Essay

Bucharest in recovery

'WHAT YOU HAVE to consider is who visited Bucharest. Bucharest was the point of contact for trade unionists and politicians who were wary of going to Moscow.'

This is Gough Whitlam speaking in response to questions at a Senate enquiry on 6 December 1999. 'Everybody favoured relations with Bucharest,' Whitlam continued: the British government, both sides, and the Americans, though his own government 'never had any formal contact' with the former president, Nicolae Ceausescu.[i]

The first political leader in Australia to do that was West Australian Premier Brian Burke, who played host to the Romanian leader and his wife at Government House in Perth in the bicentennial year. That episode still festers in Australian political debate. Shane Maloney mined the story again for The Monthly in May 2009:

Already a major customer for Australian coal, Romania was a potential gateway to Eastern Europe for Pilbara iron ore. Aware of Ceausescu's aversion to foreign debt, Lang Hancock had devised an elaborate deal to swap raw minerals for railway wagons. A delegation of politicians, public servants, businesspeople and union officials was assembled. Burke's job was to front the pitch.[ii]

The situation of Bucharest as an interface and access corridor for major powers has been the country's downfall time and again. Historically, this was largely a matter of European geography and neighbourhood; it is sobering to realise that by the later years of the Ceausescu regime, opportunists from the other side of the world were also getting in on the game. If there's an evil worse than colonisation, it's surely that of being a transit zone, in which contesting powers vie with each other for political and economic opportunities. As Claudio Magris puts it in an evocative portrait of Bucharest in the pre-Ceausescu era, 'the evil is that of having too much history, being a crossroads, or at least an optional stop-shop on the route of universal history.'[iii] Ceausescu's early popularity arose from a staunch and often genuinely courageous opposition to foreign meddling in Romanian affairs, but by the end of his dictatorial reign, he was selling the country off left, right and centre.

In the broader historical picture, not all the wheeling and dealing that goes on at the crossroads is destructive, and Romanian governments have done much during the past decade to find strategic advantage as a financial hub in the new Europe. The Bucharest stock exchange predicts a 50 per cent increase in trading volumes through 2012, as Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria combine to create a 'ring of defence' against fallout from the economic collapse in Greece and Spain. Exemplary practices of stress-testing in the Romanian banking sector help to give a ring of confidence, though austerity measures imposed by the IMF have impacted cruelly on ordinary people. The distress caused by sharp hikes in retail sales tax, salary cuts and job losses is compounded by a sense of thwarted civic pride. When rows of shops are boarded up and people die of cold in the streets of Bucharest, echoes of the bitter winters under Ceausescu are to the fore, and mock the efforts of a generation dedicated to recovery.

 

WHERE ECONOMIC INTERESTS are at stake, those responsible for promoting them like to create an environment of prosperity and style, and in the case of Bucharest, this manifested in its early twentieth century reputation as 'the Paris of the East,' a place of elegant palaces, international hotels and stylish cosmopolitan boulevards. In the wake of a period of comprehensive destruction, the city must again look to tourism as a crucial element in its economy. Bucharest needs its international visitors, but its inhabitants are weary of the stereotypes they have created, and foreign impressions matter in a different way now that the country is in the process of rebuilding its independent identity, as a member of NATO and the European Union. Tourism also is changing, catering not just for more varied tastes in pleasure and amusement, but also for more varied ideas of what international travel can mean as a form of diversified human experience, attuned to the conditions of life in the places visited.

We offer here some impressions of Bucharest from an outsider's eye: an account of a tourist experience in a situation where tourism itself is in transition. Our visit to the city in November 2009 was during the run-up to the twentieth anniversary of the revolution. The downfall of Nicolae Ceausescu over five dramatic days before Christmas was the last of the 1989 Eastern Bloc revolutions commemorated that year, but the anniversary has faded from international consciousness as a new wave of political turbulence moves through. The current Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, appointed after his predecessor was removed in a no confidence motion in April 2012, heads 'a special government for special times.'

Guidebooks warn you about the rogue cab drivers at Bucharest airport, and as soon as you get off the plane you see posters advising that Fly Taxi – identifiable by its bright blue and yellow logo – is the only authorised operator. If that's the first test you have to pass as a tourist, it looks pretty straightforward. A line of blue and yellow cars is visible through the windows of the arrivals hall and, given that the daylight is almost gone and we don't know our way around the city, they seem to be our best option for getting to a hotel on the other side of Bucharest.

Immediately we're approached by a young guy who puts a hand on our luggage trolley and says he is 'Official Taxi.' We try to ignore him, detouring to the information desk, but when we turn back, there's a pack of his kind between us and the exit. Outside, the Fly Taxi cars are empty. So are these the drivers? Again, our trolley is commandeered.

'Are you Fly Taxi?' we ask.

'Yes. Yes. Official Taxi,' he says, pushing the trolley out onto the pavement and across the road to the car park. He's moving fast. It seems we're going down in the lift. We're led into the basement where none of the remaining daylight reaches. The trolley clatters across broken concrete. Isn't this a scene in a movie somewhere? Should we be making a run for it as our luggage is thrown into the boot of a beat-up old car with no logos of any kind? The back seat smells of spray cleaner.

Nothing worse happens than a couple of unnecessary trips round the block in the downtown traffic, and an inflated bill. We manage to bring the tour to a halt by asking to be dropped at the Radisson, and take refuge in the café, where they serve 'Revolution' brand Earl Grey tea, delivered to your table in tiny lilac boxes along with the pot of hot water. Here the feral elements of the city are tamed by the expectations of international tourists and, in exchange for a tip to the doorman, you will be escorted to a reliable cab.

As we leave, it occurs to us that we've just replicated the tactics adopted by Bucharest's foreigners in a former era, when the city was divided between a cosmopolitan elite whose social bases were the graciously appointed hotels, and a peasant population driven to begging, cheating, or at best hard labour, to stay alive.

The hotel we're booked into is a very much smaller and cheaper establishment than the Radisson, and located a couple of kilometres south of the city centre in a hilly suburb where the winding streets escaped Ceausescu's bulldozers. Small houses are exposed under sterile lighting, looking like shells whose lifeforms have vanished. The hotel itself, though, is pretty, and throws off a rose-coloured glow from its freshly painted walls.

From an upstairs window, there's a direct view of the floodlit palace, or House of the People. This, of course, is not where the people went when they were unshelled from their traditional homes. Its title is a compensatory gesture, born of the kind of deadpan irony that pervaded all public communication during the Ceausescu years, and this building is no more inhabited than any of the smaller shells around us. The palace wears its illumination on the outside only. The cost of lighting its vast interior is prohibitive, and most of the 480 chandeliers hang in permanently dark halls, bearing some 3,500 metric tonnes of unreflecting crystal.

As an innocent from abroad, you might be forgiven for wondering at this massive beacon shining over the city, and for receiving the impression that it is the inspiring symbol of a nation in recovery, looking again towards the achievement of great things. Many Romanians have also come to see it that way; it is Bucharest's main tourist attraction, and that must count for something in a struggling economy. Others, though, maintain an animus against it. Prominent amongst these is Andrei Pandele, architect and photographer, who was conscripted in 1987 for a year's service with the construction team for a building he regards as 'aggressive, dismal, huge, out of scale, imposing, arrogant.' He portrays its domineering presence in a photograph of a woman looking out from her balcony, unable to escape its 'crushing impression.'[iv] Pandele's insider view of the political psychosis that gripped his country has become widely influential through his photographic collections The House of the People (2009), and Surprise Witness (2008), containing street photographs taken illegally during the years of the dictatorship.

 

STRAY DOGS ARE one of the many chronic problems bequeathed to the city by Ceausescu, whose residential relocation programs in the 1980s rendered tens of thousands of them homeless. Since then, they've continued to roam the streets in packs, surviving in large numbers in spite of the crazy traffic, and recent government culling projects.

On the first morning of our visit, the wake-up call on the mobile is pre-empted by the barking of a nearby dog. It's the kind of bark that gets dogs compared to sergeant majors, or vice versa, and is renewed intermittently in a pattern that suggests this will continue all day. An hour later, on our way down the street, we see that the noise originates from a fenced yard. The dog barrels up in the hope of a confrontation, but the fence is too solid. What's it complaining about? Domestic rehabilitation cuts down on adventures, no doubt, but relatively speaking, this is a lucky dog, given that it has some home territory. The not-so-lucky dogs are lurking round the corner. Two of them canter up to us, and on the other side of the road, several more have us in their sights. Quickening our pace, we're relieved to see their attention diverted by another of their own species, being walked on a lead.

In these suburban back streets, the houses are Mediterranean-style villas, built around courtyards planted with vines, visible from the street through their ornamental iron gates. Another lucky dog comes to inspect us, poking its head through the railings with one ear cocked. It's late autumn so the vines in this yard have died back and it looks cold and barren, but places like these must have been beautiful to live in during the hot summer months. The way of life for which they were built is gone, and most of them now are in disrepair. One especially open and spacious courtyard is occupied by a collection of smashed up cars. People around here are, in every way, in the business of salvage. Do-it-yourself rebuilding creates some eccentric effects in the streetscape, but relatively speaking, these are minor incongruities only remarkable to the outsider.

A kilometre or so further on, as we approach the civic centre on the eastern side of the Piata Unirii, the cityscape opens up in massive visual disjunctions. To our left, the grand Bulevard Unirii, Ceausescu's answer to the Champs-Élysées, sweeps up to the Parliamentary Palace. Ahead of us is a shopping centre, and opposite that, a concrete apartment block. An elegant three-tiered fountain creates a focal point in the middle of the square and rising amidst the spray is a giant image of Reese Witherspoon, swathed in gold charmeuse, her head partially obscured by the chaotic skeins of tram wire that dominate the skyline over all the major thoroughfares of Bucharest. Could the elders of communism and capitalism ever have envisaged such an entanglement? Throughout the city, polarities occupy common space, and the vistas escape whatever efforts have been made to achieve aesthetic consistency.

This is not for lack of urban planning. Bucharest has fallen victim to successive and contradictory transformative imaginings, driven by grand ideological visions imported from elsewhere: the French second empire, the Biedermeier period in Austria, early twentieth century New York, Nazi Germany, Maoist China. In the past century, the shifting tectonic plates of international power play have done more damage here than the earthquakes that struck in 1940 and 1977.

 

POLITICAL ICONOGRAPHY DOMINATES the streetscapes to bizarre effect. You have to wonder why any presidential candidate would want his image blazoned across the hideous frontage of a Ceausescu special: one of the concrete apartment blocks that are the notorious bequest of Romania's worst ever (one hopes) president. Is this a form of blindness to the ironies of history, or simply an indication that certain inherited aberrations just have have to be lived with? The campaign posters are not to be avoided, even in the Piata 21 Decembrie, where the deaths of those who fell in the initial confrontations of the revolution are discretely commemorated with a plaque and a cross. Look along the streets to the right or the left, and there are the candidates, looking back at you in their implacable, inscrutable uprightness.

Along the main thoroughfare of the Boulevard Bratianu, dogs continue to be a reminder of the problems of homelessness and domestic upheaval that go back several generations, but it's the condition of the built environment itself that is most immediately expressive of inherited urban pathologies. Restoration is needed everywhere, and the process is disruptive, in many ways mimicking the effects of wilfull damage. Walls are torn down, pavements ripped up; heaps of rubble accumulate. Yet it is a very different scenario from that of a city that has been blitzed. What's most unnerving about the state of the Romanian capital is that the injuries were inflicted as a form of domestic violence.

Inspired by Mao's great leap forward, Ceausescu set about the comprehensive demolition of residential buildings in the city centre, in order to make way for his grand design: a Palace of the Parliament, larger and more impressive than any in Europe, fronted by a vast crescent-shaped precinct. The demolition, of course, had to come first. Claudio Magris, who visited Romania in the mid 1980s, witnessed the work in progress:

'Hiroshima' is the name bestowed by the people of Bucharest on the quarter of the city which Ceausescu is gutting, leveling, devastating and shifting with a view – maybe in competition with President Pompidou, as befits the Paris of the Balkans – to building his Centre, the monument to his glory.[v]

If the Parisian third empire was Ceausescu's inspiration for his own quarters, Maoist China gave him some ideas about what to do with the proletariat. As some fifty-seven thousand dwellings were bulldozed, plans were drawn up for replacing them with uniform apartment blocks. Herta Müller's novel The Passport (1989) includes a scene in which primary school children are taught the party line on this:

All children live in blocks of flats or houses...all the houses together make one big house. This big house is our country. Our fatherland... Just as the father in the house in which we live is our father, so Comrade Ceausescu is the father of our country. And just as the mother in the house in which we live is our mother, so Comrade Elena Ceausescu is the mother of our country.[vi]

The quality of building and materials in the apartment blocks established a new low even by the standards set in the post-war high-rise boom elsewhere in Europe. The Ceausescu Specials have seeping walls, rotting frames, dislodged windows and dysfunctional plumbing, but they remain standing. In Bucharest, they are omnipresent, and it is not just by size that they dominate the visual field. They seem to be deliberately set in positions and at angles that sabotage the perspectives created through the aesthetics belonging to past eras of urban planning.

Looking across the river at the jumble of buildings opposite what is now the People's Palace, you have to wonder about the relationship between aesthetics and the human nervous system. What faces us is like an equivalent of Hutton's Unconformity, the geological phenomenon in which layers of the earth from different eras are crushed together and forced at strange angles into vertical strata. An apartment block, an Orthodox church, some chopped-up segments of residential terraces with mismatched rooflines and half an Italianate villa are compacted against each other behind the cordon that marks the limits of the palace complex, whose outskirts are vast stretches of empty pavement.

Restoration in this context seems an impossible proposition. Where and how do you start, other than through the haphazard personal rebuilding projects of individuals who are making or remaking their homes here? From one point of view, this jigsaw puzzle of structures at least provides a variety of options for salvage, and some connections with the diversity of past lives in the city. Uniformity was the soul-destroying imposition of dictatorship.

 

'SOUL DESTROYING' IS a term too easily used, but there are cases in which it insistently suggests itself. Totalitarian regimes typically specialise in the destruction of souls, a level of activity that cuts deeper into the lives of the populace than the business of crushing spirits, which can be noisy and conspicuous. Better to cut the spirits off from their source of vitality before they can become active. When it came to destroying souls, Ceausescu had his own particular methodology, pitched at the opposite end of the spectrum from that of his forebear, Romania's other legendary villain known as Vlad the Impaler, with whose malignant flair and personal charisma he could never compete. Ceausescu was popularly referred to as 'vampirescu' and though he forbade references to the anglicised Prince Dracula, he sometimes equated himself with Vlad Tepes.[vii]

The Ceausescu regime was characterised by relentless enmity to quality of life in all its forms. Everything was rationed, including the number of hens you could keep on a country farm and the number of cabbages you could grow. Private vegetable gardens were illegal in urban areas, and even the cultivation of herbs in kitchen pots could lead to prosecution. By restricting the production of food, the government effectively reduced the available daily diet to a depressing set of ingredients, most of which were past their use-by date by the time they reached the city, and all of which had to be queued for. In 1985, as the food crisis bit deeper, the president declared that the controlled release of nutrients was a 'scientific diet' specially formulated to compensate for a national habit of overeating.

This was also declared the 'era of light', as supply lines for fuel broke down, so heating and hot water were, at best, available for only a couple of hours a day during the bitter winter months; there was a forty watt limit on domestic light bulbs, and two out of every three street lamps were disconnected. Elena Ceausescu came up with another scientific policy for this situation, ordering the use of LPG to save fuel. Since LPG was not yet available, buses drove around the city with large empty cylinders on their roofs.[viii] These policies, along with many other presidential narratives, were relayed to the populace at great length during the two hours of daily television.

Inter-personal communication was subject to intensive surveillance. One in five households had a functioning telephone, and most of these were tapped. Any contact with foreign visitors was to be reported within twenty-four hours. The extent to which the regime practised active persecution of free speech is debatable, but it ran a highly effective paranoia campaign, based on a system of informants co-ordinated by the Securitate. Magris records that literary life was 'difficult but fervent.' Neue Literature, 'an excellent, up-to-date periodical' was still being published in Bucharest.[ix] If you applied for a visa to leave the country, this was construed as a gesture of disloyalty, identifying you as a pernicious influence on others, so writers who wished to travel abroad found their work banned from publication.

Other parts of Eastern Europe might have experienced more violent forms of crackdown on the expression of views, but in Romania demoralisation of the populace was uniquely comprehensive. There is a traditional view of Romanians as somehow oppressor-ready, with a yes-to-destiny attitude; in assessing the pre-conditions for the 1989 revolution, Peter Siani-Davies speculates on the possible relevance of this, as expressed in the proverb, 'the sword will not sever the bowed head.'[x] Such a characterisation does not take account of the profound psychosocial damage inflicted by sustained programs of intimidation. Herta Müller's novels, with their relentless succession of one-clause sentences, present a more nuanced picture. Theirs is a world of experience so truncated it can't sustain development or connection. Senses are heightened to the present moment and isolated details – the flickering of a light-bulb, the crack in a heel, the smell of rotten leaves in a fur hat – take over the perceptual field. The epigraph for The Land of Green Plums (1994) is a verse from a poem by Gellu Naum. Friends are 'out of the question,' it says, when the world is full of fear. It is as if enforced pathologies of communication have inflicted on everyone a version of Asperger's syndrome.[xi]

Another Romanian writer who captures the atmosphere of the country through techniques of representation uniquely tailored to its pathologies is the dramatist Eugêne Ionesco. Ionesco was living in exile in Paris during the Ceausescu years, but in his plays of the 1950s and 60s, he displays advance antennae for their particular forms of insanity. The hermetically sealed worlds of The Chairs (1952), Exit the King (1962) or The New Tenant (1955), suspended in time and burdened with proliferating forms of matter that seem to contain more life than their confused inhabitants, conveyed the atmosphere of Ceausescu's Romania thirty years in advance of its manifestation. Yet Ionesco's images of compulsively multiplying chairs, suitcases or even rhinoceroses, could never suggest the level of chaos created through the effects of continuous multiplication when applied to humans.

Concerned that Romania did not have enough workers to supply the grand industrial machine he planned to make of it, Ceausescu legislated for a national reproduction drive. 'Decree 770' banned birth control and abortion. Every family was to have a minimum of five children: those who had more than four were eligible for a small subsidy to the weekly wage for each 'bonus' citizen; smaller families incurred tax penalties. Women were required to undergo regular gynaecological examinations and to account for any failures to conceive. Given the already stretched food resources, low incomes and poor housing, most parents simply could not provide even at subsistence level for more than two or three children. In scenes like those from some bleak fairy tale, young children banished from their own homes began to wander at large. Those whom a healthy society might classify as 'special needs' cases were the first to go.

Some one hundred and fifty thousand of them were warehoused in state orphanages, where, according to Herta Müller, 'the healthy ones were groomed for the secret police special units; the sick and disabled wasted away in their own filth – the flotsam of an uncaring, insane society.'[xii] Müller collaborated with photographer Kent Klich on a report of conditions in the remaining orphanages in 2002. When she tried to conduct a class in one of the 'schoolrooms' – lined with shelves on which an abundant supply of canes was kept at the ready – she found the children unable to do anything but recite propaganda in strident voices.

The process of destroying souls reached factory-level intensity with this lost generation of children. By now, it's a story widely known, and understandably, the people of Bucharest want to move on from the prolonged aftermath of the revolution, during which it was, from the point of view of outsiders, virtually their only story. The youngest of 'Ceausescu's children' would now be in early adulthood. Some may be scarred for life by the years of physical neglect and psychological abuse; some have benefited from rehousing and education programs; some have grown up with adoptive families; others, who formed feral tribes in underground passageways and abandoned buildings, have developed survival skills that may continue to serve them in a changing society. Members of this lost generation have stories that are not ours to tell, but there are visible traces of a certain kind of despair that resonates with Herta Müller's narratives about growing up in a world where friends – and all forms of communication that belong to personal relationships – are out of the question.

One of the saddest reflections on the depressive social dynamic still haunting present-day Bucharest is the condition of public phone booths. These seem to attract special forms of abuse. Every one we saw was trashed, reduced to a bare metal frame scrawled with angry or desperate slogans. At night, they are macabre skeletons from which no-one should be seeking a lifeline of any kind.

Social dysfunction, though, is no longer pervasive, especially among the young. It's important to acknowledge that there is a thriving youth presence in Bucharest now. The old town of Lipscani, structurally unspoiled by the demolition plans of the regime, is undergoing a revival, with small independent restaurants proliferating, most of them catering to a younger clientele and staffed accordingly. We were there during Halloween, when the city centre was taken over for a communal street party, bringing out revellers in their hundreds to indulge in personal forms of extravagance and reclaim the night with light and colour.

Curiously, Halloween also found its way into the Vampirescu's palace.
We made our visit the following morning, and encountered a small collection of carnival masks on the floor of one of the antechambers outside the central hall, largest of all the vast halls in that Goliath of a building. The hall itself was closed to our tour group because it was being set right after the 'private function.'

It's good to think of people having some kind of a ball in there, and to imagine the great expanse festooned with streamers and stared at from all angles by crazy pumpkin faces. The human faces we saw were sternly disciplined, to match the notices whose directives they were employed to enforce.

Visitors must stay with a guided tour group at all times. Intentionally leaving the group constitutes 'an intrusion into the headquarters of a central public authority, in violation of the legal access norms, which is sanctioned according to the stipulations of the art. 2, point 15 of the Law no. 61/1991, reviewed.' Command communications – all translated into English – begin as soon as you walk through the main doors. 'Do not cross!' 'Smoking is forbidden inside The Palace of the Parliament!' 'It is compulsory to wear the badge at sight!' 'The use of elevators is not permitted!' In the enclosed shop where tickets are sold, a young woman shouts repeatedly, 'Come in and close the door!' We have to surrender our passports before passing through the metal detector to join the English tour group.

The tour itself is brisk and uninformative, with an almost perfunctory narrative. Only passing references are made to Ceausescu, and Elena doesn't get a mention. We're told Michael Jackson visited, and Yehudi Menuhin. Statistics are reeled off. How else can you relate to this phenomenon but through statistics? The acres of white marble and red carpet, the endless succession of chandeliers, the towering polished doorways, wide enough to steer a truck through. It would be tempting to drive a truck around here, if it were your place of residence, as a response to the inconvenience of the distances and the preposterousness of the dimensions. One of the reasons the palace officials are so paranoid about people leaving the tour group, maybe, is that you could get irretrievably lost in the inner reaches of this place, lost in deepest darkness, in a maze of undifferentiated marble pillars: a Purgatorio Dante never imagined.

It's a relief to get back out into the unmanaged noise and movement of civilian terrain. Badly in need of lunch, we make our way across to the Calea Victoriei, on the other side of the river, and retreat for a second time into the comfort zone of the Radisson café. When we go back through the palace photographs, a curious feature emerges. Every vista seems to organise itself around a vanishing point, as if the whole place, in spite of its wide stretch across the earth, is somehow the product of tunnel vision.

After a concentrated exposure to Ceausescu's world, this seems like the time to think about the life of the city before he entered the picture. Sitting in the Radisson calls to mind scenes from Olivia Manning's autobiographical novel Fortunes of War (published in instalments between 1960 and 1980). In 1939, Manning travelled to Bucharest with her husband Reggie Smith, who was contracted by the British Council as a university lecturer and was closely involved in the intelligence networking that took place in the English Bar at the Athenée Hilton. The European emissaries formed a protected circle, and congregated in the luxuriously appointed hotels on the Calea Victoriei. These artificially maintained bubbles of light and warmth were sanctuaries from the various states of madness taking hold in the city. Beggars, many of them hideously self-maimed, laid siege around the doors as the Europeans made their exits and entrances, swathed in Persian lambswool.

Not all the evils Bucharest has experienced are of Ceausescu's devising. It is easy to be sucked into the personality cult of inverse heroism, and attribute to this crazy individual an exclusively determining role in the city's modern history. Here in the Calea Victoriei, the layers of this history remain starkly visible. This ancient trade route, later evolving into an elegant cosmopolitan boulevard fostering imaginative orientations towards Paris and New York, marks a political faultline.

Many of the landmark buildings from Bucharest's belle époque remain intact: the Royal Palace built for King Carol I, the National Bank building, the Romanian Athenaeum, the Central University Library, the Cantacuzino Palace and the Military Club. These imposing and enduring presences combine traditional decorative elements of Romanian architecture with neo-classical and art deco styles. Yet their stability is delusory. They have been the sites of massive upheaval. During the 1930s, the fault lines opened up and the privileged world of cosmopolitan Bucharest was shaken apart. Romania was the focus of competing vested interests on the part of Germany, Russia, Turkey, England, and Greece, and as international tensions heightened, the jostling became ugly. The Iron Guard was on the rise, making unpredictable alliances, including a fatal one with Nazi Germany, and the days of the monarchy were numbered.

All this is grippingly evoked in Manning's novel. Harriet Pringle, her fictional alter ego, has the reactions of a naive outsider to the scenes she encounters, but is a meticulously candid observer. From a flat overlooking the square in front of the Palace, she observes the changing streetscape created by the King's 'improvements':

On either side of the site had been built wafer thin blocks of flats, against which stood wooden lean-to sheds for the sale of vegetables and cigarettes. These had been put up by the peasants from the bug-ridden wood thrown out of the demolished houses.[xiii]

Military conscription has diverted essential agricultural labour away to reckless missions, so that peasant families from the countryside, no longer able to sustain their livelihoods, swarm into the city. As the biting winter weather closes in, these destitute people starve or freeze to death, and the bodies are routinely collected in carts first thing each morning.

When tensions climax, notices appear on the café tables, expressly forbidding the discussion of political matters. Everything comes to a head in the Palace Square, so Harriet has a unique vantage point from her small balcony. She sees the massing of the Iron Guard, hears the King's speech as he refuses to abdicate in the face of increasingly violent demonstrations, and watches the arrival of General Antonescu to be the next dictator. The removal of the King takes place under cover of darkness, after an edict that blinds are to be drawn and balconies vacated in all the buildings round the square. 'It is a revolution?' she asks.[xiv]

 

IT IS STRIKING how much of this history is echoed in the fall of Ceausescu. There is the dictatorial ruler who summarily demolishes residential areas, to replace them with dreadful apartment blocks; dramatic deterioration in living conditions leads to a build-up of popular resentment; political discussion is banned; speeches are broadcast from the palace, their wooden language only serving to inflame resentments. And then the coup. Ceausescu's last speech was delivered from the balcony of the Central Committee Building, to an audience gathered on the same ground as King Carol's mutinous subjects.

Renamed the Piata Revolutiei, the former Palace Square is now the site for
a number of commemorative icons, including Alexandru Ghildus's commemorative sculpture 'The Memorial of Rebirth.' This elongated marble spike, crowned with a nest of twisted metal, is popularly caricatured as 'the impaled potato' or 'olive on a stick.' Nearby, as a figurative counterpoint, is the bronze statue of the inter-war Prime Minister Iuliu Maniu, installed in 1998. In the shifting tectonics of Romanian political life, Maniu's image has been reconstituted in the post-revolutionary era as that of a hero and martyr. Rightfully so, perhaps, though he did his share of wheeling and dealing across ideological lines. Maniu was an outspoken opponent of Antonescu, especially his decision to make an alliance with the Nazis at the start of the war. After it, his anti-Soviet position led to his arrest and detention at Sighet prison, where he died in 1953, after years of brutal treatment. The sculptor Mircea Spataru portrays him seated with military uprightness, but the rigid and attenuated body looks like a marionette. Close up, the polished surfacing of the legs is not continued through the upper body, which is revealed as an assemblage of chopped pieces.

Despite its position at the site of Ceausescu's last stand, this figure has nothing directly to do with the commemoration of the 1989 Revolution, yet there is intuitively something right about Mircea Spataru's act of reverse dismemberment in this context. Throughout this city, the scars of human suffering are displayed on the hard materials of cement, bronze and stone. Though the damage will never be seamlessly erased by any work of restoration, some kind of balance and dignity may be reconstituted from the wreckage. What is needed is a vision for how this can be done.

Surface work is not the answer. The fine neo-classical edifices on the Calea Victoriei are monuments to the arts of plastering, decorative stucco, stone carving; but these are an anomalous throw-back in a city that has been comprehensively defaced. Here and there, you see attempts to rescue an appealing façade that are of an absurdity bordering on pathos. After Ceausescu, there is no such thing as a surface. The loss of face is literal and enduringly painful. Every structure is a pastiche of scar tissue, and there is a pile of rubble in every line of vision.

Residents of the city express understandable frustration with outsiders who persist in disseminating miserable images of the city, with abandoned children and hideous apartment blocks as the defining components. Part of the offence here is a kind of essentialism, an implication that misery is somehow in the destiny of this place. Positive spin is no corrective, as it only delivers banalities of the kind favoured by multinational entrepreneurs who want to reinvent the Paris of the East.

Standing face-to-face with an old flayed wall, your thoughts might go anywhere. Or you might be drawn to the forensic challenge: is there some way to read this as an account of things that have happened, through several passages of time, apparently moving in contrary directions? Evidently this wall has been the subject of many conflicting efforts and intentions. In its current state it testifies mainly to their defeat, though there's also evidence that defeated efforts give way to renewed determinations. Bricklayers, plasterers, painters and electricians have all done their work here, along with graffiti artists and vandals, official and unofficial.

In the Piata Decembrie 1989, the surrounding walls are a palimpsest of recent history and an arena for competing messages. Political tracts are pasted up and half torn away. The plaster is blazoned with graffiti, scraped away and temporarily resurfaced so that cheap cement flakes from the stone in uneven patterns suggestive of another kind of messaging. Events and their traces are not always easy to read, and outsiders should of course beware of their own decipherings. What matters is the consciousness that we are outsiders, and that the contempt for borders amongst the greater political and financial powers of the world only makes us more so.

 


References

[i] Gough Whitlam, responding to questions from Senator Lightfoot, Senate Hearing: Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Hansard, Monday, 6 December 1999, 982.

[ii] Shane Maloney, 'Brian Burke and Nicolae Ceausescu, The Monthly no.45, May 2009. Online at http://www.themonthly.com.au/encounters-shane-maloney-brian-burke-nicolae-ceausescu--1615.

[iii] Claudio Magris, Danube, trans. Patrick Creagh (London: The Harvill Press, 2001), 362.

[iv] Andrei Pandele, The House of the People: The End, in marble, trans. Vlad A.Arghir and Mike Ormsby (Bucharest: Compania, 2009), 6, 51.

[v] Magris, 377.

[vi] Herta Muller, The Passport, trans. Martin Chalmers (London: Sperpent's Tail, 2009), 51.

[vii] Peter Siani-Davies, The Romanian Revolution of December 1989 (New York: Cornell University Press, 2005), 282.

[viii] Andrei Pandele's photograph of this absurdity is in Surprise Witness: Uncensored Photos from the Communist Years, with English captions by Mike Ormsby (Bucharest: Compania, 2008), 96.

[ix] Magris, 305 and 310.

[x] Magris, 361; Siani-Davies, 28-30.

[xi] Herta Muller, The Land of Green Plums, trans. Michael Hofmann (London: Granta, 1999).

[xii] Herta Muller and Kent Klich. Children of Ceausescu (New York: Umbrage Editions Inc), 3.

[xiii] Olivia Manning, Fortunes of War (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988), 88.

[xiv] Ibid, 451.

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