Claudia Moscovici

Is She A Spy? The First Chapter of Velvet Totalitarianism

From my novel, Velvet Totalitarianism (amazon.com, univpress.com)

Chapter 1: Is She a Spy?

Radu looked at his new Swiss watch—aluminum band, clear dial, red cross emblem, precision timing—which he had bought almost a year before with his first paycheck. It was 5:51 p.m. Time to go home and prepare for his date with Ioana. He should have been happy to have such a beautiful girlfriend. Yet, due to the latest turn of events, Radu was plagued by doubts. Just when his life was starting to improve, he became entangled in a web of contradictions from which he didn’t know how to extricate himself. His job and his girlfriend, his main sources of pleasure, had suddenly turned into causes for fear and suspicion. How much his attitude had changed since he came to France last spring, Radu mused. Back then, he was filled to the brim with hope. And who could blame him? At only twenty he got a scholarship to the Sorbonne and managed to defect to France, which, as far as Romanians were concerned, was the second most sophisticated country in the world (the first being Romania, of course). Then, based strictly upon his merit—aided only by a few well-placed connections—he landed a dream job as Assistant Correspondent on Romania at Radio Freedom Europe. RFE! The only station Romanians huddled in front of their illegal shortwave radios in the middle of the night to find out what the CIA said was going on in their country and the rest of the world. Which wasn’t all that surprising since, after all, in Romania news consisted solely of propaganda. Time for a little truth and sanity, Radu told himself when he took the part-time job at Radio Freedom Europe. And that’s what he did his best to deliver in his political commentaries, with a cracked voice and a beating heart, since his major was chemistry, not politics or journalism. He was still a neophyte, working on a trial basis and anxious to impress everyone at the radio station and move up the ladder, all the way to the sky if possible—say, production manager–although he wasn’t thinking that far ahead just yet. At the very least, his boss, Alexei Pavlovich, a Russian dissident, would have to grant him this: the young Romanian spoke with enthusiasm.

After his talk, on the way back to his dorm room, Radu tried to reassure himself that, ethically speaking, he was doing the right thing. But he still felt uneasy about his decision. Maybe he wasn’t helping anyone after all. Least of all his family. Nothing seemed clear-cut or simple anymore. At the root of the problem was Ioana, the young woman with whom he had fallen in love.

Radu imagined her as he first saw her, in the Parc Montsouris, a little park next to his dormitory, at the Cité Universitaire. She walked towards him like a beautiful vision, her curvy body wrapped loosely in a long blue dress spotted by the uneven, kaleidoscopic shadows of the trees. Her soft, lean curves undulated underneath that flowing fabric. He was so startled by Ioana’s beauty that he stopped in his tracks, and, not exactly tactfully, just stood there and stared at her. As the young woman approached, Radu noticed that she had raven hair, of medium length, frizzed slightly by what might have been an overgrown perm. Far from making her seem unkempt, it gave her a casual, sexy look which he much preferred to a carefully groomed appearance. Although, generally speaking, Radu wasn’t particularly observant, he noticed that the young woman wore bright, plum red lipstick. The lip color went well with her olive complexion and deep brown eyes, which were so dark that even when she got quite close he could barely distinguish iris from pupil. Her nose was a little too large for her delicate oval face. Otherwise, he justified in retrospect her minor imperfections, she might have been unapproachably beautiful. It was she who initiated their conversation. “Buna ziua,” she greeted him “Hello” in Romanian. “Why is this French woman speaking to me in Romanian?” Radu wondered, at first so caught off guard that he didn’t reply. She noticed his surprise and smiled, showing two rows of even white teeth.

“My name is Ioana Marinescu,” the young woman graciously extended her hand.

“Nice to meet you,” Radu answered. He clasped her slim fingers with an uncertain, nervous touch. By way of contrast, her grip was strong and confident.

“I noticed you at the Cité before,” she told him. “I live there too. I’m originally from Iasi. And you?”

“From Bucuresti,” Radu answered, with a tinge of disappointment. He would have preferred that Ioana be French. One could never be too careful with fellow Romanians when one worked at Radio Freedom Europe…

“I’m kind of lonely here, so I was glad to hear a fellow Romanian voice,” she said.

Touched by her friendliness, Radu felt somewhat embarrassed about his misgivings. They returned, however, after only a moment’s consideration. He couldn’t figure out how, even before he had spoken, Ioana knew that he was Romanian.

She read his mind, which, given his distrustful expression, must have been quite transparent. “I heard you talking in Romanian to another student in the cafeteria…”

“Who? Diaconescu?”

“I don’t know his name,” Ioana replied. “Nor yours, for that matter,” she added, since Radu hadn’t introduced himself yet.

“Sorry. I’m Radu Schwarz.”

“Nice to meet you. Did you come here with your family?” Ioana asked, attempting to make polite conversation.

“No, by myself.”

“Me too. My parents are still in Iasi.”

It occurred to Radu that Ioana didn’t have a Moldavian accent, the strongest and most distinctive in Romania, as people from Iasi generally did. He proceeded with caution. “How come you don’t have an accent?”

Ioana shrugged. “Mine was never that strong to begin with, and besides, whatever country bumpkin accent I might have had, I lost it in Bucharest during my first year of university studies. I didn’t want to seem provincial.”

“Do you plan to go back to Romania?” the young man inquired, since if she didn’t, perhaps he could trust her a little more.

“We’ll see. I’m here on a two-year fellowship. I don’t want to make my parents’ situation even worse, so I’ll probably go back.”

“I plan to stay here for good. I mean, I already defected,” Radu heard himself declare, to his own surprise.

“How about your family? Do they want to join you here?”

Radu thought about his parents and little sister, eight year old Irina, whom he hoped to bring to France. The young man planned to use his radio show to persuade French officials to apply pressure on the Romanian government to allow his family to immigrate to France. But he couldn’t divulge this information to a total stranger. Especially not to a fellow Romanian.

“I don’t know,” he replied.

They strolled together around the circular path of the Lac Montsouris, discussing other subjects. They commiserated about the Cité Universitaire dorm rooms, which were too small and had dilapidated, straw wallpaper. “They’re perfect–if you’re a cat!” Ioana quipped. They both approved, however, of the cafeteria food at the Cité. Ioana claimed that since arriving in Paris she had put on five kilos; Radu looked with disbelief at her slim athletic figure, wondering where she was hiding the extra weight. Then they sat down on a bench in front of the lake. Ioana unsnapped the magnetic clasp of her purse and took out a chunk of baguette neatly wrapped in a white napkin. A group of ducks swam rapidly towards her.

“I save my bread for the ducks,” she explained, breaking off a little piece of baguette and tossing it towards the smallest of the ducks first, being careful to be fair to all, feeding them one at a time. The birds, however, didn’t quite grasp the principle of equality, much less of taking one’s turn. They seemed more familiar with the concept of “every duck for himself,” as they precipitated all at once towards each crumb. Two ducks, with grayish bodies and green throats, were more aggressive than the rest. They rushed to gobble up the bits of bread no matter how hard the young woman tried to feed their companions.

“Those are the male ones,” Radu said with slight embarrassment, as if apologizing for his sex.

“They must be from the Secret Police,” Ioana joked. This reference made the young man’s face cloud with concern.

“Just kidding! Geesh!” Ioana poked him playfully with her elbow. “I doubt these ducks have microphones hidden under their wings,” she continued teasing him. Then, abruptly, she changed her light-hearted attitude: “Actually, I’m usually just as nervous as you are,” she whispered, attentively scrutinizing Radu’s expression.

“About what?” he asked, still evasive.

“You know…”

“You mean the Secret Police?”

Ioana nodded, looked past Radu, then behind her, to make sure they weren’t being observed. “My father, who’s an aerospace engineer, refused to sign the papers before going to a conference in Japan,” she said in a low, confidential tone.

Radu proceeded with caution: “What papers?”

“You know. The ones for the industry.”

“I don’t understand,” Radu said, even though he did.

The young woman gave him a skeptical and half-reproachful look, as if she wasn’t fooled by his professed ignorance. Out of politeness, she offered an explanation nonetheless: “You know Petrescu’s policy: any Romanian scientist or diplomat going abroad has to double as an informant or tech spy. Otherwise, it’s a waste of the country’s resources, right? At least, that’s the official party line,” she said matter-of-factly, as if she were merely stating the obvious.

Since his father, a scientist at the Atomic Physics Institute of Romania, had also gone through this pleasant experience, Radu understood perfectly well what Ioana was talking about. However, by force of habit, the young man preferred to avoid having such conversations out in the open, even when on safer, Western ground. Now it was his turn to look around, pretending to admire the scenery, to see if anyone might be watching them. The young couple necking on the bench next to theirs and the elderly woman walking her dog seemed innocuous enough.

Unexpectedly, Ioana began to cry. Radu’s own mood shifted from suspicion to surprise and then to concern. He didn’t know how to respond to this sudden display of emotion. With a mixture of chivalry and compassion, the young man removed a plaid handkerchief from his shirt pocket and graciously offered it to Ioana. Unfortunately, the handkerchief happened to have already been used during his frequent spells of spring allergies, so she politely refused it.

“Is anything wrong?” he asked, absurdly.

“Yes,” Ioana sniffled. “I mean no,” she changed her mind and laughed a little, as if embarrassed by her own capriciousness. She put both hands in front of her face, covering the bridge of her nose. She seemed to be considering something, then suddenly decided: “I suppose that I’m taking a leap of faith. But we can trust each other, yes?”

“Of course,” Radu agreed, although he wasn’t quite sure yet.

“When my father refused to sign the papers he was beaten up by the authorities and thrown in prison. Eventually they let him go, but since then, our lives haven’t been the same…”

Radu nodded in sympathy. “I’m afraid this sort of thing could happen to my parents too,” he confessed.

Ioana seemed interested: “Why? Did your parents also refuse to sign the documents?”

“My father did,” Radu answered, looking at the girl’s pretty oval face, encouraging himself to trust her.

“Is your father an engineer too?” she asked.

He shook his head: “A physicist.”

“Do you mind if we walked around a little?” Ioana proposed.

“Not at all,” Radu responded. After all, spending time with such a nice girl was worth skipping his afternoon classes. They got up and she gently slipped her arm around his elbow, a gesture of intimacy , which took him by surprise. That’s how relatives or familiar friends tended to stroll together in Romania, elbows hooked. Feeling somewhat discombobulated by the young woman’s proximity and touch, Radu looked down in embarrassment, but that offered no solace, since he became even more flustered once he noticed Ioana’s high heeled sandals and her lean, long muscular legs flexing under the flowing dress as she walked. Once again, as during the first moment he saw her, Radu became aware of a feminine magnetism that overpowered him. “So what if she’s Romanian? Does every Romanian girl in Paris have to be a spy?” he asked himself, attempting to dispel the state of warranted paranoia cultivated by years of living under a totalitarian dictatorship.

During their tour of the park, they talked about their classes, about books, about their love of French literature, especially Flaubert. Radu adored reading novels; Ioana was a French literature major. As it turns out, their favorite novel was Madame Bovary. Granted, they weren’t exactly the first people on Earth to believe that Flaubert had some merit; nevertheless, each point in common helped overcome, little by little, Radu’s reservations.

Only hours later, when they were having dinner together in a private corner of a table at the Cité Universitaire cafeteria, did the couple return to the touchy subject of their families and their political situations.

“So why did your dad refuse to sign?” Ioana asked.

Following hours of conversational intimacy, Radu’s tongue had loosened up. This time he didn’t hesitate to tell her: “He had nothing to spy on. I mean, what’s he going to steal? Equations about how the Big Bang got started and how the universe contracts or expands? Petrescu isn’t interested in the universe. He only cares about his little fief.”

“Does your father work for Silvia Petrescu?” Ioana asked, obviously aware of the fact that the dictator’s daughter, herself a physicist, was the Director of the Atomic Physics Institute of Romania.

“Yes,” Radu replied. “Actually, they’re friends. Otherwise…let’s just say … life would have been a lot harder for my family.”

“Why so?” Ioana took a sip of water, keeping her eyes fixed on Radu.

“It’s the same story as with your father,” he answered. “Except maybe for the fact that we’re Jewish–on my father’s side–which kind of complicates things. A few years ago my dad got this fellowship to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Before he left, he was asked to sign a paper that he’ll be a tech spy. He refused, and then, as soon as he returned, the Romanian government accused him of being an Israeli agent. Can you imagine? What twisted logic! If it weren’t for Silvia, he might have ended up in prison or some labor camp.”

“Did Silvia herself ask him to spy?” Ioana asked.

“I don’t think so. I believe the orders came from above,” Radu indicated, pointing up with his index finger.

Ioana took a bite of her quiche. She chewed slowly, contemplating Radu’s comment. “So what happened when your dad refused?” she asked, after the savory forkful had melted in her mouth.

Radu was trying to find a graceful way to cut the meat off his chicken drumstick, but eventually gave up, held it with his bare hands and took a big bite. “The usual stuff. He was harassed,” he answered after having chewed his mouthful. Since coming to France, he was not used to having substantive conversations while he ate, preferring instead to concentrate each ounce of energy on the food, which he was still afraid would somehow disappear from his plate if he didn’t promptly wolf it down.

“Phone, car and radiator bugs, being shadowed by the Secret Police, interrogations, debriefings, that sort of thing, right?” Ioana prompted him.

“Yup,” Radu answered matter-of-factly, as if these experiences were so commonplace, they were hardly worth mentioning. He eyed with envy Ioana’s orange—a rarity in Romania, usually sold only at Craciun, around Christmas.

She noticed his gaze and offered him her orange. “You can have it. I prefer to stick to my diet anyway,” she said, attacking the rich créme brûlée. She then added, as an afterthought, “The exact same thing happened to us. So did the harassment eventually stop?”

“Not completely,” Radu answered. “In fact, I only made things worse for them.”

“How so?”

“Because…”

The girl patiently waited for his response, twirling a spoon in her cup of coffee.

“You see, I work for Radio Freedom Europe,” Radu leaned forward and confessed with difficulty in a whisper, feeling like he had just undergone a grueling debriefing session.

Instead of being flattered by his trust, however, Ioana was amused by his reticence. “You’re so silly,” she said, reaching over across the table and affectionately patting Radu’s hand.

“What makes you say that?”

“You treat me as if I were from the Secret Police,” she replied, lightly brushing his leg with her bare foot under the table. Not used to such overt flirtation, Radu peeked under the table to see what had tickled him and noticed that the young woman had taken off her right shoe. “Such a silly garçonnet…” Radu didn’t know how to react to this unexpected onslaught of sensual affection.

“You and I are in the same boat, Raducu,” Ioana kept stroking his foot reassuringly, using the Romanian diminutive of his name. Her knee touched his under the table. “Besides,” she smiled at him indulgently, “do you really think the fact you’re a speaker on Radio Freedom Europe is such a big secret? I listened to your show already … Isn’t that the whole point of international broadcasting? To reach as many people as possible? So why all this secrecy, hmmm, Mr. Bond?”

“So this means…” Radu, still under the young woman’s spell, struggled to reach a logical conclusion.

“… that I know perfectly well where you work and what you think about Petrescu’s regime,” Ioana completed his sentence. “And of course I agree! Who in his right mind wouldn’t?”

“Agree with what?”

“With the fact that Nicolae Petrescu is a megalomaniac tyrant who oppresses Romanians and sacrifices the good of the country to his personality cult, what else?” the young woman summarized succinctly the message of Radu’s fifteen hours of broadcast to date.

When Radu returned to his dorm room after that first meeting with Ioana, he threw himself on the bed, placing his hands behind his head, his eyes fixed dreamily upon the ceiling. He weighed the pros and cons of their encounter. Undoubtedly, he thought, there was a slight disadvantage to becoming friends with Ioana: she might be a Secret Police agent and kill me. Out of a million attractive French women in Paris, why did I have to fall in love with a fellow Romanian? On the other hand, the pros were at least as compelling: the girl was strikingly beautiful, sweet and charming. Besides, Radu attempted to reassure himself, who said anything about love?

Claudia Moscovici, Velvet Totalitarianism (2009)

December 3, 2010 Posted by | Claudia Moscovici, communism, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, love story, novel, secret agents, spies, spy fiction, spying, thriller, Velvet Totalitarianism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Is She A Spy? The First Chapter of Velvet Totalitarianism

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