A Socialist Soap Opera is written in the first person singular, and is almost savage in its authenticity. The book covers twenty years of communism, from the early 1970s to 1989. Couched as a father’s final letter to his son, childhood and youth in communist Romania are reconstructed using real and imagined episodes that fit together to form a jigsaw puzzle of things past. Against the backdrop of a family story told with both humour and sadness, a son grows up, passing through all the tragi comic phases of conflict with the father figure, encompassing fathers biological, step , symbolic, ideological, present, and absent. As the “golden boy’s” exploits unfold, the idealising gloss of clichés about family, friendship and love rubs away to expose the stony core of a disillusioned awareness. At first sight, Doru Pop’s book might be classed as a fictionalised autobiography. But it is also much more than that: the structure of the laconic sentences and the shifts in the narrative argument, designed to reflect the deepening voice of the child, from the first glimmers of self awareness to incipient adulthood, the diversity of the characters, the impressive array of urban legends, the freshness conveyed by each scene, and the author’s prodigious memory for period details transform this debut into a bildungsroman for an entire generation.
How I became the biggest liar in the world
I thought of myself as the best liar in my form, the best liar in the whole school, if not Bihor County and the entire socialist homeland. The comrade headmistress, who had just appointed me locum tenens to the unit commander, mainly because I was the only pupil in the seventh form who had any idea about world literature and who could recite from memory the foremost rulers of the Romanian Lands, would have been horrified if she had known what I used to do to make myself popular among my schoolmates. The technique was quite simple. I would scour issues of Cinema magazine looking for titbits of information about science fiction films that were all the rage. Then I would invent stories drawing upon the sparse details available to me. In gym lessons, while the teacher was busy with the girls, helping each one individually to do back flips or cartwheels, we boys would sit on the climbing frame or lie on the felt stuffed mattresses, annoyed at being made to do pointless sit ups and squat thrusts until the comrade gym teacher had finished physically examining each of the girls in our class, girls who had only just embarked upon the stage of emotional and sexual development. That was the perfect moment for me to tell the boys about adventures from Star Trek, which I boasted I had seen on my godmother Sanda’s video, which an émigré cousin had brought her from Holland. I had never seen a single episode of the famous serial, but I invented a new spaceship, which I prophetically named the Columbia, and wove never ending adventures around it. The only problem was for me to come up with enough authentic material to prevent the other boys catching on, and so, higgledy piggledy, I used to mix together bits from magazines, stuff from Jules Verne, and all kinds of mythological characters. I used to envelop the boys in my fantastic tales and we would forget the rank odour of the vinyl covered gym mats, the fact that there was no hot water after the gym lessons, and the corporal punishments meted out by the gym teacher.
The uses of a hotplate
Factory work experience placements were not a pleasant obligation. Quite the contrary. Even though we had impeccably clean blue overalls and a lunchbox of the same variety possessed by the entire working class, nobody took any notice of us and nobody took us seriously. What’s more, it was there that I discovered for the first time that in the workplace my knowledge of Romanian history counted for nought, likewise my readings from world literature and even the tall tales with which I used to bamboozle the other boys in my class. In the factory fantastic stories were utterly worthless. Skills were what counted there: manual rather than intellectual. This was because the people really in charge were not the comrade engineers, whose blue overalls were almost identical to the ones worn by us schoolchildren on work experience, but the foremen, who, with comradely awe, were called “masters”. “Master” became a title I aspired to with all my soul. It wasn’t the word itself that motivated me, as much as the terrible reverence with which it was uttered.
In the enamelling section, to which I had been assigned along with a few lads from form eight A, there was a dreadful toxic stench. In charge was Master Fodor, a man of around fifty, whose authority within the section was unassailable. The lads in enamelling did not eat, shit or speak unless the Master gave them permission. They chortled at all his jokes and proudly finished every sentence with the words: “That’s what the Master said.” This Fodor must have been in the army or the police or some other force for law and order, because he had established a kind of fascist micro regime in his section. He took particular pleasure in searching, “to the bone” as he put it, all the workers before they left the factory. He also made a point of searching all the schoolchildren personally. He saw thieves everywhere and thought that the whole world was conspiring to steal the hotplates he produced. I found myself unable to hatch any plans, because I was separated from my cronies, who had been assigned to different sections, and the two schoolmates in my section were halfwits: Bicycle wheel Emil, thus named because of his enormous glasses, and Fat boy Danny, whose sole concern was that nobody pinch the packed lunched lovingly prepared by his mother. “Do you know how hard it is to get hold of shpam?” he would ask in outrage if anybody tried to lay hands on his scran, which he chomped on insatiably, hidden between the metal lockers by the entrance. Bicycle wheel Emil and Fat boy Danny couldn’t even look out for themselves, let alone join me on a venture. Their strategy for survival was to keep a low profile. They would slink off between the machines and find an out of the way spot where they could catch forty winks, their somnolence being partly induced by the fumes from the enamelling. Master Fodor constantly kept his eyes on me and made me fetch and carry all kinds of components. If he caught me standing still, he would yell: “Apprentice, stop mooning around with your finger up your arse! The state’s not paying you to pick your arsehole!” What annoyed me the most was that he would humiliate me like that in front of the other workers, who would laugh under their protective masks until they were fit to burst.
In town there was indeed a black market trade in hotplates. This was because gas canisters were rationed: you had to from the crack of dawn to get one, and if you didn’t get up in time, you risked going a whole month without any means of cooking your food and you would have to go begging to your neighbours, pots and pans in hand. What was more, new canisters were handed out only if you had a special permit from the Party, to prevent any comrades from constructing butane gas bombs, and so any alternative source of heat was worth at least three months’ wages. Master Fodor was well aware of all this and so were the people who had placed him in charge of this last stage in the socialist hotplate production line. The decision was simple: I had to pinch a hotplate from under the Master’s nose and get it home safely to my mother, claiming it was a prestigious trophy presented to me as natural token of the factory management’s esteem for my unstinting efforts towards the construction of a new and loftier society. Also a warmer society.
On the last day of my work experience placement, I placed a freshly enamelled, immaculate white hot plate, ready for export to the third world, on the ledge of the window that gave on to the inner courtyard. I allowed gaffer Fodor to search me, with a malicious smile on my lips that caused him to be all the more thorough in rifling through my bag. And then I haughtily went out of the metal door of the workshop and turned the corner as soon as I left the tyrant’s field of vision. I stuffed the hot plate into my bag and sidled towards the factory fence, which was topped with barbed wire. I clambered over the barbs, all the while thinking that I was performing the greatest act of resistance in my life. I fell flat on my face in the cold mud on the other side of the fence and I ran off cradling my priceless reward in my arms, avoiding people, shops and housing blocks.
That white hot plate sat on a shelf in the larder for many years. It never heated anything; nobody ever used it. Nor was it possible to use it. I had forgotten that the electric filaments were mounted in a different section.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth