Claudia Moscovici

Dystopic Utopias in Speculative Fiction and Art

 

There are several great novels associated with the dystopic utopia tradition, but without a doubt four of the most notable are: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Such novels distinguish themselves from both fantasy and science fiction. In an interview, Atwood stated that she prefers the name “speculative fiction,” a term coined by Robert A. Heinlein, to describe A Handmaid’s Tale (NY: First Anchor Books Edition, 1998): “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships. Speculative fiction could really happen.” (“Aliens have taken the place of angels: Margaret Atwood on why we need science fiction,” The Guardian, June 2005). Speculative fiction has become an umbrella term that includes utopian and dystopic fiction as well as apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, some of which may also be considered to be science fiction or fantasy. The best speculative fiction, I believe, reveals what has already begun to happen and extrapolates with amazing lucidity how social and political ideals can turn into our worst nightmares. Every utopic ideology, from Marxism to eugenics and from primitivism to technocracy, has within it the seeds of its own dystopic undoing. Each one shows part of what has happened in our cultures and how things could get a lot worse.

 

Margaret Atwood’s novel illustrates what could take place in any culture or society where the women’s movement joins forces with the radical right to create a “purer” society.  In such a world, “freedom to” (dress as one wants, choose one’s profession and life partner) becomes “freedom from” (being a sex object, having too many choices of partners, location or profession). But “freedom from” is only a euphemism for lack of civil rights, for constraint, for invisibility itself (as women are enshrouded in a veil and even wear blinders on top of their heads, so they can’t see or be seen). It is a dystopic utopia; a contradiction in terms. Some societies have already implemented such a “freedom from” in the name of various religious or political ideologies. However, as Atwood underscores, no society—even the most seemingly open-minded and liberal–is immune to it. Totalitarian constraints can happen anywhere, even in the U.S, which, in fact, is the setting for her novel.

 

While Margaret Atwood envisions a danger that could happen, George Orwell describes a social experiment that did happen.  To many who have lived through the totalitarian phase of communism in Eastern Europe, as I have, Orwell’s 1984 is, in many respects, a historical novel: one that goes hand in hand with Robert Conquest’s monumental history, The Great Terror.  Newspeak, thought police, brainwashing; the physical and psychological torture of political prisoners to confess to nonexistent crimes and the show trials were all part and parcel of how the NKVD and other Secret Police organizations ruled  with an iron fist during communist dictatorships. O’Brien, the Thought Police agent in the novel, states the open secret of totalitarian regimes: “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” (1984, NY: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1949,  p. 272)

Perhaps the only speculative aspect of Orwell’s utopic dystopia is, as O’Brien himself points out, that those put on show trials die purified of their thought crimes and convinced of the righteousness of the new regime. They often are not, as were the victims of Stalinist purges, the embittered martyrs of a lost freedom. O’Brien promises Winston: “I shall save you, I shall make you perfect” (251). Perfection in 1984 is a world with no objective parameters of truth and falsehood or of right and wrong. It is a world in which the past is a convenient fiction for the present; a world where the difference between fear and blind trust is obliterated.  The Thought Police aims not merely to oppress man, but also to gaslight him: to get him to accept relativism without question. “We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him,” states O’Brian (263). He pursues: “We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him…. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him… Even in the instant of death we cannot permit any deviation” (263).

 

By their very nature, utopias are ideological and dogmatic. They often represent a reaction to one form of constraint or dogmatism with an equally strong reaction in the opposite direction.   Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (NY: HarperCollins, 1932) probes another aspect of ideological dreams that could easily turn into nightmares: the social experiments of eugenics and the supposed biological justifications for social hierarchies and castes. Written during a time when the Nazi party was already starting to implement eugenic policies—described, in some ways, in the novel–Brave New World doesn’t spare democratic societies its sharp social critiques either.   Huxley describes the dangers that capitalism and industrialization, if left unchecked, can pose for humanity. Human beings are reduced to little more than automatons, consuming mood altering drugs and engaging in ritualistic sexual activities to compensate for lack of thought and the superficial and impersonal nature of their emotional ties.

 

Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (NY: Random House, 1953) issues a powerful warning against censorship: books are burned because of their dangerous, potentially conflagrating ideological effects. However, as the author states in an interview in the late 1950’s, the novel also touches upon the alienation among people caused by an excess of information and too much exposure to the mass media: “But only a few weeks ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog… The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. … There she was, oblivious to the man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap opera cries, sleepwalking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there. This was not fiction” (quoted by Kingsley Amis in New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction, NY: Ayer Co. Publishing, 1975). Obviously, the author’s critique can be exponentially multiplied today, when most of our human contacts are mediated by ipods, computers, twittering, Facebook and other technological gadgets and social/mass media networks.  The future is already here. Each of these speculative novels not only predicted it, but also critiqued it in a way that remains very current.

Why are these speculative novels still relevant and important today? I’d like to explore this question by using as my point of departure a few famous quotes by leading writers and intellectuals.

1.“Our business here is to be Utopian, to make vivid and credible, if we can, first this facet and then that, of an imaginary whole and happy world.” H. G. Wells, A Modern Utopia

Any society is flawed; any political institution, no matter how inclusive or democratic, has some corruption, inequality and unfairness in it. Utopian visions hone in on those weaknesses and injustices to imagine a better world, a world without these flaws. They function, in some ways, as a magnifying glass that allows us to see better the problems with our societies and institutions and as a mirror to imagine their obverse side.

2. “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Almost every speculative novel is, in many respects, more multidimensional and more lucid than any political ideology was or ever could be. It captures both sides of the coin: the utopic vision and its dystopic, more realistic downsides. As Hawthorne puts it: both the ground you build a better society upon and the place you segregate its outlaws and its casualties.

3. “All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.” Toni Morrison, Online NewsHour interview, March 9, 1998

Utopic visions offer the best vantage point for social critiques. As Morrison points out, they are almost always correctives for hierarchies and injustices in the real world of the have’s from the perspective of the have not’s.  Since each society has so many distinctions and hierarchies, the have’s and the have not’s are not a binary dichotomy (between races or classes), but more of a fractal of many social and cultural dichotomies.

4. “Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache… Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness.” George Orwell, Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun

Utopic visions will always exist because nothing in our world can ever be perfect. We will always suffer from the “toothaches” Orwell alludes to. There will always be something wrong with our social and political institutions, no matter what they are. The need to imagine a world without whatever specific flaws we choose to focus on in our societies is therefore also inevitable. We will temporarily see in those utopic visions a better society. However, as Orwell points out, in reality, we might only be exchanging a toothache for a headache, or one problem for another.

5. “In the next few years the struggle will not be between utopia and reality, but between different utopias, each trying to impose itself on reality… We can no longer hope to save everything, but… we can at least try to save lives, so that some kind of future, if perhaps not the ideal one, will remain possible.” (Albert Camus, Between Hell and Reason)

As a counterpoint to Orwell’s cynicism, we can safely say that not all utopias (or dystopias, depending upon your perspective) are equal. Some hells are hotter than others; some political and social structures worse than the next. Utopic visions offer a horizon of possibility. They enable human beings to at least try to aspire to creating better social institutions and governments.

6. “Life without utopia is suffocating, for the multitude at least: threatened otherwise with petrifaction, the world must have a new madness.” E. M. Cioran, History and Utopia

A world without utopic visions is a world deprived of imagination, where one only sees what is and remains blind to what could be. Utopias enable us to dream and envision another way of life, perhaps a better world. They are healthy fantasies and necessary regulative ideals: as long as we remember their dangers and undersides, as each of these great writers reminds us.

 Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com

 

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July 21, 2011 Posted by | 1984, Aldous Huxley, Alex Bustillo, Alex M. Bustillo, Bataille, book review, book reviews, Brave New World, Claudia Moscovici, communism, controlling women's bodies, controlling women's sexuality, critiques of the veil, Dan St. Andrei, dystopic utopias, Eastern Europe, Eroticism, Fahrenheit 451, fantasy, fiction, George Orwell, historical fiction, history, Holocaust, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, mainstream fiction, Margaret Atwood, Myopia, photographer Alex Bustillo, photographer Dan St. Andrei, Ray Bradbury, Romanticism and Postromanticism, science fiction, speculative fiction, Story of the Eye, The Handmaid's Tale, utopia, Velvet Totalitarianism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

America’s Obsession with Vampires

 

As a native Romanian who is also a novelist, I’m very intrigued–and, frankly, somewhat baffled–by America’s obsession with vampires and the Dracula legend. It seems like vampire novels and movies are growing in popularity, even as they’re being spoofed by yet other vampire novels and movies! From what I can see, this trend doesn’t seem as popular in Europe. This leads me to wonder: what are some of the reasons behind America’s obsession with vampires? I came up with five main reasons:

1. Exoticism. The setting of the original Dracula legend is a country whose history and traditions are foreign to most American readers, who find Romania distant and exotic. By way of contrast, to most Europeans, Romania is relatively familiar. It’s a place plagued by its devastating totalitarian history (first the rule of the Iron Guard, then its lengthy communist period). It’s a place struggling to emerge from its dark past, faced with enormous economic and political challenges. To the French, at least, it’s also a place known for immigrants from both sides of the social spectrum: the gypsy exodus, which is often linked to pick-pocketing and a nomadic lifestyle, and some of the most intriguing European intellectuals and artists. But when you say that you’re from Romania to most Americans, the first thing they’ll think of is not Eugene Ionesco or Mircea Eliade, but of Dracula. Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler (the ruler of Wallachia between 1456 and 1462) captivates readers with his notorious inhumanity. He’s infamous for the sadistic punishments he imposed upon his Turkish ennemies as well as upon anyone who violated his laws. Legend has it that he’d enjoy his supper watching prisoners being impaled before his eyes.

2. Which leads me to my second reason: the lure of evil. Vampires–these liminal beings between dark spirit and bad human–represent the powers of evil, over which we have limited control. Evil seduces us, only to later destroy us. The vampire bite is closely associated with unbridled sexuality. Vampires, like social predators, suck the vitality or life blood of healthy human beings before moving on to the next victim. But then, I wondered, why don’t we read about them in their human form, such as the Scott Petersons of this world? Why do we prefer to view and read about them as our Others?

3. Mediated evil. Human evil is inescapable. It’s everywhere around us. We read about it in the pages of history books and we see it on the news: ranging from the haunting memories of the Holocaust, to the Stalinist purges, to the latest serial killers on T.V. Because we’re exposed on a daily basis to the inhumanity of social predators, we’re not as intrigued by them as we are by their un-human counterparts, the vampires. Familiarity breeds not contempt, but boredom. At the same time, evil in its human form makes people very uncomfortable. We don’t want to imagine that social predators could enter our neighborhoods, our houses and our lives, to harm us or our loved ones. Vampires, these liminal beings between human and demon, give a more bearable expression to the evil we know, in the back of  our minds, exists in the world and can reach into the intimacy of our lives. They enable us to contemplate evil while holding it at arm’s length.

4. The widespread appeal of genre fiction. Compared to most Europeans, Americans have very little leisure time. Europeans get weeks, if not months, of vacation a year. Your average American gets only about two to three weeks. Although the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is not cut-and-dry, I’d say that genre fiction places emphasis upon a fast-moving, interesting plot, while literary fiction privileges psychologically nuanced characterizations and a unique style. Most vampire novels, though well-written, place most emphasis on plot. They’re perfect for readers who have little time and want to delve immediately into the action rather than being distracted by stylistic experiments or bogged down by a long-winded, Proustian style. Of course, there are some vampire novels that harmonously blend several genres, to offer readers the best of all worlds. I’m thinking of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which combines a beautiful style, historical erudition about the Dracula legend and a fast-paced, intriguing story.

5. Education. My teenage daughter reminded me yesterday that she and her friends read the Twilight series in fifth grade. This was their first exposure to narrative fiction that both adults and young adults enjoy reading. In Europe, on the other hand, the curriculum places emphasis (from a very young age) upon the literary canon. I remember being exposed to Tolstoy, Baudelaire and Flaubert early on, as opposed to reading either in school or for school the latest popular novels. While American students do sample the literary canon as well, that usually starts later–in high school–and even then, they’re exposed mostly to the Anglo-American tradition. But, unlike most European students, they discover the pleasure of reading by delving into popular contemporary fiction right away. This sticks with them and most likely shapes their literary taste later in life as well.

All this to say that I suspect that our obsession with vampires in the U.S. is not a fluke. There are real reasons why vampire thrillers became so popular here and why they’re probably not going to disappear from sight anytime soon. Having experienced evil first hand, however, I prefer to depict it as it is: all-too-human even in its worst inhumanity. When I was a little girl and complained to my parents about being afraid of monsters in my room, they told me that the only thing I should fear is evil human beings. Monsters, like vampires, don’t exist and can’t harm us. But it seems that some human beings are capable of immense evil, limited only by the worst of their desires and imaginations. It’s this real, human, evil that I wrote about, both in my novel about totalitarian Romania, Velvet Totalitarianism (2009) and in my second novel, The Seducer, about a sociopathic predator. Sometimes, the monsters we imagine in fiction pale by comparison to the evil created by the monsters in our lives.

Claudia Moscovici, Notablewriters.com

You can see sample chapters of my new novel, The Seducer, previewed on Neatorama’s Bitlit, on the link below:

http://www.neatorama.com/bitlit/category/the-seducer/

You can also watch video previews of The Seducer on youtube, by cutting and pasting the following links:

http://www.youtube.com/user/ClaudiaMoscovici

http://www.youtube.com/user/ClaudiaMoscovici?feature=mhum#p/a/u/0/IaZj4bceDpE


 

January 11, 2011 Posted by | Bram Stoker, Claudia Moscovici, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, David Israel, David K. Israel, Dracula, Eclipse, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Neatorama's Bitlit, new fiction, novel, novels, Romania, seducer, seduction, social predators, sociopath, sociopathy, Stephenie Meyer, The Historian, Twilight, Twilight series, vampire fiction, Velvet Totalitarianism, Vlad Tepes | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Reader Reviews of Velvet Totalitarianism (from amazon.com)

By Steven Becker (New Jersey) *****

The title of this fantastic novel may stress its historical concerns, but don’t be deceived: it is a riveting, suspenseful story replete with compelling, richly developed characters with whom you become intimate quickly, and whose predicaments immediately capture and concern you. Moscovici is a great writer: she is tackling many themes in this ambitious book, but the story itself, which draws you in from its opening pages and consistently builds intensity every step of the way, is always front-and-center and leaves a memorable impact. Moscovici writes so intimately that you feel as if you’re in the story with her characters, not reading it. This is an unusual, exciting sensation, and a mark, I suspect, of truly great literature. I can’t recommend this novel highly enough. 
 
By Radu D. Popa *****
 
Claudia Moscovici’s novel has everything to excite the reader on both  rational and emotional levels. Political thriller, love story,  testimonial of resistance against all the possible odds! Moreover, it is  about love and the way to freedom–imperfect maybe, but better  than the concentration camp that Ceausescu’s Communism planned to perfection in  Romania. All these are transmitted through the literary writing, not  like in a newspaper or a history book. Modulation between real life and  imaginary, characters who emotionally convey the message, outstanding descriptions and dialogue make this book an outstanding novel! 
 
By Roger Crowley “amateur historian” (San Diego, CA USA) *****
 
There are very many versions of Romanian history, especially when dealing with the events leading up to the Romanian Revolution of 1989. So much happened, in fact, during the closing days of communism in Eastern Europe, that there is no one story of how it happened. This novel powerfully represents one scenario.  This fictional account, where the author even gave the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu the maiden name of his wife Elena Petrescu (perhaps to emphasize who the real power was in the country), is a story of how love can have many twists and turns in a society living in constant terror of the Securitate (secret police). Even though the state managed to force people to do things they wouldn’t normally do, love finally emerges from the thorns of communism … and the people carry on with their lives.  There are numerous theories about how the Revolution of 1989 started, including the premise proposed in the novel that the CIA played a part. Whether or not this scenario is true is immaterial. The novel is a moving picture of how it might have happened. I felt sad when the book ended because I wanted to hear more about the characters. I can only hope there’s a sequel. 
 
By Suni Black “blackbirdbks” (Mississippi) *****
 
This beautifully told story of a family’s struggle to stay together is very moving. Interwoven with the narrative is an intrigue between a secret service operative for and a woman forced to trade her body in exchange for the welfare of those she loves. It’s a complicated, beautiful story which sheds light on an oppressive regime. Before reading this book, I was totally unaware of the human rights oppression committed against the people of Romania. Through this lovely story of a family’s struggle, I saw a daily life in all its joy and horror. Well written and extremely moving. 
 
By Carl Pafisi  *****
 
A beautifully written and very entertaining novel with characters who always feel real to the reader, it is at the same time a fascinating account of life in Romania under the Ceaucescu regime, a taut thriller, a poignant description of immigrant life in the US and a moving love story. Yet, it is never really sad or depressing. Ultimately uplifting, it provides a lot of laughs throughout. 
 
By Susanne Black *****

Claudia Moscovici creates a vivid portrayal of the lives of ordinary people living in totalitarian Romania. 

By Nicholas Klepper (Edinburgh, Scotland) *****
 
Cold historical facts and figures tend to leave us emotionally indifferent. The impact of a nation’s tragic events on one single person or family is much better understood and more profoundly felt. And this is what makes Claudia Moscovici’s book so very special. Her novel, Reincarnation of Love, is prefaced by Velvet Totalitariasm, a very well researched history of Romania under Communism. Depending on one’s point of view, Moscovici’s work could be considered as the fictionalized story of a real Jewish-Romanian family under Communism, based on her own recollections and that of her family, supported by true historical facts; or a brief history supported by the fictionalized story of a real family. It’s a book well worth reading. The novel is a page turner, it’s witty, well written, and includes some touching portrayals of immigrant life in the United States as well. 

By Isabel Roche Obrien (Lenox, MA)  *****
 
Claudia Moscovici’s first novel treats the intersection of politics and family, transporting us deftly in time and space. Depth of knowledge–and experience–is felt on each page as conflict, struggle and spirit come alive through Moscovici’s engaging prose. Highly recommended! 

By Didilet (MA, USA) *****
 
Velvet Totalitarianism could be best described as a comic epic. This enjoyable novel tells the story of a family struggling to survive the repression of communist Romania during the Ceausescu regime.It has the ambitious range and tragic elements of an epic, while also being filled with touching anecdotes and humor: the laughter through tears kind that Eastern European writers are known for.This novel has it all. It’s a story of survival that will move you, entertain you and inform you.

September 25, 2010 Posted by | Claudia Moscovici, communism, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, historical fiction, literary criticism, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Romania, spy thriller, Velvet Totalitarianism | , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reader Reviews of Velvet Totalitarianism (from amazon.com)

Critical Praise for Velvet Totalitarianism

A deeply felt, deftly rendered novel of the utmost importance to any reader interested in understanding totalitarianism and its terrible human cost. Urgent, evocative, and utterly convincing, Velvet Totalitarianism is a book to treasure, and Claudia Moscovici is indeed a writer to watch, now and into the future.

–Travis Holland, author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Archivist’s Story, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.

Claudia Moscovici’s first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, triumphs on several levels: as a taut political thriller, as a meditation on totalitarianism, as an expose of the Ceausescu regime, and as a moving fictionalized memoir of one family’s quest for freedom.

–Ken Kalfus, author of the novel A Disorder Peculiar to the Country

 (2006 National Book Award nominee), of The Commissariat of Enlightenment (2003) and of PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies (1999).

Western intellectuals have often blurred the fundamental differences between the imperfect free world they have been fortunate to enjoy and the totalitarian world of communism they never had the misfortune to endure.  Claudia Moscovici’s Velvet Totalitarianism is a powerful corrective to that ivory tower distortion of reality.  Moscovici makes her readers viscerally feel the corrosive psychological demoralization and numbing fear totalitarian regimes impose on those who live under them.  At the same time, with style and wit, and informed by her experiences as a child in communist Romania and then as an immigrant in the United States, she tells a story of resilience and hope.  Velvet Totalitarianism is a novel well worth reading, both for its compelling narrative and for its important message.

–Michael Kort, Professor of Social Science at Boston University and author of the best-selling textbook, The Soviet Colossus: History and Aftermath

This vivid novel by Claudia Moscovici, historian of ideas and wide-ranging literary critic, traces a family of Jewish-Romanian refugees from the stifling communist dictatorship of their homeland through their settling in the United States during the 1980’s. This fascinating and compelling story is at once historically accurate, exciting, sexy and a real page-turner. Ms. Moscovici is as sensitive to the emotions of her characters as to their political entanglements.

–Edward K. Kaplan, Kevy and Hortense Kaiserman Professor in the Humanities at Brandeis University and author of Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972, winner of the National Jewish Book Award

Moving between extraordinary and ordinary lives, between Romania and the United States, velvet totalitarianism and relative freedom, dire need and consumerism, evoking her Romanian experience in the seventies, the emigration to the U.S. of her family in the eighties, and the 1989 uprising in Timisoara and Bucharest that marked the end of Ceausescu’s regime, Claudia Moscovici offers her readers a multifaceted book—Velvet Totalitarianism—that is at once a love story, a political novel and a mystery. Love is the last resort left to people in order to counter totalitarianism under Ceausescu’s rule. It keeps families united, allowing them to resist indoctrination and hardship and to make sure their children enjoy the carefree beautiful years that are their due. Love gives the protagonist of the novel the strength to overcome cultural differences between Romania and the U.S. and to invent in turn a form of personal happiness in a context that, while far from being as harsh as her initial one, does not lack its own problems. 

— Sanda Golopentia, Professor of French, Brown University

Cold historical facts and figures tend to leave us emotionally indifferent. The impact of a nation’s tragic events on one single person or family is much better understood and more profoundly felt. This is what makes Claudia Moscovici’s book, Velvet Totalitarianism, so very special. Her novel is prefaced by a well-researched history of Romania under communism. Depending on one’s point of view, Moscovici’s work could be considered as the fictionalized story of a real Jewish-Romanian family under communism, based on her own recollections and that of her family and supported by true historical facts; or a brief history supported by the fictionalized story of a real family. It’s a book well worth reading. The novel is a page-turner, witty and well written.

–Nicolae Klepper, author of the best-selling book, Romania: An Illustrated History.

September 24, 2010 Posted by | Claudia Moscovici, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, Eastern Europe, fiction, historical fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, salon, Velvet Totalitarianism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Critical Praise for Velvet Totalitarianism

The Role of Cultural Memory: Writing Velvet Totalitarianism

 

My first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, took me about ten years to write. It took me so long partly because I wrote this book while also teaching literature and philosophy, writing scholarly books and raising a family. It took me a long time to write it also because I had to do a lot of historical research for it. When one works for so long on one book, the interrelated questions of motivation and intended audience become all the more relevant. As I was writing Velvet Totalitarianism, I asked myself often: why write historical fiction about the Cold War, an era which is now relegated mostly to history books? Why is the history of Romanian communism so important to me and whom do I hope to touch in writing fiction about it? An anecdote brought these questions into sharper focus.

Friends of my parents, who have a son who’s not much younger than myself, told us that their son recalls only one thing about life under the Ceausescu regime in the mid 1980’s, when he was not yet a teenager. Now in his thirties, the young man remembers that as a child he frequently had to go to bed wearing his hat and coat during the winter, because there was no heat or hot water in their apartment. But he can’t recall much else about the hardships the Romanian people endured during the Ceausescu dictatorship. He knows only indirectly, from older family members and from history books, the childhood memories which I can still recall quite vividly, and which I wanted to depict for others in my writing. Conditions in Romania during the so-called “Epoch of Light” were notoriously miserable. People had to wait in long lines for meager supplies of food, clothing and household goods. There was limited heat and hot water. By the late 1970’s, the Secret Police had installed microphones in virtually every home and apartment. The whole population lived in fear. As a Romanian citizen said to a French journalist following the fall of the Ceausescu regime, “It was a system that didn’t destroy people physically — not many were actually killed; but it was a system that condemned us to a fight for the lowest possible level of physical and spiritual nourishment. Under Ceausescu, some people died violently, but an entire population was dying.” Although Velvet Totalitarianism focuses mostly on Romania, hundreds of millions of Eastern Europeans led similar lives to the ones I describe, struggling daily against poverty, hunger, state indoctrination, surveillance, censorship and oppression in post-Stalinist communist regimes. In actuality, “velvet” totalitarianism was insidious rather than soft and gentle, killing your spirit even when it spared your life.

It’s one thing to read about the institutions and events that characterized life in totalitarian Romania and quite another to have lived through them. For my family and I, the events I describe in this novel are real. Like everyone else, we were subject to constant state indoctrination. Like practically everyone else except for the very privileged, we waited in long lines for meager supplies of food and consumer goods. Since my father traveled abroad, our apartment was bugged — we discovered hidden microphones underneath his desk and inside the heating units — and the Securitate followed my parents’ movements. My father worked at the Mathematics Institute. His boss was Nicolae Ceausescu’s daughter, Zoe Ceausescu, who actually went against some of her father’s policies by allowing him to go to scholarly conferences abroad. This rare privilege was essential to a mathematician’s — or, for that matter, any intellectual’s — career. Nobody can thrive intellectually without a free exchange of information and an awareness of the latest international discoveries in one’s field. In spite of Zoe Ceausescu’s umbrage, however, my father was accused by the Securitate of being an Israeli spy upon his return from a conference in Jerusalem. He was told that he’d no longer be allowed out of the country.

No doubt this individual decision was not really personal. It coincided with Ceausescu’s national policy of closing the Iron Curtain, to further isolate and control the Romanian people. Fortunately, my father obtained permission to attend one last conference, at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies. He decided to take a chance and defect to the United States. Since my mother and I were still in Romania, my family struggled to reunite in the United States for nearly two years. Although there were precedents for similar immigrations, we lived under the rational fear that we might never see each other again. My mother was subject to demoralizing Securitate interrogations similar to the ones I describe in Velvet Totalitarianism. Yet, as I also depict in the novel, we never gave up or lost hope. Several congressmen and human rights organizations intervened on our behalf. When I was a few weeks shy of my twelfth birthday, we finally joined my father in the United States. “Velvet totalitarianism” is a term that has been used to describe the constraints imposed upon the expression of liberal values in the Canadian and American academia. Just as, conversely, the term “political correctness” has been used to indicate that there’s no real freedom of expression of conservative values in the academia.

Indeed, whether or not America has turned out to be the country of plentitude and freedom that I dreamed about as a child back in Romania is another story. But what remains clear to me is that the systematic state repression we lived through in Romania makes whatever’s being criticized in Western institutions today, by both the right and the left, pale by comparison. The United States certainly lacks the absolute freedom that some of its ideologues may rhapsodize about, but what Romanians experienced was an absolute lack of freedom, which is far worse.

In Velvet Totalitarianism I wanted to leave a trace of the scale of comparison, of the difference I experienced between the lack of absolute freedom here and the lack of any freedom there. As the narrator of my novel states at the end, I’m hoping that this description of daily life in Romania under the Ceausescu regime will convey to my children and to my children’s children — as well as all readers interested in this subject — the lost traces of an era in which ordinary people were forced to lead extraordinary lives.

The anecdote my parents told me about the young Romanian who couldn’t recall much about the Ceausescu era helped convince me that these traces could, indeed, be lost. Due to the (largely positive) political and economic developments during the past 20 years in Eastern Europe and the internationalization of American pop culture, today’s children and young adults in Romania and other former East Bloc countries probably have more in common with their Western counterparts than they do with the family members who endured the hardships of communist regimes. Many of them know more about Facebook and Lady Gaga than about the Ceausescu era or the infamous Romanian orphanages. In writing about the communist epoch in Eastern Europe, both historians and writers of historical fiction are therefore helping preserve cultural memory for future generations of Eastern Europeans as well as for Western readers, both of whom are relatively detached from these experiences. They have not lived through them. They have no recollections that emotionally bond them to this difficult past. In many respects, the stark reality of Communist totalitarianism is as foreign to new generations of Eastern Europeans as it is to most Westerners.

To offer one noteworthy example, if one looks at what’s being published and read about Romania in the U.S., one is immediately struck by the fact that it’s Vlad Tepes’s reign and the horrid yet tantalizing legend of Dracula that readers find most intriguing. Few Americans have heard of Nicolae Ceausescu and yet fewer know about Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. Yet there’s hardly a teenager in America who hasn’t heard of the Twilight series; there’s hardly a bookstore in the country that doesn’t sell Anne Rice’s vampire novels or Elizabeth Kostova’s erudite rendition of the Dracula myth, the international best-seller The Historian. Why the Dracula legend has far more international appeal in the West than practically anything else related to Romania is a complex enough question to warrant numerous Ph.D. students, plus the Romanian tourism industry, working on it. Whatever the answers to this question might be, what’s become clear to me is this: for any author who writes about any OTHER aspect of Romanian history than the Vlad Tepes/Dracula legend, the challenge becomes, above all, how to make them matter to those who haven’t lived through those historical events and thus who have no a priori emotional investment in them.

To begin addressing the question of relevance, I’d like to turn first to the nonfiction book that has inspired my novel most: Vladimir Tismaneanu’s Stalinism for All Seasons.  For anyone interested in Romania’s political history during the twentieth-century, Professor Tismaneanu’s book is the seminal work on the subject. Clearly written, solidly researched, informative and engaging, Stalinism For All Seasons can be included among the best works of political history, alongside Richard Pipes’ works on Lenin, Robert Conquest’s books on Stalin and Allan Bullock’s studies of Hitler. It covers the evolution of Romanian communism from the early twentieth-century, through Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej’s Stalinist dictatorship and the latter’s strategic detachment from Moscow following Stalin’s death, to the dreary Ceausescu years of dynastic communism. Without this book, and others like it, younger generations of Romanians would grow increasingly disconnected from the past that deeply affected their families’ lives, and therefore, indirectly, their lives as well.

To write about the history of totalitarianism, be it through nonfiction or fiction, means to undertake the task of preserving for future generations a cultural memory of social change, of trials and tribulations and of unspeakable human suffering. It means to take on the challenge of bringing this past to the attention of those who may not have lived through it, and who will not find it automatically relevant to their lives. It means to somehow make this strange and alien past matter to them, at least enough to awaken their curiosity and open their hearts. It means to pay homage to those who sacrificed, or were sacrificed, by the totalitarian machine. Writing the history of totalitarianism is therefore simultaneously a discovery of the suppressed truth; a eulogy to a difficult cultural past and its countless victims; an homage to the people who endured it and to those who had the courage to fight against it and a cautionary tale to all those who never want to experience it, or to live through it again. In this respect, political history and historical fiction serve similar goals and face similar challenges. They induce people to care about something that is either already behind them and that they may prefer to forget, or about something that they’ve never lived through at all.

By way of contrast to political history, however, historical fiction isn’t as closely bound to accuracy or to any kind of objectivity. Of course, to write my book I consulted literally dozens of scholarly sources. But Velvet totalitarianism is also, above all, a work of mainstream literary fiction, to use one of the labels publishers rely on in this country. By this I mean that, by way of contrast to pulp fiction, the narrative style and the characterizations are as important as the plot and other structural elements of the novel. To make the main characters more multi-dimensional and believable, I relied for inspiration upon memories of my childhood and people in my life, especially my parents. But all the real-life elements of the novel served the function of enhancing and anchoring the fiction. The fictional elements, in my mind, were always primary.

As a work of fiction rather than historiography, Velvet Totalitarianism also faces the principal challenge of entertaining potential readers. When I was writing this novel, I kept in mind the problem of how to present such dreary and disheartening historical information in a way that is informative without becoming didactic, and entertaining without trivializing the difficult past I’m trying to describe. I relied in part upon a literary precedent, a contemporary American novel I love: Jeffrey’s Eugenides’ Middlesex. Eugenides called his novel “a comic epic” (of his Greek-American cultural heritage). He went far beyond (and deeper than) ethnic humor, since his novel relies upon social and historical research, a traditional Aristotelian plot with tragic tension and an interesting twist, and characterizations that are plausible, endearing and humorous (also inspired in part by his family members). That’s what I tried to do in Velvet Totalitarianism as well, only for my Romanian-American heritage, of course.

My novel has been described by critics as historical fiction, a spy thriller and a love story. All three descriptions apply equally well, but if I had to choose only one label, I’d say that Velvet Totalitarianism is a triple love story. First of all, love for two countries: Romania, my country of origin and its people, who have suffered a series of terrible governments and are struggling to emerge from them and establish a tradition of democracy. Simultaneously, love for my host country, the United States, the proverbial melting pot with a distinct identity that offers so many generations of immigrants the opportunity to flourish. Second, love for family, which gives the main characters the resourcefulness and strength to survive totalitarian repression. Third, the romantic love stories of fallible yet endearing characters who show that it’s our combination of faults, neuroses and loyalty to those important to us that make us fully human and enable us to enjoy the beauty of life, to survive its hardships and to overcome its challenges.

Claudia Moscovici

postromanticism.com

September 6, 2010 Posted by | communism, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, Eastern Europe, fiction, historical fiction, literature, love story, mainstream fiction, Romania, spy thriller | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Role of Cultural Memory: Writing Velvet Totalitarianism