We know why we read genre fiction, like the latest Harry Potter saga or Stephen King’s horror novels. Genre fiction helps us escape from our daily lives. It carries us to an alternative world that is either so fantastic, or so horrific, that it takes our minds off the tedium of our jobs, our daily duties, our routines and our family and health problems. Genre fiction provides readers with much-needed entertainment and an escape from reality.
But sometimes we read novels in order to hold a mirror up to our own natures and lives. It’s comforting to see that we’re not alone in our struggles to raise a family, in our stumbles in love, in our battles with illnesses beyond our control, or in our efforts to maintain our marriages. Literary fiction in particular, such as Wally Lamb’s psychological novels and Jonathan Franzen’s formidable realism, enable readers to view themselves inside and out, from multiple perspectives. Whatever stories these great novelists tell, and wherever they may take us, we can identify with their characters and relate to the situations they describe.
My own first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, offers readers a little bit of both worlds: realism with a touch of fantasy. It is the partly autobiographical narrative of my family’s struggles to escape the hardships of communist Romania during the 1980′s. This is a story that few Americans would have lived through, so I enhanced it by adding more spice, the element of fantasy: a spy plot about the inner workings of the Secret Police.
Velvet Totalitarianism will take you to a place that few have visited (communist Romania) and an era that many have forgotten (the Cold War reality of communism). Hopefully, my account of the love and loyalty that united my family is a story that many American readers can identify with. It is a mirror held up to the feelings that bind together any loving family. But the story about the incredible challenges we, along with tens of millions of Eastern Europeans, had to overcome will take you to a far-away corner of the world to remind you of a different era: one that may be gone, but shouldn’t be forgotten. The chapter from Velvet Totalitarianism pasted below offers a little bit of both aspects. It describes (in a fictionalized manner) the family reunion between my mother and I with my father, after our family had been separated for several years by the Romanian Secret police.
Chapter 23 of my novel, Velvet Totalitarianism (2009)
After being tied up in New York City for three days due to a bureaucratic mix-up regarding their entrance visa, Eva and Irina were about to take a plane and meet Andrei in San Francisco. The brunette at the PanAm counter asked Eva very sweetly: “Hi, how are you?
Not accustomed to friendly service, Eva was caught off guard. “Does this girl know me?” she wondered. “Why in the world does she care about how I’m doing?” Since the young woman smiled in an amiable enough manner, however, she decided to give her the benefit of the doubt and answered her question in earnest: “I very tired—we have long flight. Come from Italia. Have not seen her father,” she pointed to Irina, “for near three years. We are from Romania. Imigranti,” she emphasized, in case there was any doubt.
Upon hearing this rather unconventional answer in broken English, the girl’s affable smile was replaced by a glazed-over, disinterested gaze, and from then on she was all business: “That’s nice. May I see your passports please?”
Eva handed them to her.
The girl looked from the photos to Eva and Irina, then asked: “Are you checking any luggage?”
Eva had made some progress on her English, but not enough to fully understand the question: “Yes. Go ahead!” she threw up her arms.
The girl at the counter looked puzzled.
“Our luggage is been checked three times. Already done! We have nothing undeclared inside. Nothing! You can see if you vant…,” Eva invited the girl to rummage through her luggage, as the security guards had done at customs.
“No, I mean do you want to check it on the plane?” the girl clarified, speaking louder for the benefit of her foreign client, who had perfectly good hearing, just poor English comprehension.
Eva still couldn’t fully understand what was going on, but for the sake of expediency and the benefit of the people waiting in line behind her, she acted like she did: “Okay,” she replied. For the next few months, this was to become her stock answer whenever she didn’t understand something in English, since people tended to react better to it than when she said with her heavy accent “I don’t speak English.”
“Here are your tickets for Flight 340 departing for San Francisco from gate 23A,” the girl at the counter handed Eva the plane tickets. She then turned to the next customer in line, reassuming her former friendly persona: “Hello, sir. How are you? Checking any luggage?”
The gentleman in question, an American, already knew the lesson Eva had just learned: “I’m fine, thanks,” he answered flatly, without getting into the details of his personal life. He then said that he had one suitcase to check and showed her his driver’s license.
Eva whispered to her daughter in Romanian: “Strange country, this America… They ask you how you’re doing yet they couldn’t care less about your answer.”
Once they got on the plane, Eva’s mind was fully occupied by her imminent reunion with her husband. She felt butterflies in her stomach. What would Andrei think of her after nearly three years of separation? Would he still love her as much as before? Would they adjust to being a couple once again? And how would he behave with Irina, who had changed from a little girl to a young woman?
For Irina, the idea of finally seeing her father again still felt like an abstraction; an implausible event that blurred the line between dream and reality. Since for her three years of separation was practically an eternity, she remembered only traces of her father, not his whole personality: the way they’d sing together on the way to school; his bright blue, intelligent eyes; the way he always seemed to be in a hurry; his insistence that she do correctly her math and science homework (a task which she always vehemently resisted); his awkward gestures of affection (stroking her head as if she were a puppy); his congruous mixture of indulgence and severity.
Mother and daughter arrived at the San Francisco International Airport around 1:00 a.m. Andrei was supposed to greet them at the gate, but he was nowhere in sight. Rather than going to get their luggage, Eva and Irina waited for him, scrutinizing every thin man with dark hair and blue eyes.
“This is so typical of your father! He’s been in this country for almost three years, and he still can’t manage to find our gate,” Eva said to her daughter, after a nerve racking twenty minute wait and in answer to the latter’s repeated questions, all variations upon the same theme: “Do you see him yet?” “Is he here?” “Is that him?” “What’s taking him so long?” Despite her unsentimental words, Eva’s heart was racing with excitement. In a few moments, the indefinitely postponed future would become an immediate, palpable present.
Suddenly, she thought she spotted her husband: a slight man with a lost gaze, who, at that moment, was looking precisely in the wrong direction. Andrei seemed thinner than ever and his dark hair had turned salt and pepper, but Eva recognized the confused expression he assumed whenever he attempted anything practical.
“Timpitelule! Little Dumdum! We’re here!” she shouted affectionately in Romanian, waving to her husband and feeling relieved that, in spite of his cluelessness, at least he was lost in the right area.
Andrei moved so fast towards his daughter and wife that his face became a blur as he hugged and kissed them on both cheeks, several times, as if not quite trusting his senses, reassuring himself through these repeated embraces that after all these years, they were finally reunited as a family.
“Gogosica mea, my little dumpling,” he said to Irina, his voice cracking with emotion. But the terms of endearment that had worked magic when his daughter was eight no longer had the same effect on her at nearly twelve: “Daddy, I’m not fat! I just ate a few ice creams,” his daughter felt compelled to justify her food frenzy in Italy. She immediately regretted saying that, however, since she had imagined the first words out of her mouth to her father as being slightly more sentimental.
“We ate like pigs in Rome,” Eva excused herself as well for the extra pounds she had put on lately, which, she thought, her husband was bound to notice.
Andrei finally got a chance to look at his wife, who had filled out slightly and looked understandably tired. Nonetheless, to him, she was the most beautiful woman in the world: “You look perfect,” he said and kissed her tenderly on the mouth this time.
“Yuck!” their daughter interrupted this otherwise romantic reunion.
“I hope you haven’t spoiled her in my absence…” Andrei said, looking at Irina with mock sternness.
“If you only knew… You have your work cut out for you,” Eva replied, while Irina tugged at her sleeve looking at her mother with an expression of disapproval.
“What do you mean you? Where do you plan to go?” Andrei asked his wife.
“Who knows? I may also need a three year break from parenting,” Eva replied.
Andrei couldn’t resist the urge to hug his wife once again: “No more breaks for us, Papusica. No more separations. Ever again.”
Eva looked into her husband’s eyes, finally allowing herself the luxury of feeling emotion: “For so long, all I’ve dreamt about was being reunited as a family. With both of our children. With Raducu also.”
Andrei nodded gravely: “I’ve made some progress on that….”
“Did he contact you?” Eva asked.
“No. I would have told you. But I got in touch with that French artist, Jean-Pierre, as soon as you told me about him. I pulled a few strings at the university and found a way of inviting him to give a talk at our Institute for the Humanities. That way we can meet him in person and see how much he may know. But you need to be careful, okay? Don’t spill your beans to him immediately.”
“Oh, I don’t have any beans left to spill, Andreias,” Eva sighed, looking discouraged and weary, as she always did whenever the subject of Radu came up.
“Where’s your luggage?” Andrei changed the subject, recalling they still needed to take care of practical matters.
“I don’t know,” Eva shrugged. “They talk so fast that I couldn’t understand which baggage claim we’re supposed to go to.”
Uncharacteristically, Andrei took charge of the situation. He looked up their baggage claim number and, once they retrieved the luggage, chivalrously insisted on carrying it all by himself. His slight form looked like an ant struggling with giant bread crumbs.
“I have a new car which I think you’ll like,” he told Irina as they made their way through the crowd to the parking lot.
Irina gazed with undisguised admiration at all the large sedans they passed by. Her father stopped in front of a tiny, European-looking vehicle: a 1980 metallic blue Horizon. Despite its unimpressive size, Irina’s eyes sparkled with delight. The car was her favorite color, the kind she had only dreamt of: light blue with silver sparkles which shimmered like diamonds under the parking lot lights. Irina felt confident that even her doll, Greta Barbie, would like it.
“I love it!” she declared, sitting down in the back and bouncing up and down on the cushy seats, touching with open hands their soft, velvety covers.
“What luxury!” Eva said, equally in awe of the modest, economy-size vehicle. Having prepared in advance an explanation why he couldn’t yet afford a Mercedes, Andrei felt relieved that his family was so easy to please. Maybe they’d also overlook the bullet hole in the door of the cheap apartment he had rented for the summer in Berkeley.
“I didn’t quite understand your explanation on the phone. How come we’re not going directly to Ann Arbor?” Eva asked.
“This spring quarter I’m Visiting Associate Professor at an even better university. It’s called the University of California at Berkeley,” Andrei declared with pride.
“Berkelei?” Eva repeated, unimpressed. Back in Romania, she had only heard of Harvard.
“If this Berkelei’s so smart, then how come they didn’t hire you permanently?”
“I suppose I haven’t made an important enough breakthrough in physics. I was too busy struggling to get you and Irina out of Romania,” her husband responded with an affectionate smile. He felt elated. After all these years, his spunky, pragmatic wife hadn’t changed one bit.
“You mean you’re blaming us for your failures again?” Eva wanted to know.
“My biggest success is reuniting with my family,” Andrei replied with an uncharacteristic sentimentality which, his wife surmised, would wear off in a couple of days.
In spite of her sharp tongue, Eva’s eyes twinkled with warmth. She placed her hand on top of his, which was holding, by force of habit, the automatic gear shift.
Andrei drove fast, as usual. Eva scolded him, calling him an Italian race car driver, and warned him that he’d be pulled over by the police if he didn’t slow down, also as usual. Irina looked out the window, mesmerized. The Golden Gate Bridge shimmered with its bright yellow lights, like a garland illuminating the darkness of the night. The skyline of San Francisco flashed before her eyes, looking exactly like the girl had envisioned–extrapolating from the American movies she had seen—only even more shinny, beautiful and inviting. Colorful billboards displayed alluring women in sexy positions lying next to what looked like bottles of tuika (vodka). These Americans must drink even more than we do, Irina speculated. Her parents kept on talking excitedly in Romanian. Irina basked in their familiar presence, as the distant past folded almost seamlessly unto the present, leaving only the faint scars of long years of separation, which neither the present nor the future could erase.
Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon