Interview of the week – Teodor Flonta
A Luminous Future: Growing up in Transylvania in the Shadow of Communism:
English Edition published in 2012
Romanian Edition published in 2013
A Luminous Future, the title of Teodor’s book, is a catchphrase which the Communist Party, the only political party allowed in Romania, used to promise the population a better life. It was a lie, shamelessly repeated day by day, as the general condition of the population was worsening from year to year, culminating with the collapse of the regime at the end of 1989. In his memoir, Teodor offers a glimpse into what life of the ordinary citizen was like and how people learned to adapt and survive the persecution and censorship of the communist regime.
When did you leave Romania and why?
First of all, Madi, I would like to thank you so much for inviting me to this interview. The fact that you are a Romanian yourself I feel will add a special perspective to your questions.
I left Romania in January 1972 which now seems an eternity.
I met my wife, who is Italian, at an International Linguistic Conference in Bucharest in 1968. Eventually we decided to marry and, after some dramatic moments and a lot of difficulties, I was allowed to leave the country permanently. Your readers should know that at the time contacts between Romanians and foreigners were forbidden by the communist regime.
Please tell us a few words about the book and how hard it was for you to write this story?
The book is about a child, his family, his village and his country in one of its darkest hours: Stalinism and its aftermath. It covers the period that starts with the seizure of power by the communists and ends with the collectivization of agriculture at the beginning of the sixties – it coincides with the span of time from my birth to reaching adulthood.
In writing the book I encountered two difficulties: linguistic and emotional.
After I left the country and moved to Milan with my wife my use of Romanian became sporadic and Italian, which I studied at university, took over. Seven years later we migrated to Australia. So, writing the book was an interesting experience which, as a linguist, fascinated me. My most intimate childhood experiences, which include life with my family and school days, were thought about in my local dialect mixed with modern Romanian. Some of the political and historical events described had to be researched, most of them in English, as politics and history taught by the communists were one-sided propaganda. Italian contributed as it is the language spoken daily in my household and over the years I have written bits and pieces of the story in Italian. The book was therefore filtered through these three languages. So, I was pleasantly surprised by the comments of some kind reviewers who pointed out poetic qualities in my prose.
While languages were my bread and butter, so to speak, the emotional side of writing the story was the most stressful. When I was writing some of the terrifying scenes about my parents being tormented by the Securitate (the Secret Police), I often had to stop. It always took time and determination to get back to those terrible moments. Every time I felt the need to hide my tears from my wife. The most distressing scenes were those regarding my Mama with whom I had developed a very strong bond. This was particularly so during the times my father was either arrested or was living in hiding for fear of the criminals of the regime. I remember how Mama, a young, beautiful, intelligent woman withered fast and died at the age of 46 due to the conditions imposed on us by the communists. Reliving those moments so intensely after more than 50 years took a great emotional toll on me.
When you started to write ‘A Luminous Future’, who did you write for?
A long story with a brief answer, this one. I had the vague idea of writing about the horrors of Communism for a long time. I remember telling my wife in Bucharest, at the time we were trying to get married and were encountering all sorts of obstacles, that one day I would write about Communism; I had even found an Italian nom de plume. But the necessities of life and family necessities took over and, while I wrote little stories in Italian from time to time, I did not make any real progress. However, the idea of writing something like ‘A Luminous Future’ stayed always with me.
So, in 2005 I was about to have my first grandchild, a boy. My joy was immense and my creativity got a tremendous upsurge. Until that moment I had doubts about how to tell the story. In that waiting room at the hospital I had the sudden inspiration that I had to tell my story to him, and to any other future grandchildren, no matter how crude and uncomfortable that may be. By extension, as I say in the book, the story is ‘for anybody who is interested in learning how a wicked regime trampled brutally on innocent people’s lives.’
Did you feel more peaceful after you let the story out, after it was put on paper?
Definitely. I felt a big relief to have completed the story and with it a great sense of accomplishment. My parents were poorly educated people by today’s standards, but made every possible sacrifice to give me an education in very oppressive circumstances. In their simplicity they thought that education would be my only salvation. Then I, the only child, left the country and went far away… This book is the only way I can thank and show my love to them. I know it’s a bit late but they would have understood. They always did.
You were living on the outside, away from Romania for many years. Did this make any difference in the writing of this book?
I believe so. I am convinced I would not have been able to write ‘A Luminous Future’ had I lived in Romania. And I could not have written it in Romanian. The perspective of looking at life and at things in general would have been different. I guess I needed to acquire the necessary distance from the past. Had I lived in Romania, I would have kept being angry and disillusioned with life as many of my compatriots still are. While sometimes those sentiments can create great art, I don’t think this would have been the case with my book. I think readers in the free world would not want to know how angry I am and how vindictive I could be against my oppressors. They would rather want to know what daily life for the common people was like during communism; how they coped and how, in my family’s case, we managed to survive after we were declared enemies of the people, which meant walking daily with abuse and even death by your side. They would want to know why our lives had no value for the communists. That’s what I tried to convey in my book.
Talking about anger, I think writing the book in English, a neutral language for me, also contributed to distance the events, which was necessary to get a better perspective on why and how things happened. While I was growing up, Romanian became for me the language of “nu se poate, tovarăşu” which means “it’s forbidden, comrade”. When I dared to ask why, the answer would invariably be “that’s the law, comrade!” But nobody would ever explain which law they were talking about, where you could get the information about that law and why it would deny me, an ordinary obedient citizen, the simplest things in life. That’s why I would have had some problems keeping my anger at bay if I tried to write ‘A Luminous Future’ in Romanian. English had a calming effect on me, both by being a neutral language for my pain and by giving me time to reflect on how best to convey certain emotions. Being far away from the Romanian socio-political scene might also have helped. I think I’ve managed to preserve the core memories of my childhood unadulterated in any way by the vicinity of the place which gave birth to them. Living far away, it goes without saying that over time those memories became much more intense in my heart and soul.
Your book is translated and published in Romanian now. How is the reception there and do you have any feedback?
Yes, I have had some feedback. My Romanian translator, Mr. Paul Budimir, gave a copy of the book to one of the greatest contemporary Romanian poets, Ana Blandiana, who is also the founder of the Memorial to the Victims of Communism. She had the goodness to write to me, saying that she was deeply impressed by ‘A Luminous Future’ and grateful to me for having written it. The book will be placed in the Civic Academy Library associated with the Memorial and made available to the younger generation, she said.
Talking of libraries, I also know that the Romanian National Library holds a copy of the Romanian version of the book.
Then, a chapter from ‘A Luminous Future’ will appear as a self-standing story in an anthology about life and leisure during Communism, to be published this year by a major Romanian publisher.
When was the last time you visited Romania?
Ha! Long time ago – last millennium! I think it was 1998 or 1999. My wife and I went to visit an old friend sick with cancer who, sadly, died shortly after. Now I keep in touch with a very good and loyal friend with whom I shared a room while in college. And I also read the Romanian newspapers daily.
What do you think about our country these days? Is it still a long way away from being a true democracy?
From what I read in the newspapers, I see that there is a gross misunderstanding at all levels of society of what freedom should be. The Romanian political class is a disaster and the present left wing government seems to be very corrupt. It’s working for its party members, defending them from justice, and doing nothing for the general population. Corruption has come to be viewed by politicians as freedom. We have a prime minister who plagiarized his doctoral thesis – this is stated by the University of Bucharest which gave him the award. This young man follows in the footsteps of Madame Ceauşescu, who had her doctoral thesis written by others. He never thought of resigning which is surely a minimum requirement in a democracy. The deputy prime minister is under investigation for electoral fraud, including making the dead vote! And he is still in office. It’s a shame and a tragedy but in itself says a lot about the Romanian democracy.
We have a left wing dominated Parliament which interferes with the course of justice by blocking investigations into the corruption of its members and by passing laws or changing existing ones to protect corrupt politicians. All this is done secretely late at night. No wonder the Romanian Parliament infamously won the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project’s international award in 2013 for promoting crime and corruption. The OCCRP is a full-time investigative reporting organization that operates in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Central America.
To top it all, a large chunk of the media is in the hands of shady people, some of them former Securitate collaborators or officials. And most of the organizations which should fight for civil liberties are bribed by the government of the day with grants. Looking from where I am, it’s a very sad state of affairs.
On the positive side, we have a rather independent judiciary, which put a former left wing Prime Minister and several ministers in jail for corruption. And, judging by the investigations in progress, there are more sentences to come. But the question is how long will the judiciary remain independent and resist the assault of this Parliament and this left wing government?
The only thing that seems to work for Romania at present is its membership of the European Union which, occasionally, intervenes and stops the assaults of politicians on the justice system. My hope is that the EU will manage ultimately to save Romania.
Have you been curious about the files the Securitate kept on members of your family including yourself? If so, what have you found there?
Yes, I have approached the CNSAS which is short for National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives. One sore note about this is that many files regarding high dignitaries in the repressive communist regime who held or still hold positions in the post-communist era, or files regarding the former Securitate officers themselves, have never reached the Archives. They have been destroyed by the perpetrators themselves or by their friends with access to the files.
To answer your question, I have to say that your timing is perfect, Madi. For years I’ve been reluctant to see even if there was a file with my name on it or that of my father. Too many bad memories. But, as I am writing the sequel to ‘A Luminous Future’, last October I sent CNSAS an email inquiring about the existence or otherwise of such files. On the 14th of February this year I received copies of one on my father and one on myself. Unfortunately, the copies are of very poor quality with half of the material illegible. A friend of mine is looking at the microfilm of my file and has managed so far to get a bit more information. Not unexpectedly I found out that my private correspondence with my Italian fiancée, while she was in Italy and I was still in Romania, had been intercepted and that both of us had been given code names. And then I had the biggest surprise of my life – an old friend of mine, to whom I would go often for advice, was in fact a Securitate officer!
What do you expect your readers to take away from the book?
By learning about one of the most repressive regimes in modern times, its methods and its total lack of respect for life – be it human or animal – we can build a better future, making sure that history does not repeat itself. I believe that the more we know about regimes which trample on human dignity and human basic rights, the better equipped we will be to fight those governments which might be tempted to limit our freedom and play havoc with our rights. In these troubled times, when Russia is again starting to invade other countries, we must remember that totalitarianism is only a whisker away, everywhere in the world. It’s in our governments, in our town halls, in our institutions. We have to make sure that the people we elect to office are there to serve us, not us to serve them. Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” We should defend democracy even when there are things with which we do not agree. Having lived under Communism and having had the fortune to live extensively in two democracies, I think any other alternative is worse.
What is your message for the post-communist generation?
Learn from the past and fight for what is right for others, not for what is right only for yourself!
Thank you for agreeing to this interview Teodor. I tried not to give away many spoilers today. Here https://authorspromotion.wordpress.com/2014/03/10/a-luminous-future-by-teodor-flonta/on my blog I posted a few days ago a review of your book and also readers can find more about you and A Luminous Future at: