Memories, "Ego-grafii" series, 2004, 464 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
The endeavour of the four authors - Paul Cernat, Ion Manolescu, Angelo Mitchievici, Ioan Stanomir - of this book is spectacular. In turn, each of them descends into his own history, seeking details, the “madeleines” of a past epoch, of a vanished world : that of Romanian communism. However, the result is by no means an attempt to salvage in any way the ideology that scarred Romania for almost half a century. On the contrary, by assembling minor personal histories, which construct a kind of glossary, an insectarium of childhood and juvenile life in communist Romania, the authors thereby unveil, in the background, a grotesque, painful and absurd tableau. Written with nostalgia for one’s personal past, but at the same time in a tone that acquires the necessary gravity when personal history intersects with the wider, terrible and dramatic narrative of Romanian society, the histories contained in this book touch upon a multitude of topics, from episodes connected to the pioneer’s red cravat to the films that attempted to indoctrinate at an early age, from food queues to “contraband” cigarettes, from innocent childhood games to obligatory participation in the mass rallies organised on the occasions of official Communist Party holidays. Gradually, an Orwellian atmosphere is created, blurred, nonetheless, by the eyes through which it is filtered : the eyes of innocence, capable of seeing in the most dramatic of episodes something pleasing and innocent, in which children, as yet incapable of understanding the realities of the surrounding world in all their harshness, prefer to take refuge.
When citrus fruits disappeared from the shops, it was rumoured that they were “irradiated.” When soft drinks were not to be found, they were “infested.” The poverty of foodstuffs was aberrantly explained by “rumour‑mongers” as due to profiteers named “hamsters” who were stashing goods in vaults. Black marketeers were, in theory, hunted down. However, they used to get on with business very nicely indeed, in collusion with the authorities, who would sacrifice a scapegoat every now and then in order to quell the fury of the famished. Such was the case of the notorious wine‑trafficker Ştefănescu, who was sentenced to death and about whom two police comedy films had been made, The Secret of Bacchus and the Secret of Nemesis. It is no less true that life for the “lads” was by no means easy. Each spied on the other, in a circle. Many Securitate agents were alcoholics ; they would periodically admit themselves to detox clinics. The stress continually wore them down. Once you had entered the apparatus, you would only leave feet first.
During breaks, there continued the ritual I had already encountered in nursery school, in secondary school, in my block, during visits, in queues, on the bus : provocation. Sometimes it was the teachers who were the provocateurs. You could “read” them straight away. I was already well versed in how to keep my guard up, I knew that people have a weakness for demonstrating their authority and domination over others. Therefore, you had to flatter their pride by saying what they wanted to hear or else stutter and avoid answering. During breaks, it was always the same ones who would tell the political jokes, inopportunely setting the tone with a crack about Ceauşescu. The others, courageous but dupes, would enter into the spirit – there were very few that kept aloof – and, as in my case, tell dirty jokes or else apolitical ones about John and Sir. Spying on their methods, I learnt how to “interpret” at first hand the way in which the system thought. I had empirically familiarised myself with all the elements of counterespionage, diversionary tactics, misinformation and camouflage, the “art of prudence.” I was fascinated by their secret sect mentality. They were snoopers who wanted to control Everything, to find out what you were thinking – they were not able to penetrate inside my mind, however. Dialogues were often subliminal : each person sensed what the other was trying to avoid saying and sought to guess why. We spoke “in code,” looking for the other’s “passwords,” we tried to tried to pick up on and thwart the strategy as we went. Neighbours from the block, acquaintances, colleagues, friends – I studied them all with a perverse voluptuousness, concealed behind shyness. In our class, the number of those whose families collaborated at varying levels with the Securitate was, on the basis of my “empirical” observations, enormous – not to mention the presumable percentage of neighbours in my block. I think the number of occasional or permanent informers was much larger than the number of members in the Romanian Communist Party. The number of child and adolescent “collaborators” seemed proportional to that of the parents, the assimilation had, in part, been accomplished. But nevertheless, in many families of Securitate agents, there were conflicts between the generations : some parents of the “heavies,” simple folk from the countryside, were transformed into servants and subjected to “familial” humiliations…
(Paul Cernat, chapter “In the midst of the Securitate”)
With these fascicles of reality and residues of memory, I nourished and clothed communism, I set its combination of flesh, bones and microphones in motion, dragging it behind me like a filthy and delirious illness. I was the proprietor of a neuronal archive of data, images and sensations that I was to preserve piously, safe from the prying eyes of the Securitate. Without their knowledge, I was to transport through time my collection of lost objects and useless memories, in an insane dual against death.
As for dying, one had all the time and all the occasions in the world for that. In one queue (assembled by the well known false alarm of “the meat lorry is coming,” which used to bring people out from all over the place, causing them scurry about like ants), my seventy‑five year‑old grandfather stood for twelve hours : on the street corner from six in the morning until six in the evening. When he got home, with an empty bag (that day, the lorry had not turned up), he started to feel unwell, leaned on the bed and collapsed. This former interbellic country gentleman – vineyard owner and horse breeder in the foothills of the Leaota Mountain, denounced by a friend, arrested and beaten by the Securitate in the time of Dej because he had hidden some “cockerels” – had now exhausted all his energy for the sake of a bit of meat on the bone. Later, struck down with sclerosis and bedridden with semi‑paralysis, he was to come round once every few days, to ask the family he had once provided for : “Bread ? Is there bread ?”
You could just as easily endure the same at Christmas, setting off into town in search of a tree. After about 1985, the firs started to be replaced with pine and spruce (which didn’t have a smell and would shed their needles in the house after about three days). You would take all the markets in turn (Obor, Matache, Amzei, 1 May, Domenii) and find nothing. Then, as if by miracle, two or three vendors in rat‑grey overalls would turn up and pile some shrubs into a pen cordoned off with wood and string, but because of the pushing of the crowd you wouldn’t even be able to get a glimpse. That’s how the fight for Christmas trees would start, a fight in the literal sense : punched mouths, trodden toes, swearing and ripped off branches. Arriving home ruffled and empty‑handed after one such adventure, my father decided to give up “buying” Christmas trees from socialist trade. However, since for both him and the entire family Christmas was a joyous celebration (from the day I was born, the house had never lacked a tree), he found another solution. He learned from a colleague at work that, at the main train station, some firs were secretly going to be brought in from Moldavia on the locomotive of the train from Suceava or Vatra Dornei. So, on the night of the 22nd or 23rd, he waited for the carriages to pull up to the platform, got talking with the engine driver and, after the last passenger had left, paid him a hundred lei for one of the three or four majestic firs stashed in the locomotive.
(Ion Manolescu, chapter “What became of us ?”)
Coffee. How many people can imagine morning without a cup of coffee ? Without a cigarette ? Coffee had been replaced by a product ironically dubbed nechezol. The term seems to come from the verb a necheza (“to whinny”), but I don’t know its etymology for certain. It was made from chickpeas combined with who knows what and drunk as a substitute for coffee. Advantage : no caffeine. Disadvantage : it wasn’t coffee. With a lot of imagination, you might think you were drinking bad coffee. The worst. The cigarettes were bad too : Carpathians, Mărăşeşti, Snagov, the latter of which were the only ones with filters. Other cigarettes became harder and harder to find, these others mainly being a single brand : Kent. The cigarette of head managers, doctors and university professors. The first cigarettes I ever smoked, with artlessness and stoicism, were Carpathians, all extremely evil‑smelling, suffocating – you would end up with half the tobacco in your mouth if you didn’t have the knack. Bad cigarettes spoiled what for me could have been a promising career as a smoker. Even when I came across better ones, like Vikend, or BT, their Bulgarian counterparts, my fervour had already been quenched ; the stoicism I mention had already vanished. My mother used packets of cigarettes against moths, in the absence of mothballs. It seems they produce results. When she found mothballs, she would still alternate them with the cigarettes. Not even the moths could stand the cheap tobacco. In the celebrated “Eugenia” sandwich biscuit, which I used to eat in the absence of anything else – a kind of poor man’s dessert, to be found at almost every kiosk – the layer of cream kept getting thinner, until it all but disappeared. Latterly, you used to find only a meagre sliver sticking the two biscuits together. The gypsy women used to sell us sunflower seeds, but I never learned how to spit out the husk in an artistic way, so I would swallow them whole. We used to get nougat from them too, as well as reddish‑coloured apples on sticks, also drizzled with nougat. They were very good, in spite of all the warnings about how they were made in the chamber pots of the vendors in question. Batons, a kind of elongated and extremely insipid loaf of bread, had also disappeared. We used to get foreign chewing gum from the black marketeers : Malabar, Tin Tin, or packets with the faces of three footballers. “Gumela,” a Romanian chewing gum, which built up the muscles, used to come in the form of a white or pink cigarette, not that they were any different. It was brittle, you would chew it vigorously and the flavour vanished instantaneously. You were left with gutta‑percha, a rubber that would break your jaw, and after a while it was as if you were munching a flexor. You couldn’t blow bubbles with it and it soon became too hard for it to be worth continuing the effort. Consequently, you would champ on it a couple of times and then throw it away, or you could stick it to the plush seats in the cinema, or the chairs in cafes, or the benches in classrooms, where it would rapidly harden, like rock. Decades from now, the sensitive and nostalgic anthropologists of a new world will find traces of these laborious activities. In storerooms stacked with old furniture, in dusty warehouses, in basements lined with mould and cobwebs, on the benches of God‑forsaken schools in the Carpathian Mountains. In Craiova, Bucharest and Constanþa. In Romania. Everywhere. In my soul.
(Angelo Mitchievici, chapter “Total Recall”)
Recyclable materials were part of everyday life for a secondary school pupil such as myself, to the same degree as homework or sports lessons. At the edge of the school, sited between mountains of paper and guarded by a dog, there was a caravan which had been converted into the headquarters for collection of the paper and bottles gathered by the youth of socialist Romania. Like adults, children were given obligatory quotas, and speed in meeting them would bring an increase in pioneer respectability.
A natural bond developed between socialist humanism and the collection of recyclable materials : the collection of paper provided the perfect opportunity to play truant for a few hours. When the teachers were called upon to enlighten the Eighth Form in the mysteries of subjects that were unknown even to them, waste paper appeared as a natural refuge and egress from difficulty : mutual satisfaction was guaranteed. I warmly recall how the only Latin lesson of the week became, at the initiative of comrade teacher, an hour dedicated to the gleaning of detritus. Since our school had no Latin teacher, given that the number of hours was not sufficient to provide a full‑time job, the subject was allocated, by rotation, to the History, Romanian and English teachers, who were clearly far from charmed at the prospect. The paper pact solved an equation with many unknowns.
Waste paper seemed a fascinating object in itself. Rummaging with my classmates in the school basement, where the collection quotas were stored, with a view to centralisation, I encountered almost everything the homeland’s press system had to offer : from Historical Magazine to Woman Magazine, next to the books grandparents used charitably to donate to their grandchildren, so that they could fulfil their debt of fealty to the school. In the short interval that separated storage and transfer to the collection centre, an illicit operation of sifting through the garbage used to take place. Each of us would choose a magazine or book, according to our tastes, either intellectual or sporting. With us, these books’ adventure would begin anew, only to end just as abruptly, when the folks at home used to realise their far too humble origins. The circulation of bartered books and magazines related to the regulations of education through labour and for labour.
(Ioan Stanomir, chapter “Waste Paper”)
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth