Book review: Burying The Typewriter

‘SOMETIMES it takes sacrificing a family for a country.” That’s what Carmen Bugan’s father told her on his release from prison where he had been incarcerated in the 1980s for protesting against the totalitarian regime in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania.

This is the story of Bugan’s childhood and what happened to the family left behind when her father drove off with his placards to stage a one-man protest in Bucharest in 1983. It’s also the story of a whole village, where lives were turned upside down as school friends, teachers, neighbours and relatives became both objects and agents of the surveillance that ensued.

Bugan spent her childhood under the regime, went to America with her family when they were exiled, and finally returned to relive the experience when the files were released after Ceausescu’s death. Because she did not read these until after she wrote the first part of the book, her childhood voice is innocent of the secrets the adults had to keep and her hope and vitality shines through.

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There is no recrimination. She even points out how the Stasi who “confiscate” the family sunflower oil and flour are passing it on to their own ration-starved children.

Otherwise, her childhood is idyllic. Rural Romania may be poor, but at least she is loved and cherished. There are nights around the kitchen table where neighbours and friends gather. There are vine harvests, her beloved grandparents with their chickens and pigs, music, laughter, the changing of the seasons, and characters who defy the stultifying greyness of communism gone wrong.

This all changes when her father is arrested. With her mother away in hospital, 12-year-old Carmen and her grandmother are left to cope with the arrival of the Stasi. They don’t just spy on the family with microphones, they actually move in, sitting in the living room, forcing Bugan and her grandmother to sleep in their clothes in one bed. Denied rations, the family are close to starvation.

In this society, one in three people were informants and you wonder how two in three managed to remain neutral. Bugan shows how the lines between informant and victim become blurred, how someone who is constantly interrogated and forced to report on friends and neighbours can let them know they are doing so and continue to support, feed, love, and keep them alive and even laughing.

Informers become saviours and society ends up informing on itself; people no longer recognising the difference between thoughts and feelings they had spontaneously and those they had for their own protection.

Unable to speak freely, the young Carmen retreats into books and especially poetry, which comes to sustain her when there is nothing else. It’s also the medium she chooses as an adult to revisit the struggles of her homeland, publishing a collection of poetry before writing Burying The Typewriter.

Bugan’s story comes full circle with an afterword, when Carmen returns to Romania in 2010 and opens the files to discover the depth of the surveillance.

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So intimate are the details – how much her father loves his wife and children, the simple pleasure of the day he brings them home a puppy, a copy of a story she typed at 11 on the illegal typewriter – that for Bugan they are “a magical way into the past”. “How can I not be glad?” she asks.

Her father’s courage and determination speak for themselves, and when the regime ended he was lauded by Romanians for his brave stance. Yet his family had their own struggle to survive an exile a lot closer to home. To use Bugan’s own words, “My childhood was sacrificed to (sic) the altar of love for this country.”

Ultimately, the love for her country is what remains, along with the love of words on paper. This book is a celebration of the power of the written word, especially those typed on an illegal typewriter buried every night in the soil under the kitchen window. She is her father’s daughter.

Burying The Typewriter: Childhood Under The Eye Of The Secret Police

Carmen Bugan

Picador, £16.99