TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. April 2010

Sektion 6.7. The travel: knowledge, communication and / or power
Sektionsleiterin | Section Chair: Carmen Andras („Gheorghe Sincai Institute for Social Sciences and the Humanities, Târgu-Mureş, Romania)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Why come to Romania?
Between Utopian and Dystopian Representations of Communism in British Literature

Carmen Andras ("Gheorghe Sincai" Institute for Social Sciences and the Humanities, Targu-Mures, Romania) [BIO]



The intention of my study is to offer a survey of British images about communist Romania, focusing on the passage from utopian images as a liberal island in the ocean of totalitarian Stalinism to dystopian hypostases of communism, at the same time dramatic and ironic or satirical. The in-betweenness of the representations about the Other, where ideology and imagination, subjectivity and objectivity, fiction and document have an inter-changeable character, explains an interdisciplinary perspective on British images of communist Romania based on travel accounts and travel fiction, together with academic, diplomatic or journalistic writings. All these writings imply travel to Romania and acquaintance with its realities.

The methodology of my study is taking into account the main domains to which travel studies are related: comparative literature, comparative cultural studies, postcolonial studies and imagology.

The new geo-political and cognitive strategies that constitute the foundation of globalization are favoring the debate and critical analysis of the power relations manifest in the discourse, together with the representations and hierarchies, which are implied in the construction of polarized cartographies. Real and/or metaphorical, ideological and/or imaginary, political and/or military, Eastern and/or Western imperialisms met, clashed and came to terms in a border space, symbolically invested with the connotations of absolute difference in the construction of the Iron Curtain. The ideological and political differentiation that was founded on an evident cultural and ideological reality, also inscribed on Europe's symbolic map a naturalized, biological difference, which followed the traditional West-East divide. Even communist oppression is regarded as a genetic inheritance, a necessary effect of a long history of dictatorships and cruelties.

Communist and postcommunist studies are mostly concerned with the process of transition from communist dictatorship to democracy. Post-communism does not mean in fact the end of communism but the transitory condition of the peoples in Central and Eastern Europe after the demise of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, British representations of communist and post-communist Romania do not reflect this transitory process in an explicit positive way. Almost nothing seems encouraging after the fall of communism. Romania is sometimes depicted in darker colors than before, as if doomed to be forever misruled and backward. Neither is communist doctrine judged for the dramatic situation before 1989 but rather for its accidental misinterpretations by dictators such as Ceauşescu in the eighties. The seventies inspire idyllic and utopian images of a liberal island in the ocean of the Soviet imperialism; an ideal promoter of the purest Marxist doctrine liberated from the all comprising Slavic influence. Nevertheless these images are counterbalanced by those of the Romanians' intellectual and cultural resistance to a terrible dictatorship. Thus, depending in a great measure on the observer's ideological background, communist Romania is a liminal space between dictatorship and liberalism, between the Soviet model and the national one, between the West, which was praising Ceauşescu and the Soviet Union that was only tolerant toward Ceauşescu's whims, images of a country torn between the dissident president and the dissident men of culture, if we try to bring together the two tendencies in representing communist Romania. The eighties seem to solve this ambivalence of the British images about Romania. It was neither the dissident president nor the dissident intellectuals, who prevailed, but the misery and sadness of an oppressed people. Ceau?escu's aura of liberalism, perceived mostly in his international policies, vanished. Even the British observers with socialist views had to admit that the system was not perfect, in Romania at least, once it could give birth to such monsters. It was written in the Romanians' genetic inheritance this tendency toward tyranny and dictatorship, would suggest some travellers and writers in post-communist Romania, disillusioned by the cruel realities of transition. And nevertheless, the Romanians met in the streets and on the country roads are such an exotic mixture of rudeness and childish kindness, so helpful and hospitable, so passionate and irrational! Nothing is what it seems in Romania either because the travellers are well prepared and advised at home what and how to see or because their ideological orientation is marking the representations about the Other. Or just because they are not prepared to understand what they see.

Communist Romania is consequently differently perceived by the British observers:

  1. Procommunist utopian representations (authentic or politically correct, based on the myth of the dissident liberal communist leader and his so-called independence from the Soviet Union. Such flattering observations that look much alike the Communist party documents of the epoch, and which might have been ordered, were produced by different categories of British authors, politicians and diplomats, academics, writers and journalists who experienced Romanian realities on the spot and had, at the same time, strong political and philosophical affiliations with socialist and communist ideologies. British procommunist travellers and analysts are grounding their own discourses on the Romanian propagandist ones, following their different hypostases: the Stalinist one in the fifties, the independent and liberal one in the sixties, interlaced with the nationalist one in the seventies. Some are still praising Ceausescu's regime in the eighties too, but most of the British travellers become intensely critical.
    Procommunist representations belong to authors who construct a utopian Romania integrated into a perfect Soviet system in the fifties, such as the Marxist writer and literary critic Jack Lindsay and the Leninist and Trotskyite war reporter in the USSR, politician, historian and writer Philips Price.
    They are followed in the sixties, seventies and eighties by the Marxists Ian M. Matley, professor of geography, Donald Catchlove, Leslie Gardiner, the historian and traveler Andrew MacKenzie, and Robert Govender;
  2. critical or ironic, literary or documentary, scientific anti-communist representations: the historians Dennis Deletant and Peter Siani-Davies, the historian and writer Anton Gill, the writer and retired physician Anthony Daniels, Richard Basset, Brian Hall, the playwright and writer David Selbourne and Julian Hale;
  3. apparently detached, distant images, which neither praise communism nor condemn it, but are interspersed with ironic observations instead: V. S. Pritchett (1964), Julian Barnes (1987);
  4. dramatic images of oppression and intellectual resistance: Jessica Douglas-Home (2000);
  5. dystopian hypostases of communism, dramatic (Alan Sillitoe) or satirical (Malcolm Bradbury);
  6. postcommunist perspectives on communist Romania: historical analysis by Tom Gallagher (Romania after Ceausescu: The politics of intolerance, 1995), travel accounts by Lesley Chamberlain (1990), Dervla Murphy (1993), Georgina Harding (1990), Dan Antal (1994), Mark Almond (1992), Arnold, Guy (1989), John Sweeney(1992), Giles Whittell (1992), satirical accounts: Rory MacLean (1992), ethnographical and anthropological descriptions: Caroline Juler (2003), Peter Riley (2003), fantastic narratives with vampires: Terrance Dicks (The Transylvanian Incident, 1998), stories about orphans and aid workers: Sophie Thurnham (Sophie's Journey, 1994), or novels like: The Long Shadows by Alan Brownjohn (1997), Kitty and Virgil by Paul Bailey (1999), Looking for George. Love and Death in Romania by Helena Drysdale (1996), Lost Footsteps by Bel Mooney (1994), The Voices of Silence by Bel Mooney, Trouble in Transylvania by Barbara Wilson (1993) and the play Mad Forest by Caryl Churchill (1998).

In 1953, in a time of Stalinist imposition, a great friend of the Soviet Union, Jack Lindsay, for example, was very enthusiastic about the way Romania was celebrating

...the great event of August in Rumania is the 23rd-Liberation Day" in Bucharest, which he describes in the most idyllic way: "Sometimes dancers pause and go round and round them, sometimes entangle them in a serpentine progression. The soldiers smile, but keep their place, are lost, then reappear out of the human flood where the waving arms break in a foam of flowers red ribbons. A girl pulls the little red flag from a rifle, runs off, then returns the flag to the protesting soldier amid laughter, while schoolgirls flutter copies of the Constitution instead of handkerchiefs at Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. A scatter of doves goes up...Bands and fanfares. A woman with two babies, one in each arm: as she nears the tribune, she lifts them both triumphantly up. Let the new life hail the new life! A big ship-model goes dipping by and a pylon of electric construction. The shepherds of the Apuseni Mountains blow their horns that are longer than a man: like boughs curving, elephant's trunks. The nurses pass in neat uniforms, and the tumultuous mass roars and waves its delight again: old men with faces as wrinkled as the skeleton of a beech-leaf and smiles of ancient wisdom, girls throwing flowers from the lap of plenty, more dancers setting the key of the day, and gypsies, old women and young, still wondering happily if all the good fortunes they have told for silver have incredibly come true. And tumblers in white tight trousers somersaulting untrodden amid the legs. (Lindsay, 12-3)

Decades before the Romanian Revolution, the British Government almost took over the myth created by Ceau?escu himself about Romania's independence in its relations with the Soviet Union and its ideological systemic differentiation from Moscow.

It is what the American journalist Brian Hall pointed out in his 1988 travel account:

The Western governments valued Ceausescu, because in developing his nationalist ideas, he had pursued an independent foreign policy for the past eighteen years that had, on occasion, embarrassed the Soviet Union. In the English-language books, the word that kept coming up to describe him was "maverick." Unfortunately, the commentary centered almost exclusively on foreign policy and didn't tell me much about the internal situation in Romania. For that kind of information, I had to rely on the opinions of other travelers - an unreliable source if there ever was one. (Brian Hall, 1988)

This category of representations almost seem variations upon the themes developed by Ceausescu himself and his ideologues in the complete works of the Romanian president, translated and published all over the world, such as his "brilliant" The Romanian Communist Party, Continuer of the Romanian People's Revolutionary and Democratic Struggle, of the traditions of the Working Class and Socialist Movement in Romania (Agerpres, 1966). They were thus promoting Ceausescu's national-communist ideology and highlighting the transition from Marxist-Leninist internationalism to nationalism in the seventies perceived as a positive sign of liberalism, up to the advent of the multilaterally developed socialist society.

In his volume dedicated to Romania in 1970, belonging to the series of European country profiles, Jan M. Matley wrote very conveniently about Romania under Ceau?escu's regime pointing out its independence and liberal views:

Many in the West believe this relationship with the Soviet Union still exists, and many deny the possibility of Romania's ever achieving any significant improvement in its standard of living or any degree of freedom from governmental control-as long, at least, as the country belongs to the Communist bloc. However, the record of the present .regime in Romania leaves little doubt that Romanians have re-laced unqualified allegiance to the Soviet Union with a remarkable posture of detachment from the political and economic policies of the rest of Communist Europe. (Matley, 6)

MacKenzie was very optimistic too. He was convinced that the British would be very attracted by Romania: even if

...Romania is a late starter in the field of tourism, although more attention has been paid to it since the successful State visit of the President of the Republic, Mr. Nicolae Ceausescu, in 1978, when he stayed at Buckingham Palace as the guest of the Queen, who may herself visit Romania at the President's invitation in the near future. (MacKenzie, 1983, 11-2)

Everything was perfect about Romania. It was instead a victim of Western misrepresentations as a Ruritanian place:

In the minds of many people, Romania had a faintly comic-opera air of elaborately uniformed cavalry officers and gay, dancing peasants. It was the sinister locale of Transylvanian castles in dark forests, of werewolves and Count Dracula. For others, less dramatically, Romania suggested a decadent air of oriental intrigue and corruption. These distorted views were based to a great extent on the well-publicized activities of some members of the ruling circles during the interwar period, as well as on the writings of novelists seeking a little-known (and hence exotic) setting for their tales. Traditional accounts of Romanian life, real or fictitious, did little to reveal the underlying quality of the country, namely, the predominance of a hard-working, relatively prosperous peasant population, farming a rich soil in a climate favorable to the growth of a variety of agricultural products. In this century, Romania was further enriched by the development of one of the largest petroleum fields in Europe and by the steady growth of heavy industries, such as the iron and steel industry of Transylvania. (Matley, 4)

Once the stereotypes about Romania and the Romanians are deconstructed following the Romanian self-representations, the communist future appears bright at the end of an undeserved history of internal and external injustice: "There is no doubt that the Romanians, given a period of peace free from outside interference, have a bright economic future ahead of them, especially as compared to most of the other countries of Eastern Europe." (Matley, 5)

While some of the British writers and politicians were constructing the utopian communist Romania - a liberal island in the ocean of totalitarian Stalinism, others were endeavoring to deconstruct these conjectural representations, creating in exchange ironic and critical images of poverty, misery, terror and oppression, or gloomy images of communist dictatorship and isolated forms of intellectual resistance. Others were imagining dystopian hypostases of communism, dramatic and ironic at the same time (Alan Sillitoe) or satirical (Malcolm Bradbury). What is a dystopia? It is a gloomy presentation of a real totalitarian society, past or present, projected into the future. Dystopia is the opposite of utopia. The term is composed of the Greek prefix "dys": "evil" or "abnormal" and the termination "topos": "place", meaning "evil place".

Malcolm Bradbury's Rates of Exchange (2000, first published in 1983) and his Why Come to Slaka? A Guidebook and Phrasebook Translated into English by Dr F. Plitplov. Introduction by Dr A. Petworth. (2000, first published in 1986) are parodic descriptions a communist regime, which remind us of Romania as well as of any country behind the Iron Curtain. The main theme is, as in his other novels, "the plight of liberal humanism in the later twentieth century as it came under threat from ideologies which denied or diminished the role of the individual, such as Marxism, structuralism, monetarism and postmodernism".

Dr. Angus Petworth, British professor of linguistics and distinguished messenger of the British Council all over the world, is strangely invited by the Ministry of Culture in Slaka for a lecturing tour. Characters are not important in this novel: they are embodying the stereotypes spread through the language, society, and politics of Slaka. Dr. Petworth is "forty and married, bourgeois and British". He teaches linguistics at a Bradford college. In Slaka, he meets Plitplov (a security agent and his Slakan contact). He fears his guide, the beautiful Marisya Lubijova (who is a security agent as well). He also meets the novelist Katya Princip, with whom he has an accidental love affair. She asks him to do an illegal thing: to take her manuscript of her novel out of the country because she wants it to be translated and published in the West. As in Alan Brownjohn, Paul Bailey and Helena Drysdale's novels, conspiracy and paranoia are Western traveler's obsessions in a country like Romania, but Bradbury chooses to make fun of them mostly through a "linguistic humor" (See Lidia Vianu):

Located by an at once kind and cruel geography at the confluence of many trade routes, going north and east, south and is a land that has frequently flourished, prospered, been a centre of trade and barter, art and culture, but has yet more frequently been pummelled, fought over, raped, pillaged, conquered and oppressed by the endless invaders who, from every direction, have swept and jostled through this all too accessible landscape. Swedes and Medes, Prussians and Russians, Asians, Tartars and Cossacks, Mortars and Turds, indeed almost every tribe or race specialist in pillage and rape, have been here, as to some necessary destination, and left behind their imprint, their customs, their faiths, their architecture, their genes. This is a country that has been now big, now small, now virtually non-existent. Its inhabitants have seen its borders expand, contract and on occasion disappear from sight, and so confused is its past that the country could now be in place quite different from that in which it started. And so its culture is a melting pot, its language a pot-pourri, its people a salad...As a result, in Slaka history is a mystery, and it is not surprising that the nation's past has been very variously recorded and the facts much disputed, for everyone has a story to tell. (Bradbury, 2000, 1-2)

Lidia Vianu observes that the plot is unimportant since everything is included in a dull report: the capital city is "that fine flower of middle European cities, capital of commerce and art, wide streets and gipsy music". Slaka could be any communist country, untouched by civilization, lost in time and space, with an indoctrinated and dishonest people and causing paranoia to Western travelers. Lidia Vianu also states that it is "in the Soviet orbit", "secular materialism is the official state philosophy", and everything is the result of "proletarian endeavour" and "socialist planning". The country abounds in "apartment blocks for the workers", there is a "Park of Freedom", the "museum of Socialist Realist Art", "friendship of all peoples" is the slogan.

In her analysis of Bradbury's books, Lidia Vianu states that much more amusing from the linguistic point of view, which is the main source of humor in Rates of Exchange, too, is the guidebook Why Come to Slaka: if we were not certain about Slaka's resemblance to Romania, the guide makes us feel at home: the names get a pseudo-Romanian color instead of the pseudo-Slavic one from Rates of Exchange. We find in the book a "message from the Slakan head of state", "Comrade-General I. Vulcani", a chapter on geography and history by 'Professor-Academician Rom Rum', a chapter on 'the languages of Slaka' by the novelist Katya Princip. The illustrations are populated with peasants in Romanian folk dress. This booklet concentrates everything was hilarious in Rates of Exchange.

As Lidia Vianu observes, "Malcolm Bradbury is so busy mocking at communism that he completely misses the human tragedy behind the iron curtain"(1), but I really don't know which is more offensive, the above described idyllic images of communist Romania, or this satirical deconstruction of the self-representations and foreign images about Romania, mostly of its liminal condition, exploited both by the victimized Romanians and by culpabalizing Westerners? It makes you at least laugh at yourself instead of feeling ashamed.

Alan Sillitoe's Nihilon is a satire of the socialist revolution gone mad, probably the Russian Revolution and its philosophy influenced by Russian Nihilism whose emphasis on materialism as opposed to idealism helped pave the way for the later ascendancy of communism. The term nihilism comes from the Latin word 'nihil' which literally means "nothing". The father of Russian nihilism, Ivan Turgenev used the term in his novel Fathers and Sons (1862) to describe the views he attributed to young intellectual critics of feudal society generally and the Tsarist regime in particular.

This Russian Nihilism was largely a youth movement comprised of a new intellectual class that was growing rapidly due to increased attendance at schools by commoners, increased wealth in the middle class, and the development of independent presses.

The result was a "culture war" with an older generation that felt a stronger allegiance to traditional norms, traditional religion, and traditional morality. Against these "Fathers" were arrayed the "Sons", children who no longer believed in the ideals of their elders, were disillusioned at the hypocrisy around them, and feared that any attempt to improve things would only be in vain.

As one might expect, the more the young Russian Nihilists were pushed into conforming to tradition, the more they pushed back -- acting out in crude or vulgar ways, expressing contempt for traditional values, opposing religious authority, etc. Some attempted to change society through political action, but most were disillusioned with politics and "dropped out", preferring instead to seek greater personal development through a complete break with the past. It was these latter individuals who perhaps most merit the label Nihilists -- apolitical youth who shared much in common with Turgenev's character Bazarov.

Ultimately, Russian Nihilism didn't accomplish much itself -- it certainly didn't produce general cultural and political changes anywhere close to what was created by the 1960s youth movements in America and Europe. The problem, it seems, is that the radical cultural and political critiques were not well-balanced by an equally strong program of alternatives. Basically, the Nihilists had little or nothing to offer in exchange for what they hoped to tear down.

Travels in Nihilon is a satire of the communist revolutionary political and social upheaval: a satire of anarchism (nihilism), cynicism, sectarianism. Nihilon is a cynical, immoral environment with no value to cling to. A place where the rule of no rule is taken as democracy! A place where there is no longer any real substance to traditional social, political, moral, and religious values, a place where freedom is despotism, corruption and irrationality in disguise. It is a country where nihilism is the official philosophy ("self-expression plus self-indulgence equals nihilism"), the old are sent to war because the young are too precious, bribes and extortion are the rule, only drunken driving is allowed, fatal auto accidents are used as a form of population control, and where anarchic market forces rule under the watchful eye of the eccentric President Nil. Its currency is Klipp, its watchwords "Obey!" and "Rebel!" The National Hymn to Nihilism is "The Hammer and Chisel Forever!" played by the Geriatrics Symphony Orchestra.

Nihilon might be any country in the communist bloc:

Such a country ought to be explored and, if possible, described. At the same time we also believe that whatever dangers are to be met with in Nihilon will be effectively dispelled if sufficiently written about. ...Man, by nature, is not nihilistic, and in order to make him behave and live in such a fashion, one can assume that certain "principles of nihilism" have been formulated by the one man who runs the country, and whom we hope to meet in the course of this narrative. Though Nihilon, through him, has devised the perfect system of regimented chaos as the best way of safe guarding the eternal spirits of its citizens, this is no proof that a better method could not safeguard them even more. (Sillitoe, 5) What else than "regimented chaos" was (and still is) Romania for example?

The novel records the accounts of five intrepid Western travelers who arrive to compile a new guidebook of Nihilon:

More than twenty-five years have gone by since a guide-book to Nihilon was published. A committee of editors has therefore decided to collect information for a new and more up-to-date volume. This is a difficult undertaking because Nihilon is, by and large, that undiscovered country from which few travelers can be expected to return. The reason for publishing a handbook to Nihilon is that tourists seeking strange meetings and unexpected thrills, travelers with unusual desires, and people wanting merely to live in that country, need the experience of others on which to plan their hopes and expectations. Although it is true that out of many who have gone to Nihilon, few have returned with enough lucidity to give information or tell of their adventures, it must be said that guidebooks are not written for those who come back, but to prime those with the impetus to go, and to help those ardent spirits who have the good fortune to arrive. In any case, the little-known country of Nihilon can claim certain achievements worth showing to the world. Its nihilism, they say, is second to none. Its nihilistic principles are applied to modern life in such a way that, as one lands at Nihilon City Airport, being only permitted to approach at dusk, a string of immense and lit-up letters p. 6 nearly two kilometres long spells out the coruscating message: NIHILISM WORKS! (Sillitoe, 5)

The travelers and contributors to the guide are: Adam, the poet, who comes by bicycle and has the mission of using his poetical talent on descriptions of the country; Benjamin Smith - specialized in politics and military history - chief field-worker on the collection of data for the guidebook to Nihilon, who comes by car; Jaquiline Sulfer, the only female member of our guide book staff, the psychiatrist who travels by train ("She worked at that time for an eminent psychiatrist, and had transcribed tape-recordings which he had made at the bedside of a so-called psychotic patient, whose pathetic condition was ascribed to Nihilon vacation", p. 28); Edgar Salt, a geographer who travels aboard a steamship. They fall in the middle of the war with Cronacia:

The socialist regime of Cronacia was mild and orderly, in no way quarrelsome regarding its black-hearted neighbour of Nihilon. But Nihilon bristled with wild dreams, was inwardly polluted with nightmare (so the manager of the hotel in Cronacia had said), and therefore not to be trusted along the one frontier it possessed, which Cronacia's fair land had the misfortune to share...On the handlebars of his (Adam's) bicycle an unobtrusive Tonguemaster had been clipped, an ingenious instrument that enabled him to understand and be understood in the many languages and dialects of Nihilon (Sillitoe, 10-11).

Their travels become a nightmare not only because of the war but because of the madness ruling around them: authorities, police, bureaucrats, ordinary people, all try to cheat and rob them. When Edgar Salt's trunk disappeared, the captain said: "Don't worry"... "it will probably be waiting in the customs shed. There are no thieves in Nihilon. By simply taking everything we need, none of us become thieves. Dishonesty forever means fair shares for all. However, I must get off the ship now." He held out his hand. "I expect a good tip for helping you on the deck with that very heavy trunk". (Sillitoe, 45)

Nihilon reminds us of the past when "History, as it is ordinarily known, stopped at the beginning of the present regime which, during its twenty-five years of power, had closed the country off from the world, at least as regards any serious study of it. Tourists had been allowed to sample the nefarious delights of its nihilistic principles, but they had for the most part returned in a state of dumb shock" (Sillitoe, 62). Totalitarianism went hand in hand with anarchy, corruption and cynicism, and almost so does our "original" democracies in post-communist countries like Romania. That is why we cannot but understand "the dumb shock" with which some of the British travelers returned (or still return) home from their voyage into the "wild shores of Marx".



Travel Accounts and Academic Works on Communist and Postcommunist Romania

Fiction and Drama about Communist and Postcommunist Romania

Intellectual Dissent

Satirical Dystopias of Communism (exemplary dictatorship)



6.7. The travel: knowledge, communication and / or power

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For quotation purposes:
Carmen Andras: Why come to Romania? Between Utopian and Dystopian Representations of Communism in British Literature - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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