Lanie Tankard, guest reviewer, is back! This time she has chosen a book that connects to an experience of her own life. I think her “bookend” intro and conclusion is as interesting as the review herself. I also think Lanie could write a great memoir some day. Perhaps this guest gig is getting her ready. What do you think? Help me encourage her in the comments section.
Del Mar, CA: Bettie Youngs Books, 2010 (354 pp., paperback)
Reviewed by Lanie Tankard
One sunny London day, Nicolae Ceausescu waved at me — or at least in my direction. To be exact, it was Tuesday June 13, 1978, when the president of the Socialist Republic of Romania rolled by me in a horse-drawn carriage on a state visit. I snapped the photo above of him sitting next to Queen Elizabeth II.
Madame Elena Ceausescu followed in a second carriage with the Duke of Edinburgh. A special train had whisked the Romanians from Gatwick Airport to Victoria Station. The city center was blocked off, creating a massive traffic jam for several hours. Ceausescu had just been to China, North Korea, Cambodia, and Vietnam, where the London Times reported he “was hailed as a friend.”
On that day, he had been president for four years, although some British newspapers referred to him as a dictator even then. That night, he would become the first leader of a Communist country to sleep in Buckingham Palace, while I rested my head in a bed-and-breakfast run by Mrs. Thomas in Muswell Hill. Soon we all returned to our respective countries.
Eleven years later, the Ceausescus were gone. I read the headlines about their execution after a secret military tribunal found them guilty of a series of crimes such as genocide and undermining the national economy.
I really hadn’t thought much about Nicolae Ceausescu until I read a new memoir by Aura Imbarus called Out of the Transylvania Night. She details what it was like to grow up in the central Romanian region of Transylvania, under the dictator she calls worse than Dracula.
Imbarus was eighteen years old in 1989, when the Ceausescus faced a firing squad on Christmas Day — a holiday Ceausescu had banned. She begins her memoir with a vivid scene of setting out with her parents for some furtive Christmas shopping despite the watchful eyes in her ancient village of Sibiu, first inhabited in 300 BC.
Skylights on her book’s cover that resemble heavy-lidded eyes are common on buildings in Transylvania. Originally built to protect food stored in attics by allowing in fresh air, this architectural feature became a convenient way to spy on Romanians during the Ceausescu period.
Imbarus describes the role of fashion in keeping a person safe in a dictatorship — how bright colors could draw those eyes toward an individual in a collectivist society. A dark and drab wardrobe ends up being a much wiser choice in such situations. It can mean the difference between staying alive, and becoming a moving target in a red jacket. Even jewelry can bring an individual under suspicion.
Finally her country rebelled. “I was in love with the revolution,” Imbarus writes. Her account of the barricades reminded me of scenes in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Yet the lasting effects of the repressive pre-revolution years, in a starved and freedom-deprived nation, make it difficult for her to find her identity. She departs from her childhood town in quest of not only freedom, but also jazz and palm trees in the United States. Here, Imbarus faced setbacks common to many immigrants, along with a number of personal losses, but each time she kept going.
She ultimately found her salvation by fully embracing her cultural characteristics rather than hiding them. Imbarus became a cofounder of the Romanian American Professionals Network (RAPN), and describes how important such groups are in helping those new to this country “adjust to life in the United States without them feeling that they have to give up their identity.”
The importance of writing personal stories about times of widespread torment is a bit like pointillism in art. Each account is a separate tale until they are all viewed as a saga, and then the entire portrait of an era emerges.
Out of the Transylvania Night could have benefited from additional editing, but the story is so compelling that a reader is drawn in nevertheless. Imbarus grew up idealizing gymnast Nadia Comaneci, whom she saw in her village from time to time. Praise from Comaneci is quoted on the memoir’s cover. Book group discussion questions are included, such as: “”What expectations of freedom proved to be a hindrance in Aura’s life?”
Writers of memoir will be interested in the disclaimer at the beginning of the book: “This is a true story and the characters are real, as are the events. However, in some cases, names, descriptions, and locations have been changed. Some incidents have been altered and or combined for storytelling purposes. In some cases, time has been condensed for narrative purposes, but the overall chronology is an accurate depiction of the author’s experience.”
An incisive foreword by Dumitru Ciocoi-Pop, former president of Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, defends the appeal of memoir as a literary genre in a time of increasing artificiality. Why read it? Ciocoi-Pop says: “The only answer I can give is: for the necessity of genuine sharing.”
Imbarus notes at the end of her memoir that the Ceausescus’ bodies were recently exhumed to determine if they are actually the ones buried in their graves.Testing of samples obtained July 21, 2010, may take up to six months to determine the true identity of the remains. Many have questioned their deaths, including Imbarus. Ceausescu was known for using a number of different stand-ins to pose for him.
So even when the results are finally in, I will continue to wonder: Was that really Nicolae Ceausescu who waved at me on a London street — or was it his double?
Lanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, Texas. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.