figure, with a thundering voice.
“Maiden name Burac ?”
“Mother and father agricultural labourers ?”
“What does your husband do ?”
“Yes… yes… But why aren’t you a member of the Party ?”
“Hmmm… I don’t know… I don’t think I have the necessary ideological level, comrade…”
“I see that you are a good element, you don’t have any deviations…”
“You have received a flat through the factory, how do you feel in it ?”
“Were you put forward to join the Party but refused ?”
“But if you were put forward, would you accept ?”
“I don’t know… I think so.”
“And you say you don’t have the necessary ideological level ? How is that ?”
“I don’t know… That’s what I think…”
“What are you lacking in order to have the necessary ideological level ?”
“Perhaps I should study Party documents more… How do I know ?”
“Are you satisfied with the collective you work in ?”
“And with the foreman ?”
“With him too.”
“Do you have any complaints about the workplace ?”
“Do you consider that you lack anything in particular, which the factory might help you with ?”
“I don’t know… Maybe a gas cylinder…”
“Is that all ?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Well then, fill in a request form, which you will leave with me, and tomorrow go to the union to pick up a voucher for the gas cylinder.”
When I get back, they’re on a break. I get out my packed lunch and sit on the bench outside, next to Aurelia.
“How was it ?” she asks me.
I look at her amazed at how she knew.
“The boss told me that I have to go after the break as well.”
“Aha,” it all becomes clear to me. “He’s alright even so. He asks you what complaints you have. I told him that I’d like a gas cylinder and he told me to fill in a request form.”
“But why hasn’t he asked us up to now ?”
I nod my head in sign that it’s clear why now and not before. We eat. Finally, Aurelia gets out an orange. She tells me about how at her husband’s shop they don’t stint on unloading the goods. They get all kinds of stuff. Salami, milk, chocolate, everything. And not just them, but in almost all the neighbourhoods. Well, there’s still a queue, but only twenty or thirty people, not hordes.
Maria comes over, so we stop talking. Aurelia offers her some of the opened orange. Maria takes a segment, picks off the pith, and then eats it. I look at her with round eyes.
“I can’t stand the pith. I eat oranges like grapefruit,” she smiles.
So as not to show myself up, I don’t tell her that I’ve not yet had occasion to eat a grapefruit.
In the afternoon, we all move on to outside. We sweep, clean, dig. We’ve received black earth, roses and pieces of lawn from the town hall. We paint all the outside pipes and the mobile crane. On the main wing of the factory, another team, from another section, paints in letters as tall as a man “Long Live the Romanian Communist Party”. The porters have also received two new colleagues. The asphalting of the road has reached the factory yard.
In the evening, when the power is cut off, they let us go home.
I get back knackered. It’s too late to phone Sanda to see how Alice is. I chat with Tzucu for a little. We haven’t spoken for two days. He tells me that they were taken off to transplant maize. They go to the Party Farm, uproot the maize from an experimental plot – large and comely maize, with great big cobs – and then they plant it at the edge of the fields, two or three rows deep, along the roads which Ceauşescu will travel down to I don’t know what agricultural collective. They uproot the puny maize and load it into trailers. Even he doesn’t know what happens after that. They carry out all these operations in the blazing sun. At least they give them mineral water.
The third day is a bit lighter. We’re busy “decking out portraits”. We divide into two teams, one for inside and one for outside. I’m inside. We make a panel of honour, with photographs of the foremost workers. We’re having fun. We put Mitu’s photograph as the best of the best, the model to be followed. Then we draw up a graph of political information meetings, with dates and topics that we just make up. That is, not exactly – we copy them from a template brought by the foreman. We cut out articles from newspapers, which we tack to a piece of polystyrene wrapped in red canvas. We hang up two or three portraits of Ceauşescu. The boss brings us some twenty thick volumes of the works of Uncle Nicu, to put in his office. Because he doesn’t have a bookcase, we cart one from the Furniture Factory, on loan. He also brings forty flowerpots, for us to spread around the place, as aesthetically as possible. We have to sign for them. Whatever gets lost or broken, we’ll have to pay for.
There’s a hullabaloo outside. Someone’s shouting.
Me and Aurelia go to the door to see what it’s all about.
A scowling bloke with brown hair, wearing a suit and tie, is rolling his eyes and foaming at the mouth.
“You’re a bunch of idiots and dolts ! You’re in for it now, I promise you ! As soon as this visit is over you’ll have me to answer to ! Is this a factory for drunkards ? Is it wine we make or do we produce for export ? You’re irresponsible.”
And off he goes like a whirlwind, one of those ones that flatten everything in their path. We find out that it was the grapevines that had upset him. Gaffer Culidiuc is the most affected of all of us. He had planted them, cleaned them and trimmed them for years, and now the lads have already set about pulling them up. He can’t watch ; he goes into the workshop. The boss doesn’t say anything, because the new workmates are there, but his eyes are blazing. I’ll miss shade too, the plump black bunches of grapes… Gaffer Culidiuc makes a sign to us that the scowling bloke is barmy. We ask him who he is and he says that he is a bigwig in the County branch of the Party.
Not even an hour passes and the blonde‑haired young porter comes in guffawing. He wants to tell us something, but the foreman makes a discreet sign for him to be silent. The porter doesn’t catch on and lets rip, thirteen to the dozen. He says that that bloke just now – Comrade Whirlwind, as I’ve christened him in my mind – found fault with the pine trees by the main gate, and why are they so dusty. They explained to him that they had been washed with the hose, but that they couldn’t get them any greener than that. Then the bloke apparently began to bellow that he wasn’t interested, that, if need be, they should paint them, only that they should look like real pine trees, from the mountains. And now, perched on the Electrical Plant trucks with mobile ladders, a number of blokes are painting the pine trees with spray guns.
Only Adrian, Maria and gaffer Mitu laugh. Oh, and gaffer Culidiuc, who is in the workshop, standing behind us.
Only now does the hapless porter understand. You can see by his frightened glance.
“In the end, it’s one way of solving it,” he tries to wriggle out of it.
This time, we all laugh.
The porter can’t understand a thing.
The boss takes him by the shoulders and asks him to show him where he saw such a thing, because he doesn’t believe it. You can see from a mile away that he wants to get him out of the shit.
Today, we leave earlier, so that we’ll have time to prepare for the next day and to rest. The boss gives us our final instructions : overalls have to be ironed and starched ; the men have to be shaven and to smell of toothpaste, not of rotgut ; the woman without lipstick, makeup or nail varnish.
I get back home. Tzucu isn’t back yet. The pots are empty, and the sink is full. I get down to business. Tzuku turns up. He tells me about how some chap with a loud mouth came and hauled them over the coals : them, for not watering the planted maize, and the blokes from the Party Farm, who were getting ready a herd of thoroughbred cows to send to the agricultural collective that Ceauşescu was going to visit, for sabotaging the event. I described Whirlwind to him and he confirmed it was him. There had been a right carry‑on with the cows. In the first place, he made them remove all the black cows from the stock, because they didn’t set an optimistic tone. Then he was dissatisfied with the way they had been washed and curried. But the worst was when he battened onto their hooves, for not being glossy enough, because he knew that thoroughbred cows have to have shiny hooves. In the end, he made them lacquer the hooves, for them to look like in the textbook.
We go on chatting about this and that and then fall asleep.
The big day.
The director general and the boss make the inspection. They closely examine each of us individually, straightening a collar or two. With all this protective gear on us we look like something out of an exhibition. The atmosphere is tense. Our new colleagues haven’t turned up, probably because the official delegation has gone somewhere else. Comrade Suit goes out and we are left to ourselves. The time passes slowly. We walk to and fro, listlessly. We don’t even feel like sitting down, so as not to crease anything.
On the street, on either side, workers, pioneers and communist youth have already been deployed, with placards and flags. Their chatter can be heard as far as in the factory yard.
From time to time, gaffer Mitu walks around swaying, with arms outstretched, as he imagines a cosmonaut walks. We smile, but we don’t feel like laughing. Whatever you might say, we are excited. It’s not every day that Ceauşescu comes to our workshop. And I think that we are a little afraid too, even if no one says so. We have to make a good impression ! A very good impression !
From time to time, the foreman brings us news from Comrade Suit : Ceauşescu is in town ; Ceauşescu is in the viewing stand, the parade is about to begin ; Ceauşescu is having lunch ; Ceauşescu is heading for the agricultural collective. The tension grows. The worst thing is that we don’t have anything to do ; we just have to wait. We have to be ready at any moment.
At around five in the afternoon, a stupendous piece of news arrives : Ceauşescu has left town.
But we remain in position, in case it’s a false alarm.
At around seven, Comrade Suit appears and confirms that Ceauşescu has left town. He thanks us and tells us that maybe we will be luckier next time. He leaves in a hurry.
We’re left to ourselves and the atmosphere suddenly relaxes.
“Boss, what about those new colleagues of ours who didn’t turn up today ? What shall we do ? Clock them out ?” asks gaffer Mitu drolly.
“Bugger them !”
We all decide to go to a restaurant and celebrate our achievement.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
We are dealing here with an extraordinary novel, one of the few that I can calmly recommend for export. Because it is incredibly simple to read. Because it is written with astonishing lightness, because it has no pretensions to be a fresco of the Ceausescu epoch or of the 1990s. It is an examination, humane and at the same time cold, of a typically Central‑European state of mind.”
(C. ROGOZANU, Suplimentul de cultura)
“I’m a Communist Biddy !, the latest novel by the excellent Dan Lungu, written in the form of the confession of Emilia Apostoae, formerly employed at a metalwork factory, is probably the best novel about nostalgia for life under communism.
A realist‑minimalist novel of astonishing humour, true in all its situations and dialogue, a book full of humour, but, above all, full of bitterness, the derisory, the absurd…”
(Marius Chivu, Dilema Veche)
“One cannot help but feel sympathy for this woman who recounts her life and ultimately draws the correct conclusion about communism. All things considered, Dan Lungu has written an excellent novel, one that will enjoy an outstanding career, not only in Romania.”
(Stefan Agopian, Academia Catavencu)
“This novel will be read breathlessly by those nostalgic for the old regime, as well as by young people for whom Ceausescu is nothing but a character in commercials.”
(Daniel Cristea-Enache, Cultura)
“Under the confessional pretext lies concealed a very good novel, a novel of copious humour, written in the first person, on one of the most topical of subjects : the (im)possibility of reconciling the memories of a happy childhood and youth with a recognition of the abjection of communism.”
(Mihaela Ursa, Apostrof)