Just in Time for Halloween: A Review of Out of the Transylvania Night
Lanie Tankard, guest reviewer, is back! This time she has chosen a book that connects to an experience of her own life. I think her “bookend” intro and conclusion is as interesting as the review herself. I also think Lanie could write a great memoir some day. Perhaps this guest gig is getting her ready. What do you think? Help me encourage her in the comments section.
Del Mar, CA: Bettie Youngs Books, 2010 (354 pp., paperback)
Reviewed by Lanie Tankard
One sunny London day, Nicolae Ceausescu waved at me — or at least in my direction. To be exact, it was Tuesday June 13, 1978, when the president of the Socialist Republic of Romania rolled by me in a horse-drawn carriage on a state visit. I snapped the photo above of him sitting next to Queen Elizabeth II.
Madame Elena Ceausescu followed in a second carriage with the Duke of Edinburgh. A special train had whisked the Romanians from Gatwick Airport to Victoria Station. The city center was blocked off, creating a massive traffic jam for several hours. Ceausescu had just been to China, North Korea, Cambodia, and Vietnam, where the London Times reported he “was hailed as a friend.”
On that day, he had been president for four years, although some British newspapers referred to him as a dictator even then. That night, he would become the first leader of a Communist country to sleep in Buckingham Palace, while I rested my head in a bed-and-breakfast run by Mrs. Thomas in Muswell Hill. Soon we all returned to our respective countries.
Eleven years later, the Ceausescus were gone. I read the headlines about their execution after a secret military tribunal found them guilty of a series of crimes such as genocide and undermining the national economy.
I really hadn’t thought much about Nicolae Ceausescu until I read a new memoir by Aura Imbarus called Out of the Transylvania Night. She details what it was like to grow up in the central Romanian region of Transylvania, under the dictator she calls worse than Dracula.
Imbarus was eighteen years old in 1989, when the Ceausescus faced a firing squad on Christmas Day — a holiday Ceausescu had banned. She begins her memoir with a vivid scene of setting out with her parents for some furtive Christmas shopping despite the watchful eyes in her ancient village of Sibiu, first inhabited in 300 BC.
Skylights on her book’s cover that resemble heavy-lidded eyes are common on buildings in Transylvania. Originally built to protect food stored in attics by allowing in fresh air, this architectural feature became a convenient way to spy on Romanians during the Ceausescu period.
Imbarus describes the role of fashion in keeping a person safe in a dictatorship — how bright colors could draw those eyes toward an individual in a collectivist society. A dark and drab wardrobe ends up being a much wiser choice in such situations. It can mean the difference between staying alive, and becoming a moving target in a red jacket. Even jewelry can bring an individual under suspicion.
Finally her country rebelled. “I was in love with the revolution,” Imbarus writes. Her account of the barricades reminded me of scenes in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Yet the lasting effects of the repressive pre-revolution years, in a starved and freedom-deprived nation, make it difficult for her to find her identity. She departs from her childhood town in quest of not only freedom, but also jazz and palm trees in the United States. Here, Imbarus faced setbacks common to many immigrants, along with a number of personal losses, but each time she kept going.
She ultimately found her salvation by fully embracing her cultural characteristics rather than hiding them. Imbarus became a cofounder of the Romanian American Professionals Network (RAPN), and describes how important such groups are in helping those new to this country “adjust to life in the United States without them feeling that they have to give up their identity.”
The importance of writing personal stories about times of widespread torment is a bit like pointillism in art. Each account is a separate tale until they are all viewed as a saga, and then the entire portrait of an era emerges.
Out of the Transylvania Night could have benefited from additional editing, but the story is so compelling that a reader is drawn in nevertheless. Imbarus grew up idealizing gymnast Nadia Comaneci, whom she saw in her village from time to time. Praise from Comaneci is quoted on the memoir’s cover. Book group discussion questions are included, such as: “”What expectations of freedom proved to be a hindrance in Aura’s life?”
Writers of memoir will be interested in the disclaimer at the beginning of the book: “This is a true story and the characters are real, as are the events. However, in some cases, names, descriptions, and locations have been changed. Some incidents have been altered and or combined for storytelling purposes. In some cases, time has been condensed for narrative purposes, but the overall chronology is an accurate depiction of the author’s experience.”
An incisive foreword by Dumitru Ciocoi-Pop, former president of Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, defends the appeal of memoir as a literary genre in a time of increasing artificiality. Why read it? Ciocoi-Pop says: “The only answer I can give is: for the necessity of genuine sharing.”
Imbarus notes at the end of her memoir that the Ceausescus’ bodies were recently exhumed to determine if they are actually the ones buried in their graves.Testing of samples obtained July 21, 2010, may take up to six months to determine the true identity of the remains. Many have questioned their deaths, including Imbarus. Ceausescu was known for using a number of different stand-ins to pose for him.
So even when the results are finally in, I will continue to wonder: Was that really Nicolae Ceausescu who waved at me on a London street — or was it his double?
Lanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, Texas. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Absolutely fascinating review of a memoir that promises a visit to a time in history now (thankfully) past, through eyes and a heart that have passed that way. Certainly a valuable sharing. Thank you, from Johanna, author of Graffiti On My Soul (also a memoir of a different time, a different place, a different life).
You’re right, Johanna. It’s so important to create a chronicle of history to open our eyes to the human experience, even when it is at its most bleak. And it sounds as though you’ve discovered, as did Aura Imbarus, the strength and power that can be gained through writing. Thanks for the post, and for joining Shirley’s discussion!
Lanie, if your memoir is as compelling as your reviews, it will be a great read! Your ability to ask questions of the material and integrate it with your own experience challenges me to go and do likewise.
You know, Kathleen, it struck me after I wrote the piece that book reviews can actually be a potent venue for writers of memoir to consider. If we stop to wonder why a certain book touched us in a particular way, or why we reacted to it the way we did, then we intertwine our own lives with what we have read. So in that sense, reading becomes more than entertainment or escape or enjoyment — it begins to serve as a trigger for our memories, and thus a writing prompt for our own memoir vignettes. I’m delighted that I challenged you. Now, go forth and read . . . and then review!
I love the idea of reviewing memoirs through the transparent lens of one’s own life. I find myself doing that a lot in my own reviews. I even did it with my published review of two teaching books in Christian Century. I felt a little like a rule breaker, but when I asked my blog audience about it, they encouraged it. And, of course, one of the best things about blogging is that one can make up one’s own “standards,” and the audience will either show up or not. There is always a place where what we have known meets what others have known, and that is a place to connect!
What an insightful last sentence, Shirley!
Hi Lanie and Shirley … a memoir, absolutely! One of my favorite genres as memoirs help us understand our own humanity, and also remind us (directly and indirectly) how important empathy and compassion are given the true nature of most lives.
And this is the section from above that jumped out at me …
“A dark and drab wardrobe ends up being a much wiser choice in such situations. It can mean the difference between staying alive, and becoming a moving target in a red jacket. Even jewelry can bring an individual under suspicion.”
I rarely wear bright colors … maybe this is why! Of course, I’ve also read that most Capricorns (xmas eve birthday here) don’t like to draw attention in their direction, and that is also true, in that I’ve always enjoyed being a strong, background person … letting others shine in the spotlight. Basking in all the glory, or otherwise!
On a more serious note, excellent review with memorable passages. Thanks to both of you. –Daisy @ http://www.daisyhickman.com (P.S. I should mention the wonderful owl in SunnyRoomStudio … he is looking for a name. Hedwig, like Harry Potter’s owl, is a possibility, but what else comes to mind? Also, great guest post there about art (all forms) and how being an “artist” impacts one’s life. I’d be honored to have you both stop by and say hello. 🙂
Glad you found some food for thought in my review! Memoir is definitely a powerful genre.
The DNA results are finally in, and the Ceausescus have been reburied in Romania: