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Bucharest: An Open Letter from Jean Harris PDF E-mail

The Wall in My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain : A Words Without Borders Anthology

            There’s no way to write about The Wall in My Head without saying, there’s a wall in my head, too. I live in Romania, a former Soviet bloc country. The past keeps coming at you here, and even though I wouldn’t live anyplace else, the city surrounds us with detritus of a regime that worms its way everywhere. This physical, metaphysical effect on every one and every thing crops up in God knows how many forms of cement and subsides into hellish dust. Communist building projects kicked it up—leveling and negating to an extent almost unparalleled in Eastern Europe. At the human level, words like post-traumatic shock and repetition compulsion go some way toward describing the “undead” life of the past that derails, fucks up, animates and generally causes reactions in victims, perpetrators and people who weren’t here at the time. Case in point: although I heard plenty about the Evil Empire while living in the United States and even though I grew up during the Cold War, that kind of distant “knowledge” isn’t the same as walking through zones of ruined architectural gems, or hearing family stories (always on the edge of nightmare), or translating texts once suppressed, or watching the political news in the state of near disbelief the ongoing circus induces in everyone and his dog.

I’ve lived here four years. Compared to survivors, everything is new to me, and in that sense I’m leading an extra-generational life, which is why I fall into the category of those under the influence of events learned second hand, along with children of the late communist baby boom. For us, history is a kind of introject, an alien mentality incorporated in our egos. It survives in us and directs so many views and actions, but it’s not co-terminus with our own sense of self, particularly our sense of self-direction. Being haunted by the past and living reactively doesn’t compare as a freak out to living under the communist boot. Still, it’s best to state up front, I value my Wall Introject, and not only because it informs the translations that are my stock in trade. True: it enlarges and possibly confirms many of the positive and negative intuitions I have about the mystery of being human—in ways that aren’t immediately accessible to the folks back home. But that introjected wall is also a bridge. It joins me to the others, who go about their business without acting victimized, with remarkable cheerfulness and warmth and a kind of lingering (self) reproach that breaks out everywhere in the classic joke: beautiful country; too bad it’s inhabited. And that’s why before launching this recommendation, it’ll be best to throw in a caveat emptor. These texts witness—you could say, perform—life, in a way that goes beyond the aesthetic (if you want to get tangled up in something like the difference between a Rembrandt and a Boucher or a Lucian Freud and a Mondrian). That’s one of the things literature does. Only, in salute to the ubiquitous (aging, mainly sterilized) Bucharest dogs, I’d just as well say cave canem.


            The thirty-one texts collected in The Wall In My Head include essays, works of fiction and poetry, all accompanied by visual documentation including secret police files, posters, photographs. Graphic though the combined materials are, they are not “The Souvenirs of Communism,” which is the title phrase of a biting essay by Dubravka Ugresic (trans. Ellen Elias-Bursać). They’re authentic responses. They don’t crap around with false nostalgias— nostalgias of those who were not there. Souvenirs commercialize memories. Reading from Ugresic, “Soon after its demise, communism moved onto the stands of cheap souvenir vendors: they were the first to sniff out the profitability of nostalgia for the material relics of a culture which had vanished. After the fall off the Berlin wall, petty merchants in Berlin dealt in Soviet rabbit-fur hats, hats with ear-flaps…old communist medals, military uniforms and chips of the Berlin Wall.” It must have been obvious from the start that these tourist trophies were empty relics, political versions of the religious kitsch sold around shrines. When it comes to trinkets, paying for the object amounts to stuffing one’s suitcase with surrogates for the “real” mystery—around which the character of the religious  or political visitor has been formed but to which he has little (or no) access. This is the same as saying, no adherent to Pauline Christianity who’d had a mystic vision of the Mother of God would run out after that to buy a giant cross of Swarovski crystals calculated to pump up an oomphy décolleté, any more than a person who’d faced Securitate or the KGB would develop a sudden collector’s fetish for rabbit fur hats or Soviet medals. And that, Ugresic argues, is why the West still lacks access to much (countercultural) art from the communist era: “The market was flooded after the Wall came down… with works that repeated the repertoire of Cold War themes and its narrative strategies [italics mine].” The problem, then, is not that souvenirs are for tourists but that reading East European literature requires getting beyond the (entirely unsuccessful) rescue fantasies that underlined the Western / American Cold War relationship to people living beyond the Wall. Put another way, I sense there’s a widely distributed movie playing in Western heads. We star in it alternately as Resourceful Spy, Rescuing Hero and Noble Survivor—a kind of East European Casablanca played out as Hope against Hope in which we faultily and glamorously portray Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam. There’s nothing morally wrong with being Walter Mitty, which is to say, with being nostalgic for a life never lived, but wearing blinders gets old very fast when it comes to reading or looking at art.

            That’s where the texts and images from The Wall in My Head come in. Advice like Oh, do not ask, “What is it? / Let us go and make our visit” or Conrad’s “in the dangerous element immerse,” work pretty well as invitations to the plunge, but it’s not so bad to haul some kind of Virgil along, and the Wall editors have deftly provided a number of psychic maps. The collection opens with an excerpt from Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel (translated by Linda Asher). Kundera describes the communist universe as “Kafkan,” (an adjective that’s actually easier to use than Kafkaesque) and goes on to describe its traits. (1). This “world is nothing but a single, huge labyrinthine institution [which the inhabitants] cannot escape and cannot understand.”  (2) In the Kafkan / communist zone, the secret police “file takes on the role of a Platonic idea. It represents reality whereas man’s physical existence is only a shadow cast on the screen of illusion.” Corollary to this, the file-collecting security apparatus, which is a metonymy for the regime, is automatically deified, and “because it behaves like God, it awakens religious feelings toward itself,”—or, I should add, it aims to. (3) The Kafkan logic of communism reverses the logic of guilt Dostoevsky explores in Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov craves expiation. Totalitarian punishment goes out looking for the offense—or offenses. It “finds” the offense, at which point “the ‘autoculpabilization’ machine goes into motion” –either for real (because the so-called offender looses his marbles) or, through the peculiar processes of communist “justice.” Making this worse, appeal may be impossible because a real verdict may never exist, which causes the offender to beg for one, with the result that “the punished beg for recognition of their guilt.” We’re in Groucho Marx land here, as Philip Roth points out, and, as Kundera says, we’re plunged inside “the guts of a joke” in a deconstructed tragedy that morphs into “the horror of the comic.”

            For my money, this analysis should be the first lesson in East European Literature, 101, and I cordially invite those interested in applying it to look at any number of Romanian writers posted on The Observer Translation Project website,, (which, I should confess, I used to edit). To plot Kundera against Romanian targets, have a go at Ştefan Agopian, Stelian Tănase, Mircea Nedelciu and Razvan Petrescu. Or dive into Dubravka Ugresic’s list, which includes Bulgakov and Babel as well as less widely translated, Pilnyak, Olesha, Zoshenko, Platonov; or have a look at one of my favorite Russian writers, Danil Kharms (Incidences. London: Serpent’s Tail, 2006), or Attila Bartis (Tranquility. Translated by Imre Goldstein. New York: Archipelago, 2009). But to return to our sheep, Kundera will certainly be the premier guide to any number of works in The Wall in My Head, among which Mircea Cărtărescu’s “Nabokov in Brasov” (spelled with ş in Romanian and pronounced sh, in a great translation by Julian Semilian) and Mihály Kornis’ “Petition” (translated by Ivan Sanders and Christhard Läpple’s “Brother and Sister” (translated by Steven Rendall) stand out. “The Petition,” which begins with a request to be reincarnated in Budapest on December 9, 1909 includes the following future life requests:


(e) My wife should likewise be expelled from the Party…


(f) Because of the foregoing, my son should be denied admission to a public Kindergarten.


(g) I do not wish to participate in the 1956 counterrevolutionary upheaval: on the contrary, in protest against the disorders, my family and I will begin a fast. Four hours of guard duty nightly, on our staircase, in the company of Dr. Aurél Kovács, dental clinical resident, is not inconceivable; all the same, I would appreciate it if the above-mentioned Red Army would again come to the aid of our country.


Meanwhile, moving beyond Kundera and reeking of despair, Zbignew Herbert’s poem “Report from a Besieged City” (translated by Alissa Valles) illuminates texts in The Wall in My Head at the affective level:


and if the City falls and one man survives

he will carry the City inside him on the paths of exile

he will be the City


we look into hunger’s face the face of fire face of death

worst of all—the face of betrayal


and only our dreams have not been humiliated


Beyond this, the great journalist, Ryzard Kapuśińsky contributes an excerpt from Imperium that maps the last days of the Soviet empire from the perspective of 1989.


            From all this, it should be clear that The Wall in My Head isn’t really a celebration of the Berlin Wall’s coming down in the sense that you don’t catch anyone in the anthology sending up fireworks. They are doing that in Berlin these days, which is thankfully enjoying a capitalist spree: see 36 Hours in Berlin at New York, Kitsch, but it might be fun. In the ghostly world of literature and souls, though, we’re in a memorial zone. The Wall anthology might have been called Look Back in Anger. That’s normal. The vast majority of these texts weren’t prepared to celebrate the collapse of the Evil Empire. They were written in situ, many before 1989, and collected by the editors, which is perfectly in order, since to the possible surprise of those in the West, the mood here is commemorative, thoughtful—and in Romania anyhow, frustrated with regard to progress made. In this regard, it will be best to let Keith Gessen’s introduction elaborate, although moderate might be a better word.


In the mid-to-late 1990’s, while living mostly in Moscow, I managed to travel through a good part of the former Soviet Bloc….while the Russians weren’t adjusting very well…to the new conditions, and the Ukrainians were adjusting slowly, and cautiously to not being Russian, everyone else simply went back to what they’d been doing for the past 500 years. Romanians seemed stuck in the middle ages (there were those horse-drawn buggies on the road), and everyone was drunk (the horses knew where they were going), and there was a kind of elemental menace and ruin and beauty to the place. Prague really was lovely…but the Czech Republic seemed hard-pressed to know what to do with its independence (except get more of it, by breaking with Slovakia.) Meanwhile Budapest, a few hours away, was already easily on its way (with the help of George Soros) to replacing Vienna as the intellectual capital of Europe…


Gessen is right that after the fall of communism people and nations got on with their lives, chacun à son goût, but not without scars.

            Only, there’s more to it than that. For one thing, communism was not the only interruption. World War II happened first, and there was no Marshall Plan over here after that. Second, while communism was a universal evil and while East Europeans all suffered from living in police states, it should never be forgotten that in the aftermath of the Second World War, communism didn’t wear the same face all over the map. Tito’s Yugoslavia looked like Western Europe to visitors from other Soviet Bloc states. It never occurred to the Hungarians to tear down the center of Budapest, which still wears the (somewhat faded) glamour of the second city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nicolae Ceausescu, on the other hand, demolished the historic centers of most Romanian cities. Typical result: Bucharest, a city once known as Little Paris, wound up looking like Little Calcutta. Visually, things are on the mend now. A New York eye, accustomed to constant transformation, would undoubtedly find huge zones of the tantalizingly old—if that eye had time to wander behind the big boulevards in the center of town.  More important, though, is that Romanian communism put on a Korean face in the late 1970’s. A policy of paying back 100 percent of the actually small national debt effectively bombed infrastructure back to the Stone Age, a savagery from which the country is yet recovering for a variety of social and political reasons too complex to address here. What should be noted now, though, is that when Romania’s “wall “ came down on December 22, 1989,  Romania did not just somehow pick up and return to its manifestly medieval destiny. If Romania had returned to its pre-World War II state, that would have been splendid. While the United States was slogging through the Great Depression, Romania partied through boom times. The price of international grain futures was set in Braila on the Danube, not in Chicago. Back then, Romania was “the bread basket of Europe,” in spite of its simple farming methods. The country, then relatively new as a geographic entity, benefited from a liberal constitution, and though largely agricultural, its developing industry operated on the (then) high tech end. Nor was the country seething with communist ferment. There were a few communist labor leaders, and the avant-guarde nursed communist ideals in a more-or-less theoretical way via connections with Andre Breton and Louis Aragon in Paris, a phenomenon documented (and ripe for translation) in Stelian Tănase’s Avangarda româneacai în arhivele Siguranţei [The Romanian Avant-guarde in the Archive of the Secret Police. Iaşi: Polirom, 2008]. The bottom line, if there is one, is that while pre-war Romania was neither a perfect place, nor one lacking in police spies, it was a country on the rise, capable of commanding international respect. Here, it should be remembered (1) that while its agriculture relied on primitive farming methods, those methods were widely spread over Eastern Europe, and (2) that although the United States, vastly admired here as the land of modern methods, was not the center of agro-business in the years before Romania became a country interrupted. Aide memoir: the dust bowl was something to contend with, in those days, William Faulkner wrote about a country that existed, and Alan Lomax collected sharecropper music from, pardon the expression, American peasants. The point here is that while WW II affected everything in the United States and Europe, it worked as an engine in the U.S. (and later in Western Europe), whereas it opened the way to paralysis and a kind of social gangrene in the countries doomed at Yalta. 

            So, to get back to that business about horses and wagons, it’s true that the Romanian countryside harbors one of the last vestiges of the middle ages. It’s beautiful there, and when you go to a village where you’re related to more-or-less everyone to some degree, the experience is remarkably cheerful. If you visit as an American tourist, the experience expands to the Rabelaisian. Agro-tourism is developing in various places, and it’s well-worth spending a Christmas in Maramureş, for example, with carolers dressed in animal costumes that must go back to pagan times. Let that be the answer to our lack of a George Soros and a decent agricultural plan. Still, when I first read the part about that drunkeness, I was tempted to launch a patriotic reply. We’re no more drunk than anyone else in Eastern Europe, I wanted to say. What about Russians with their vodka? We’re a Latin wine culture, in fact. I was building up a pretty good head of steam sitting in our courtyard with the Carpathians in view.  At which point cousin Nelu came by to drink a ţuica (slivovitz to you) and say he’d take us for a ride in the hay cart as soon as he finished mowing. He was tired from days of using a scythe, and we should get together and have some fun.

“Horses are great,” I put in.

“Yeah,” said Nelu. “For instance, after I’ve been to the mat ( a very simple village bar), I crawl out to the cart and the horse takes me home. Then my wife comes out and calls me a bum…”

What can you say? It beats drunk driving. Anyhow, good for the horses. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.     

And in defense of Nelu, who’s the salt of the earth, I should add that he has reason to blow off steam sometimes. If it weren’t for the communists, he would have been a farmer like his people before him. He was picked up and thrown into the city of Piteşti to work as a plumber along with all the other able bodied people the communists took off the land  and planted in the infamous flat blocs thrown up as part of the grotesque attempt to create an industrial society. Now, Nelu commutes to the country to take care of the family farm for his widowed mother while his wife commutes back and forth from Spain—get that Spain—because that’s where she found a decently paying job ( as a companion to an old lady). Honi soit qui mal y pense. As I was saying, there are scars. Plus, there’s no way of knowing what kind of farmer Nelu might have been had the combined time warp of war and communism not intervened.

But to return to something said earlier in connection with defining the Wall introject, The Wall in My Head includes four modes of looking back at what caused those scars. I hardly know where to start recommending because the way to get at the variety and impact of the communist experience is to read the whole anthology, all at one go, if possible, because that’s the way to feel the impact on your own skin. Four themes stand out: the insidious presence of the secret police, the corrosive influence of a police society on the family (which in Romania generally stood as a bastion against informer culture), the problem of acceptance, and a certain belated nostalgia for the almost magical ways people managed to escape the oppression, as if flying somehow under the radar. Péter Esterházy’s “Preface to Revised Edition”(translated by Judith Sollosy) achingly captures the first three themes. Mircea Cărtărescu’s “Nabokov in Brasov” (translated by Julian Semilian) discloses ironies and pathos connected to intimate knowledge of the oppressor, Masha Gessen’s “My Grandmother the Censor” (written originally in English) will complicate any simple perceptions you may have about good and evil, and Dimitri Savitsk’s excerpt “From Waltz for K” (translated by Kingsly Shorter) will help you cotton on to fears of not flying. A last word: the documentary photos, graphics and illustrations go a long way toward capturing the idiotic, gritty brutality suffered by Eastern Europe after Yalta.  It would be obscene to think Hollywood after that.


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