Burying the Typewriter
Carmen Bugan and her family had the misfortune to live in Drăgăneşti, România during the worst days of the Communist leader Nicolae Ceauşescu. Carmen's father, Nelu Bugan, detested Communism, and instead of putting up with it and shutting up like everyone else did, he picketed, nailed up posters, stuffed mailboxes with complaints about the lack of food, freedom, property, speech, political action. From 1961 until the family's expulsion in 1989, he was jailed, beaten, and tortured for his views. Carmen's picture of her father is devoted and loving and despairing at the same time.
Burying the Typewriter is the story of what it's like to live in a country that is corrupt, viciously intolerant of dissent and devoid of the most basic of freedoms. It is also a tale of how whole families suffer from the actions of one member. As they are finally being forced to leave the country, Carmen's patient, even-tempered, ever-loving mother finally says to her husband, "This is our funeral, Nelu. Why do you take me away from my home? Why do you take me away from my father? You destroyed my life with your politics. I hate you!" ... She pounds on Dad's chest with both her fists while everyone from the village, there for the departure, wails.
My mother is the labor and the fruit of the village. People love her and respect her ... Truth be told, her ambitions have never leapt higher than to walk the length of our village and be greeted warmly by everyone.
"Awkward as her scene making is, she is to be forgiven, allowed to make her grief manifest, for only God knows where we are headed."
If this were just another resisting-tyranny story, it would be good (Bugan was world famous as a dissident, especially after being sentenced to ten years in Aiud prison for his activities). But Carmen is --- like her mother --- patient and gentle and loving, not only, apparently, in her character, but with her words. I found myself constantly marking the pages, noting the felicity of her language. This, for instance, is about their visit to their father in Bucharest, at the trial where he was forced to divorce his wife of twenty-five years because he was considered a bad influence on his children (Ceauşescu's operatives could and did force such travesties):
I rush to his arms and bury my head in his chest. Time halts and freezes. My homesickness for him becomes so profound that I cling to him as if I am another arm. I can't make space for Loredana and Cătălin, who also stick to Dad like orange skins before you peel them from the fruit. I want to cover Dad up, to make him invisible, to absorb him into our bodies...
"The judge weeps and leaves the room. It takes two policemen to unstick my sister, my brother, and me from my dad's body, limb by limb, cheek by tear-soaked cheek, finger by clutched finger."
§ § §
This is titled Burying the Typewriter because they had to hide it (in a hole, in the back yard). In România, as in the Soviet Union, all typewriters had to be registered, and the Bugan family had two, both highly illegal. Nelu Bugan went to prison for this crime, as well as the crime of being a noisy dissident.
Like all good stories of travail and injustice, this narrative is one of not only injustice, but, as well, child's memories laced with gentleness, great language, a sly irony, and a sometimes very peculiar comedy. While Nelu is in jail, the national security police come to the town of Drăgăneşti to live there and hound the family. They invade the house, pull everything off the walls and out of the closets, dumping pictures and plates and cookware and sheets and pillows on the floor, and close off --- for a matter of years --- most of the rooms of the house. They install microphones in the walls and ceiling, force the family to leave the curtains open so they can spy on their activities day and night.
If the Securitate were hell-bent on destroying the family's life, they succeed all too well. For eight years neighbors are forced to avoid them, the children are taunted at school, visitors are hounded, relatives are forced into silence (or worse, are forced to inform), so that at one point Carmen can say that one neighbor, an especially brave one, "swears that as far as she can learn from us, there are no collaborators to Dad's crime of protesting against the government."
When she returns home it is her and her parents' job to prepare meals for the Securitate comrades who turned the front room of their house into a surveillance residence from which they watch us day and night.
One of the most villainous insults comes at the end of Bugan's jailing, when the whole family is forced out. The local police and the Securitate complain bitterly that all the time that they have been forced to spy on the Bugan family has destroyed their lives, that they have suffered as much as the persecuted family.
As normal to one her age, and during her last days in Drăgăneşti, and despite all the petty harassment from the Securitate, Carmen falls in love with Sorin ("sometimes he carries me in his arms over the bridge, reciting poetry to me"). But their lives have been tainted by living under the dictatorship of the proletariat:
We are both fatalistic, we believe that love is to be declared and never spent; we don't believe in happiness, we believe in the reality of yearning and suffering.
It's a fine book, and even Carmen's bitter remarks at the very end when she returns (2010) to visit from America ring true. She believes that she, as a child, was deluded by family, friends, and certainly herself. But despite the oppression around her, she listened to the birds, wrote poetry, fell in love, looked at the stars. Her earlier innocence seems to grate on her at the end of it all. This is what she says of the person (the younger Carmen) who wrote this captivating story:
The child speaking early in the book has no idea that there are secrets, sometimes evil secrets, and sometimes protective secrets whispering in the souls of family and friends, as sparrows nest and sing in the magical eaves of her grandparents' house.--- Richard Saturday