In 1985 a gang of freelance journalists, travel writers and what not, including me, were invited on a freebie to Romania for a week. As a sell by the Romanian authorities to encourage Westerners to come to their country, it was an unmitigated disaster. Bad food, bad drinks, no decent pubs, no laughter in public, and dodgy money-changers hissing that communism was shit and who then disappeared, leaving us with wodges of worthless notes. The gates of a mosque in Constantza were locked shut, rusty with disuse; our hotel rooms were creepy sepulchres, net curtains and heavy drapes hiding the sunshine; we took a flight in a rickety plane through a terrifying thunderstorm. Everywhere, there was a feeling that a whole country was locked inside someone else’s migraine. Nowhere would anyone tell you what was wrong. Even our Securitate-approved minders went into a mental coma when we questioned the genius of the Genius of the Carpathians, Nicolae Ceauşescu. Most troubling of all, ordinary people shunned us, lest they should have to report a conversation with a foreigner. Hotel staff were shockingly rude. I have a dim memory of singing ‘Good-bye-ee’ to a spectacularly frosty hotel receptionist. I now realise that she was not rude but very, very afraid. With pride, I knocked off my review for The Times’s travel pages with two words: ‘Don’t go.’ The then travel editor took those words out, in case they caused offence.
Reading this superbly realised memoir of a childhood smudged out by political repression, I feel a sense of shame that we were overly polite about the regime. At the same time that we were gingerly prodding stale meat on our hotel plates, Carmen Bugan and her family were enduring a new finessing of humiliation. They were dragooned to go to court to observe the formal divorce of their mother from their father. He had been a political prisoner since, three years earlier, he drove through Bucharest with a poster on his car demanding that Ceauşescu step down.
The Securitate first invaded their house when Carmen was twelve years old. In that knife-slash of time, Carmen had to say goodbye to childhood, and subsequently learnt to survive in a world where microphones picked up every whisper, where the family was forbidden from closing curtains so that the secret policemen could see in, and where teachers publicly castigated Carmen and her little sister as social parasites. The Securitate then moved in next door and put a microphone in a tree, until the local priest and some parishioners chopped the tree down ‘by accident’. Carmen was not spared interrogation; she went through hour after hour of remorseless questioning.
One terrible day the big guns from the Securitate came and dug up a typewriter buried in the back garden. Carmen recalls her fear, and her anger with her father that he had been selfish and foolish enough to drag the whole family into his private war with the Ceauşescus. Back then in Romania, every typewriter had to be logged with the secret police. To bury a typewriter was a major crime, proof that the guilty were typing out words critical of the regime. What her father had done was both extremely brave and extremely foolish. Carmen’s struggle to love him while the fruits of his heroism manifested themselves during his internment in a grim dungeon – the misery of the rest of the family being spied on, of her being bullied at school, of sleeping with fear at the gate – is at the restless heart of her memoir.
Her literature teacher used to berate her, haul her out of a classroom and then secretly feed her sandwiches. Her best friend stuck by, with secret smiles, while the policemen hovered in mid-distance.
The ‘divorce’ took place in 1985, when our party was dimly struggling to see through the totalitarian fog. The system piled pressure on Carmen’s mother. Her children were denied access to the schools they wanted to attend; she was pushed from one menial job to the next. Advised to divorce her husband lest he ‘pollute’ the minds of his children with ‘anti-communist propaganda’, she succumbed. He turned up in court, handcuffed to another man, his feet in chains. But the people heard about the case and turned up under the windows of the courtroom chanting ‘Bugan, Bugan, Bugan’. Carmen must have felt so troubled, so proud.
In the meantime, Amnesty International and the rest were kicking up such a fuss that the regime let the family go. They were given political asylum in the United States in 1989, so they missed out on the revolution that the whole family had longed for. Carmen doesn’t say so, but I wonder whether she still feels cheated for having not witnessed herself the end of the nightmare.
This is a smashing book. Just as Carmen was completing it, the government in Romania finally allowed her to access some of the Securitate files. She includes some of the dread paperwork but, perhaps out of decency and kindness, passes over the evidence of her father’s betrayal. The photograph of the buried typewriter is arresting, proof of a time when madness stalked a corner of our continent.