Friday, 24 May 2019

Book Review: Train to Trieste by Domnica Radulescu

The urge for freedom is so strong that not even the cruelest totalitarian regime can crush it completely. Fear of persecution, imprisonment, torture and death may keep it in check outwardly, but under the surface it smolders and seeks an outlet that may well be a violent revolution in the final consequence. Meanwhile, people just do their best to survive making good use of the little freedom left them to outwit authorities and informers or to flee the country if need be. This is the scene that the semi-autobiographical novel Train to Trieste by Domnica Radulescu draws of Romania during the Cold War when the narrating protagonist grows up in an intellectual environment with the secret police around every corner. Even her first love is overshadowed by the suspicion that her sweetheart might be an informer and eventually her father’s underground activities drive her to flee to the safe West.

Domnica Radulescu was born in Bucharest, Romania, in June 1961. In 1983, she fled from her native country to Italy and then settled down in the USA for good.There she resumed as soon as possible her language and theatre studies begun at the university of Bucharest and eventually became a naturalised US citizen. Following graduation, she embarked on an academic career teaching Romance Languages (Italian and French) and Gender Studies at Washington and Lee University in Virginia where she was appointed full professor. Only in 2008, she made her debut as a novelist with semi-autobiographical Train to Trieste and brought out since two more novels – Black Sea Twilight (2010) and Country of Red Azaleas (2016) – along with plays as well as a lot of theatre and literature-related scholarly non-fiction. Domnica Radulescu lives in the USA.

For Romanians living under the Communist terror of Nicolae Ceauşescu and his loyal comrades the Train to Trieste is a symbol of freedom. On a summer day around 1960, Mona Maria Manoliu is born into an atmosphere of fear and suspicion, but as a child she is only vaguely aware of it. She gradually grasps the full meaning of living in a totalitarian regime, when she falls in love for the first time during summer holidays in the Carpathian city Braşov in 1977 because her infatuation for Mihai makes her dangerously trusting and talkative for the daughter of dissident intellectuals.
“The year when I fall in love with Mihai, my father is involved in secret activities he talks about only in whispers with my mother. I’m not supposed to have a boyfriend because you never know. I tell myself Screw it all and cling to my green-eyed mountain boy. I tell Marx and Engels and Lenin and Ceauşescu to fuck off every time we make love in Mihai’s room and I catch a glimpse of their monstrous portraits spying on us from the building across the street. ”
The following summer Mihai wears the black leather jacket particularly popular with the Securitate, the Romanian secret police, and Mona feels disconcerted at whether or not she can trust him or if he just makes love to her to sound her out about her father. However, her passion is too strong to let go of him and she continues their summer romance. Meanwhile the regime steadily tightens control over citizens. More and more people disappear in mental asylums or prisons, die in “accidents” or flee the country. Like her father Mona is under surveillance and feels the growing pressure.
“I now have my own personal secret-police agent, someone young and tall who always wears a suit and tie and who actually lives in my neighbourhood. The secret police are truly efficient. It must be because of my frequent visits to the American library and my conversations with Ralph, the American librarian. They must think I am trying to seduce him in order to escape to America […]. I just want to practise my English and hear Ralph talk about Chicago. […]”
With reprisals on her father for his activity in a dissident group getting fiercer, the situation turns increasingly dangerous for Mona. With a heavy heart her parents suggest to prepare her flight to the West. Luck is on her side and she manages to get to across the border to Belgrade with the help of a friend’s Yugoslavian wife and from there an Italian travelling salesman takes her to Trieste in his car. Although she would like to stay in Italy, she continues her way to the USA after a couple of months. In Chicago she starts her new life…

Clearly modelled after the author’s own biography, Train to Trieste gives an authentic account of the oppressive atmosphere in Romania of the 1960s through the early 1980s in Part One and of the difficulties that immigrants to a new country have to cope with in Part Two. Like in a memoir the perspective of the novel is that of a narrating “I” with its personal touch and its natural limits. Moreover, its greater part is a girl’s story of awakening and coming-of-age under the eyes as well as the menace of the Communist regime’s omnipresent secret agents and informers. In a simple, though highly poetic language and in powerful images the author not only skilfully evokes the constant climate of mistrust, if not mutual suspicion or downright fear, and the penury that people suffered at the time, but also the love and the resilience of the protagonist’s family in the face of all this. In addition, the beauty of Romania with her impressive colours, noises and smells as well as the country’s long history juxtapose the ugliness of environment and character that the totalitarian Communist regime created. For me the story’s even flow added to the pleasure of the read.

All things considered, Train to Trieste by Domnica Radulescu surprised me quite agreeably as a novel that made growing up in an Eastern-European country in Communist times its theme. After all, there aren’t many books allowing a glimpse behind the iron curtain into lives well-concealed from Western eyes for decades. Certainly, publishers hesitate to publish the few that are written because at first sight the Communist era seems too gloomy to offer much that could attract readers. Even fewer such books will be available in English. Among Romanian authors I know only one other dealing with life under Nicolae Ceauşescu, namely Nobel laureate Hertha Müller who writes in her native German (»»» read my review of The Passport). The more remarkable that Train to Trieste by Domnica Radulescu made it into print. Probably, the love story helped to convince the publishers. At any rate, the book deserves my warmest recommendation.

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