When the teenage Carmen Bugan and her family fled Romania for political asylum in the United States in 1988, an officer of the Securitate on the outbound train confiscated the budding writer’s poetry journal.
It was just one final act of petty cruelty in a campaign over several years, including continual audio surveillance of the family home (the Bugans exchanged important information by written notes), brutal threats by telephone in the middle of the night and even the poisoning of the family dog, Bombonica, whose unfailing instinct to bite the family’s Securitate tormentors had for Carmen come to symbolise her own struggle.
The Securitate were able to steal the girl’s fledgling verses. But they could not take her memories, her compassionate heart or her clear writer’s eye, to which this extraordinary memoir, written nearly a quarter of a century after the family’s defection, is testament.
The heart of Carmen’s story is an account of the strain put on the Bugan family after the arrest of her father for protesting against the repressive Ceausescu regime with a placard in the middle of Bucharest, an act for which he was sentenced to ten years in prison. But the book is much more than a political document — it is also about childhood, adolescence and the nature of freedom.
The typewriter of the title was, in fact, a duplicate of one the Bugans would present for inspection by the Securitate.
The first would be used for innocuous tasks, such as shopping lists, while on the second, at night the parents typed out fliers of protest at the communists. The typewriter was buried in the garden before light, like a smoking gun — an apposite image, as in the totalitarian state the most dangerous weapon is the word and its means of dissemination.
The early part of Carmen’s narrative describes a rural childhood, during which she and her sister and brother were often looked after by grandparents while her parents made a living running a shop in the nearby town of Ivesti.
Though Carmen did not know it at the time, her father, Nelu Bugan, had been imprisoned in his twenties for protesting against the regime. It is after his second arrest and imprisonment that the bulk of Carmen’s powerful story takes place. Some of the most moving scenes concern the family’s visits to Nelu in prison, in the harsh conditions first at Rahova and then Aiud.
“My father is a broken man,” Carmen observes, standing before the shadow of the parent she had known, the man who was always “in control” now reduced to tears. After another visit, the family retires to a hotel where they all collapse on the bed weeping.
When he is released in an amnesty, Nelu behaves “weirdly”, constantly asking for permission. The continual harassment by the Securitate leads the family to apply for asylum to the US and it is left to Carmen to make the journey to Bucharest at dead of night (“Even the air is asleep at two in the morning,” she observes with her poet’s eye), vital documents sewn into clothing, to steal into the US embassy, where her testimony — five hours of writing down every iniquity visited on the family by the state, including the forced divorce of her parents — is assessed and asylum granted.
The final leave-taking from Romania is wrenching. Carmen describes the collective sound of “keening” as the whole village weeps. “This is our funeral,” she reflects.
It is characteristic of the unflinching honesty of her book that she focuses on the cost as well as the importance of her father’s heroism. “I know that his crime consists of nothing other than asking for food and dignity for our country,” she writes. “Without someone like him, what are we all?” Yet in other passages she questions whether this is really an act of selfishness, abandoning a young family, including Carmen’s ailing infant brother, Catalin, for an indulgent political folly. “There are moments,” confesses Carmen’s mother, “when I feel it will be hard to forgive him for doing this to us, for being more concerned with politics than his own children.”
Carmen’s book is, in fact, as much about that fractured childhood as the politics that distorted it. We see events at times through the half-knowing lens of the child’s understanding. When Carmen’s father weeps at a priest on Radio Free America recalling being tortured with a young Romanian prisoner, the scene is given an added poignancy by the fact that Carmen at the time doesn’t know that the young prisoner the priest is recalling is Nelu himself. In the course of the book, Carmen grows from a child to a woman (her grandmother greets her first menstrual blood with fierce, homespun advice: “Men have seeds, accursed seeds, and they tell girls all sorts of lies and make all sorts of promises”) to first love. In her touching attachment to young Sorin, a boy who woos her with chrysanthemums, we get a sense of destiny denied. Before she leaves, pledges of eternal love are made that history won’t allow to be kept.
Scenes of tenderness such as this give “Burying the Typewriter” a warmth that sometimes seems absent from works coming from Romania itself. The films of the Romanian New Wave, multiple award winners at the Cannes Film Festival in recent years, examine the cankered heart of the country now and under communism. But they cleave to an aesthetic that is often so harsh that they become parched and joyless.
Carmen understands fully the crushed, desensitised place from which these works come. She recalls: “Such isolation, pressure, not knowing which of our friends were friends and which were informers, the atmosphere in which we could not tell illusion from hope, made us all just stop feeling altogether.”
The words strike to the heart of the Romanian experience. And it may be Carmen’s distance, literal and emotional, as a refugee ensconced in the new world (the family defected to Michigan and Carmen now lives in Switzerland), that has allowed her to describe these tortuous times with such startling warmth, perception and humanity.
Burying the Typewriter: Childhood Under the Eye of the Secret Police By Carmen Bugan, Picador, 272 pages, £16.99