I had come to an understanding of sorts with life. All things seemed settled for the foreseeable future. I had even come to terms with the business of surviving. I had my own alliances, having found a way to communicate in a crooked, topsy-turvy world, in which little was being communicated and even that was in code. I had determined to put up with the conspiracies and the conflicts, and was by now even amenable to certain compromises, as long as I could enjoy certain liberties in exchange. I thought I had a good handle on any states of exultation. There wasn’t much I could expect from outside, since events were so predictable; while on the inside I was putting on a front of calmness and indifference for what should have been real poise and equilibrium. In short, things were neither here nor there.
Times had become sort of neutral to me. The children were by now college students; my wife had stopped tormenting me with her fits of jealousy. I was working as an editor in one of the Capital’s dailies, and prided myself on having deftly avoided landing any management position which would have required a much too heavy dose of involvement in politics, which, in turn, would have entailed all sorts of shameful, humiliating compromises. I was more and more resigned to just age nicely, putting off as long as I could, as best I could, any serious attempt to answer life’s hard-nosed questions. I opposed nothing and no one. I made sure I never stepped out of line. I was a dutiful aspirant to the commonplace, a nostalgic seeker of normality. And at that very moment, just when I thought I had it all down pat, madness broke out.
I was living in one of those relatively “good” districts of the Capital, neither too central, nor too peripheral. An area with prevailing tall, gray buildings, with ugly rundown balconies that were far too narrow, which had been built during the years of socialism with the express purpose of herding as many similar people as possible into standard, one-size-fits-all tiny apartments appropriately nicknamed “matchboxes.” The ground floor of these buildings invariably housed all sorts of stores, mostly of a useless variety. In fact, in those days many of them were almost always empty or stocked with unappealing, shoddy products nobody ever wanted. Their grimy, dingy windows displayed only spinach jars and tomato cans.
For two years we had had no lights after ten p.m., due to the authorities’ supposed need to conserve energy. Naturally, we had found a way to cope even with this inconvenience, by acquiring tons of candles, which came in very handy in those days, when our eyes could hardly penetrate the thick darkness on the streets, on the staircase and practically everywhere else. Kerosene lamps, formerly discarded by the stores, now made a triumphant comeback; and if one had the right connections in an electrical appliance store, one could get, for a price and almost always under the table, Russian-made flashlights and electric rings from Czechoslovakia. Needless to say, when the lights went out, the water and heat supplies were also cut, as well as the natural gas.
We were experimenting with a glorious “Back to Nature” movement! During the summer nights I could do a bit of reading by the candlelight, but in winter this was almost always impossible. We would all go to bed very early, quite fed up with everything. Water was heated on the electric ring. Then we washed ourselves as best we could in a washbowl, put on warm socks, a track suit, donned a ski cap, and slid under the covers, numb with cold. All these things were going on in the waning years of the eighties, when the world outside was abuzz with all kinds of wonderful high tech gadgets, with news of great breakthroughs in outer space exploration, and with so many other out-of-this-world wonders, which nevertheless left us—in our sad, cold, forlorn corner of the earth—quite indifferent.
Bundled up like this, needless to say, there were few, if any, romantic stirrings in us. Whatever passionate desires might have reared up in us would have been quickly stifled under these harsh circumstances. The birth rate in our country was steadily declining, in sharp contrast to mortality, which peaked among young women who were trying to abort their fetuses in their own homes, either by themselves or aided by some old woman, skilled in such matters, through the use of knitting needles, corkscrews, clothes hangers and other such unconventional instruments. The woman would consent to go to the hospital only at the very last minute, after desperation had overcome her fear of the authorities. Once there, next to the doctor, waiting for her would be the stern-faced police officer and the unmerciful prosecutor. An emergency cutterage would ensue, followed by prosecution or rapid death.
My job at this daily had its well-set routines, running, as it were, on automatic pilot. Mostly I was in charge of the miscellaneous news page. I would dig up some “true stories” that would pass muster with the government censors, in an attempt to give the unhappy, sensation-hungry readers at least the illusion they were being informed about what was really going on in the country. The least I could do was to spice these stories up a little, employing as lively and attractive a style as I could, while at other times resorting to a dry, ironical tone, to describe what were really quite ordinary affairs—petty crimes that brought disproportionately heavy sentences on their perpetrators, traffic accidents, maybe an avalanche or two in winter, insignificant losses and ideologically-sweetened dramas. Nothing of the real social traumas ever made it into print. None of the on-the-job accidents, resulting in the death of scores of workers, was reported, not a word was written about the murders that occurred or the abysmal conditions children in orphanages, in hospitals, or in schools, lived under. And certainly not even a passing comment was allowed about the corruption permeating the leading political and economic circles. Not a word was breathed about these things, for, after all, such horrible things “only happened in the West,” right?
Here’s what a typical item in the miscellaneous news section would have sounded like: A woman employed by the Red Ear of Grain was caught, upon getting out of her shift, with three loaves of bread, concealed under her padded parka. She was sentenced today to three months imprisonment. Angela Balaci is the mother of three children, this being her first offense of the kind.
Everything was highly centralized, run by a handful of incapable political leaders, who tailored the laws to their own taste, changing them at will or, as the case might be, breaking them if it suited their purposes.
The days wore on, long and boring. The sensational, the unusual, the out-of-the-ordinary always happened somewhere else, never here. What never happened was exactly the kind of events we desired fervently and knew in our hearts we badly needed for any good change to occur in our country. After a while we even ran out of conflicts. As for failures, for depressions, we had no time for such sentimental nonsense! Both radio and television were triumphantly spouting stories about our supposed victories, achievements, quotas met and exceeded, bumper crops in agriculture, incredibly high industrial outputs, in our exports and, above all, in our birth rate.
Happiness and triumph were rolling out in waves over the heads of the country’s inhabitants, over the happy-go-lucky, grateful beneficiaries of tons and tons of pig iron, coal and other natural assets. All graphs showed unusually high values, shooting up vertically, while we went on living our miserable lives, half buried underground! And yet, when it came to sports championships and artistic events, we always came out on top.
Our children were the best. They crammed all day—what else could they do? They invariably won the highest places in the science competitions. And, of course, if by some miracle they were allowed to go abroad to attend international competitions, they always fetched first- or second-place prizes.
Our old folks were dying decent deaths, many of them still in their prime, having had but a few years in which to enjoy the ridiculously low pensions allotted to them, with which there wasn’t much to buy anyway. They spent most of their time waiting in lines, grim, silent, and determined, dragging their feet through the dusty parks or playing rummy on the benches in front of the dilapidated apartment buildings.
Our women would get up very early in the morning, and throughout the day they kept cooking, and washing—by hand—the household’s dishes and laundry. Their natural beauty was rapidly fading, as they didn’t have time to look after themselves, soured as they were by life’s hardships, with unkempt, disheveled appearances, embittered by hard labot and the absence of any basic comforts. Wherever they went, they carried with them their ubiquitous plastic bags, humiliating us when they got home with the display of their meager contents, acquired after much effort and at ridiculously high prices. Because abortion was illegal and contraceptives almost impossible to come by, they hated their husbands and had sullenly consented to include sex among those unavoidable, risky sacrifices that simply had to be put up with, in which all pleasure had long since given way to revulsion.
No one committed suicide. Officially there were no murders, no robberies, no sabotages, and no strikes. Come to think of it, in every town there was but one basic newspaper, coming out in two or three slightly modified variations, but all written in the same drag, hollow, and artificially pumped up style—just like the paper I was working for. People were buying these papers mainly for the classified ads or for the obituaries page, which they were watching feverishly every morning, in the vain hope that one day they would wake up and discover, with delirious joy, right there on page one, framed in a heavy black border, the official announcement of the death of the most beloved son of the nation.
Like everybody else, I would sometimes mumble some incoherent, barely audible criticism against the regime, but only within the confines of my close-knit circle of friends. I managed to keep my humor, quite convinced that we were not what we imagined ourselves to be. It was quite an exuberant, lively kind of humor. There was no shortage of jokes in those days, which acted as some sort of a safety valve, another survival mechanism. We seemed to be a surreal country that could not stop laughing, even while it was slowly dying!
The jokes covered a wide range, from the political to the social realm. Some wag came up with the idea that even these jokes were being concocted and deliberately spread by the dreaded secret poice in its clever attempt to inculcate a certain illusion of freedom in us, to allow us the cheap privilege of a few harmless liberties. It should not come as a surprise then that this led to the development of a unique genre of science-fiction-like, surrealist, absurd literature so prevalent at the time.
Naturally, political jokes topped the list, being told with gusto, in a wide variety of situations. Example: On page one of the main daily there appeared, framed in black, the following obituary: “The family of the head of state is deeply saddened to announce the passing, after a prolonged illness, of the entire nation.”
We repressed our feelings as best we could, while they were fine-tuning their experiment on us, the hapless guinea pigs, cynically resorting to psychology and to the so-called “national specificity” concept. I once had the privilege of getting hold of a copy of a report written by a foreign observer from the West at the end of his two-month stay in our country: A talented but lazy people, wavering between the ridiculous and the hyperbolic. Suspicious when prosperous, resigned when in trouble. Easy to manipulate, prone to going with the crowd, forever practicing the art of survival at the crossroads of empires, systems, and religions. Oscillating between excessive praise and self-deprecation, between lamentation and victimization, now living ‘under the times,’ now beside them.
At first I got quite mad at this no-holds-barred, unvarnished description of us, but later had to admit the reporter was right. After all, things are much clearer when viewed from afar, through cool, detached eyes.
I hated the political system in a passive but unrelenting manner. I was totally convinced nothing would ever change in my lifetime, not a thing would stir in the political arena. I foresaw no reversal of the status quo, in spite of the constant message I was getting from the foreign broadcasts, that communism’s days were numbered.
Eastern Europe was going through unprecedented turmoil. However, to me these convulsions seemed quite laborious and somewhat contrived. Still, whatever they did in the rest of the region, I said to myself, for us there was no hope. For we were, in my opinion, an enclave, a cage deeply entrenched in totalitarianism, with no one capable or willing to pull apart its heavy bars.
True, the East was beginning to groan and shake, but I could have sworn the wave would lose its momentum by the time it reached us, that is, if they hadn’t first nipped in the bud even the passing thought of a revolt. We had become quite good at being stuck in our isolationism. Terror reigned supreme in our country. The infernal oppression machine—finely-tuned and driven daily by the contribution of each of us, pliable puppets, were making, whether we realized it or not, to the triumph of the seeming never-ending nightmare—was running on quite nicely, thank you.
However, I did not make the mistake of attributing all failures to our all-pervasive cowardice. I knew there were people who thought deeply, who conspired, albeit at a purely intellectual level, but all these forms of personal resistance were unable to trigger any meaningful, lasting change. It was a silent resistance, relevant only to the cultural space, extended as a compensation for the official political obscurantism.
We were like some individual oases in a vast desert, our only solidarity manifesting itself through our obstinacy to be different from what we looked like as a nation. As if viewed from an imaging space satellite, hovering over a dark area of the earth, we must have appeared as isolated pinpoints of light, in the blackness of the vast surrounding night, thereby intensifying our sad plight.
We were living a paradoxical existence. While barely above the poverty or, should I say, subsistence line, our artistic and cultural lives more than made up for our material destitution. On Saturdays we would stand in line for hours to buy tickets for all the shows that would be played in the city’s playhouses during the following week. We had our own talented actors, our own skilled directors—at least the ones that hadn’t yet emigrated. The censorship was again laying down its weapons before such texts as those composed by Pirandello, Shakespeare, Bulgakov or Chekhov and turned a blind eye to references to the underground, to political allusions and to directorial ironies. To be sure, we were permitted certain liberties. But these could not provide the heat we needed to keep from freezing in our apartments, nor did they satisfy our hunger. They could not cause the communist bloc to crack, but they did vindicate us to a certain extent.
In the concert hall where the symphony orchestra played it was so cold that the players had to perform with gloved hands, while the conductor had a heavy sheepskin hat pulled over his head.
While national writers had to do battle with the censorship apparatus, translations from world literature were curiously enough permitted. The top communist rulers simply did not care one way or another about this kind of literature. What the decadent imperialists were writing was not their business. Theirs was to watch over the national values. And so there were plenty of court poets, committed writers, slavish servants of the regime who, year after year, published, especially on the supreme leader’s birthday, thick volumes of sickeningly obsequious poetry, paeans filled with incredibly low-taste high praise addressed to him. Everybody was happy. After all, everybody had to live, one way or another, and everyone coped the best they could. For the system did not appear to us in a hurry to expire. I nfact, I was convinced it would survive me.
In those years, a friend of mine, a journalist with a daily in the south of France, came to visit me. He had been sent to write a sensational piece about the Dracula castle, the only real attraction we could offer the West. So he took advantage of this trip and he stopped by. I took him home, assuming not a few risks, given the government’s strict laws against any contacts with foreigners. And should the latter just happen to drop by unannounced, we were under orders to immediately notify the authorities and report to the militia all pertinent information about them. My French friend was quite impressed with my large library. Like the rest of my family, I read whatever copy I could get my hands on of the latest books and magazines published in the West that made their way to us. We always seemed able to somehow watch the latest films produced in the West and seemed unaccountably well-informed in all matters of culture. All this in spite of our precarious material conditions, which did not take my distinguished friend long to notice.
On that particular Sunday, I was not allowed to drive my car. Again, because of the alleged need to save energy, the authorities had instituted a system of gasoline distribution, based on the alternating odd/even number of the vehicle’s registration plate. To ensure plentiful supplies for those Sundays I did have permission to drive, in our bathroom I kept two spare cans always filled to the brim with fuel. Naturally gasoline was another rationed product, so I had to save it up for trips we would take to the mountains, perhaps once a month, or for our annual family vacation.
So we hopped in a cab, and I was thus able to show him the city. The old, beautifully ornate housing districts alternated with areas filled with horrible, ugly apartment buildings which, although new, looked already old and falling apart.
At that time, acting on the orders of the dictator, they began bulldozing quite a few churches, and other historic buildings included on the National Trust list, all of this with a vigorous socialistic élan which filled my friend with disgust and dread. He could not understand anything from all that aberrant architecture and I had nothing to offer by way of an explanation. Filled with patriotic zeal, they were building an absurd universe. My friend was shocked to see on the streets the same make of car, multiplied ad infinitum. He was bewildered by the empty stores and intrigued by the interminable lines in front of bookstores and theaters!
“You have nothing to eat, yet there you are, standing in line to buy books?!”
I explained to him that we lived in a world of “dependencies.” Books were our hard currency. One could exchange them for milk for one’s children, or with them one could get special, personalized treatment from a doctor who was going to operate on one’s wife. No one would looks at you unless you had something to give him. Whiskey, cigarettes, books, cheese, or chickens sent over by one’s relatives in the provinces. You could find nothing in the stores. It was quite an adventure to raise a child. I would sometimes buy a ticket for the Orient Express, which ran through our capital, simply because I wanted to buy various goods from the traveling foreign tourists—maybe a little chocolate, a box of cookies and candy for our children. I would then get off at the nearest station and return by way of a dirty cold slow train, whose doors were sometimes off their hinges and the cushions on the seats all torn up.
Like everybody else, in addition to the refrigerator, I had a freezer box, which I had bought with lots of money through special connections, out of a batch destined for export. In this freezer we would place for long-term storage whatever good we had been able to garner through strenuous efforts, whenever we could.
Every fall my wife would spend a considerable amount of time canning vegetables, making zakuska, various juices, fruit preserves, syrups, and tomato juice. She would place in the freezer plastic bags filled with green peppers and ripe eggplant, with all kinds of vegetables and semi-preserved fruit, to provide us with sustenance during the winter. Then the freezer had special compartments for cheeses and meats. These were the most prized, usually reserved for our children. Adults were banned from using these delicacies.
The meat, obtained through all kinds of complicated, ingenious rituals, after waiting in line for hours, was carefully portioned for steaks, for soups, for minced meat, or for schnitzel. My wife would label each plastic bag, writing with an imported, felt-tipped pen its intended use. In addition, we had a ration card, but, alas, it was so low in value! We could only buy ten eggs a month with it, one packet of butter, a kilo of sugar and one liter of cooking oil. Card or no car, in some months these food items could not be found in any store.
In certain cities one could still use one’s ration card to buy flour, corn meal, and two scrawny chickens, so tiny they could fit nicely into one small plastic bag. No wonder they had been nicknamed “sneakers,” for they were nothing but legs! No one used the phrase “they are selling” this and that, but only “they are giving” or “they are introducing” these items. I was 48 when I saw my first banana.
One evening my wife and the children were out, leaving me alone in the apartment. Suddenly I felt an irresistible urge to eat a steak and drink a glass of red wine. I paced around the freezer, until I could take it no longer. Guiltily I pulled out a little bag on which my wife had clearly written “for grilled meat.” I lit the grill and when the steak was done, I wolfed it down greedily, only to be later tormented by guilt not unlike that of a criminal. A guilt my wife exacerbated when she got home. Smelling the aroma of grilled meat, she quickly opened the freezer, pulling out the now empty incriminating meat drawer and voicing the forbidding, dreaded words:
“I simply can’t believe it! You have taken food from the children’s mouths!”
I saw my friend fidgeting uncomfortably, while I helplessly looked on, deeply embarrassed. Only when I began to explain to him the rules of our complicated, survival game, did I realize what an absurd world we lived in, what grinding poverty we were sinking into!
Whatever exciting sensations the Dracula myth might have aroused in him, what he saw in our family’s living conditions that evening must have produced a far greater impression than anything he had seen in the rest of his trip. The next day they called me in to the secret police office, where they interrogated me for six hours straight. They wanted to know who he was, how I got to know him, why he had come, and what we had discussed.
Translated from the Romanian by Dorin Motz
Carmen Firan, born in Romania, is a poet, a fiction and play writer, and a journalist. She has published fifteen books of poetry, novels, essays and short stories. Her writings appear in translation in many literary magazines and in various anthologies in France, Israel, Sweden, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Canada, U K, and the USA. She lives in New Zork. Her recent books and publications in the United States of America include: The Second Life (Columbia University Press) 2005, The Farce, (Spuyten Duyvil) 2004, In The Most Beautiful Life, Umbrage Editions 2003, The First Moment After Death, Writers Club Press, 2001, Accomplished Error, Spuyten Duyvil, 2000.