26 March, 2023
Review of the book Writer under Communism (a few memories) by Ștefan Agopian, Iași: Polirom, 2013
Stefan Agopian’s book is sold on Amazon (source: Amazon.com)

Review of the book Writer under Communism (a few memories) by Ștefan Agopian, Iași: Polirom, 2013

Alexandru Ionașcu

The stories in communism by the prose writer Ștefan Agopian attract attention through the humor of a writer who apparently never took the rigors of authoritarian socialism before 1989 seriously, a future writer who knew he wanted only one thing: to publish. Published in 2013, the volume entitled “Writer under Communism (a few memories)” contains articles published in the Cațavencilor Academy (a satirical newspaper for Romanian intellectuals), at a time when Traian Băsescu was still president, the world was feeling the effects of the first major economic crisis of this century, we didn’t have a far-right party in parliament and nobody was thinking about a possible pandemic – well, in this paradisiacal interval, the author of original novels like Sara and Tobit published his memories of communism.

Born in Bucharest in the first years after the last world conflagration, in 1947 to be precise, the image of Ștefan Agopian is not only that of a writer training in the time of the past regime, but also that of an almost perfect outsider: he did not finish the Faculty of Chemistry because of absences, he was embedded in a disciplinary unit and, as a prose writer, he was not exactly at the center of the literary world, as he did not attend the Faculty of Philology in the capital and was not part of the literary circles that would form what was called the Eighties generation. But until Stefan Agopian was formed as a writer, our prose writer was almost not born at all, or how amazingly unlikely was his birth (‘how amazingly unlikely is your birth’, to quote Eric Idle from Monty Python: The Meaning of Life). In fact, Stefan Agopian was on the precipice of never coming to this world more than once.

The first time chance is in Agopian’s favor, when he is still unborn: it’s the beginning of the Second World War, fascism has taken over almost the entire European continent, and Arshagh Agopian, an Armenian shoemaker from Bucharest and the man who will become the father of our prose writer, receives an order to be drafted, but thinks he can escape such an arbitrary decision. Not only does he not escape, but he is sent to a disciplinary battalion in Transnistria (at that time, the toponym did not designate the present-day exclave near the Republic of Moldova, but a territory between the Nistru and the South Bug river, occupied by the Romanian army after 22 June 1941). How is the chance here in favor of the future writer of Tache de catifea? As a deserter, a regime allied with Nazi Germany might well have decided that Arshagh Agopian should be court-martialled as a deserter and shot. Instead, the Antonescu regime decided that Arșag should be sent to a penal battalion and summarily trained, the Soviet Eastern Front being a punishment synonymous with death anyway. Now Arșag wakes up in a disciplinary battalion, and unless he finds some way to escape the front, his chances of surviving the most devastating battles in human history are slim to none. He discovers no chances, or if he does, they all involve disgusting and life-threatening stuff. So the second time around, chance translates into dumb luck, as the new doctor arriving at the unit turns out to be an Armenian who knew Arshagh from his days treating sexually transmitted diseases (in passing, mind you, Arshagh’s luck would have run out for good if the same hazard would be the HIV/AIDS pandemic to spread four decades earlier), and this newly arrived doctor with the rank of captain saves him from the front line when he informs the unit commander that a fancy shoemaker like Arshagh must not be allowed to expire in Soviet Russia. Another version involves the intervention of one of Arshagh’s sisters with a superior officer, but what is important to note is that the future novelist’s father survives the most devastating war in human history. After the communist regime was installed, Arshagh closed his shoemaker’s workshop and joined one of the first cooperatives called “The Art of Footwear”, so the future novelist would have what was called at the time “a healthy origin”, i.e. a plus for his social advancement in the new regime that had been installed. Just as, before 1948, his father was apolitical and hated the Legionaries, understanding the genocidal nature of the extreme right in this part of Europe. But as Stefan Agopian was born in 1947, we will consider that by this point the role of chance was over.    

Passionate about chemistry from an early age, he entered the university without studying anything all summer, preferring to read ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ in a two-volume translation, borrowed from the local library, a library located “in a dusty little room at the Cultural Hostel”, a place where in 1965 no one passed through and where the dust was in its proper place. He learns nothing, but gets into the Faculty of Chemistry with exactly the mark he expected – so perhaps you too should read one of Dostoevsky’s canonical novels before an important exam. In fact, by his late teens, our future writer is so convinced that he will be a chemist that his boyhood chapbook was called The Household Chemist, along with another volume in the same field and by the same author called Wonders in the Test-tube, both of which were intended for ”the practical work of pioneers and schoolboys.” 

So why are we talking about the prose writer Stefan Agopian, and not the chemistry professor Stefan Agopian? The mixture of his passion for reading and the energy of his post-adolescent youth made him believe that he could tackle any literary genre, from poetry to theater, and he even wrote a play with a most original subject: in a Bucharest market, a guy wants to set fire to his hand to prove to those gathered to see the oddity that “Romanians are not to be despised either.” A scenario inspired the student Stefan Agopian by the legend of Mucius Scaevola from the story of Titus Livius. Obviously, such a farce (more absurd than anti-regime) was not going to be staged in Romania at the beginning of the Ceausescu regime – so the future writer’s nonconformism was evident from his first year as a student. Having failed as a playwright, he made his debut with a group of poems in a supplement of the Craiova magazine Ramuri, called Povestea vorbei. Having embarked on this path of writing, the young Agopian sent a file of a few short prose pieces to a writers’ union journal. He did not make his debut in a volume on this occasion either, but he met members of what was called the dream group, writers like Dumitru Țepeneag, the poet Leonid Dimov or Vintilă Ivănceanu or the poet Virgil Mazilescu, the first literary group to appear in communist Romania at the dawn of the ideological thaw and which was a continuation of the surrealism that was to influence future literary movements such as the postmodernism of the eighties. The group was disbanded by the communist authorities and some dreamers, such as Dumitru Țepeneag, settled in France. 

The same non-conformism meant that the young chemist and budding writer did not have much adherence to the demands of a rapidly urbanising society, but whose authoritarian and conservative socialist regime (the same year that Ștefan Agopian debuted with a group of five poems in Povestea vorbei, the infamous decree banning abortions was issued, the consequences of which can also be seen in the world of writing, see the “business” episode between Nichita Stănescu and the poet with amateur historical interests Gheorghe Tomozei, business not only in the interest of numismatics, but also so that Tom, as Tomozei was called, would pay a rent) and to follow a path on those margins of society permitted by the regime. Thus, he will be expelled from the Faculty of Chemistry because of absences (as a student, a passionate chemist who was Agopian is replaced by a voracious reader and writer who will seek to avoid the pressures of an ideologically oriented realism towards the achievements of the regime) and will be taken into the army, then he will find himself unemployed for about four years and will enter late into what is usually called an employment. Memories of the major writers of the time form a significant part of this book, Agopian having the good fortune to be friends with Nichita Stănescu, as well as meeting Marin Preda, who would be puzzled by his first novel, Ziua mîniei, published in 1979. But Marin Preda’s rigid anchoring in the conventions of a literary realism of the first half of the 20th century will not stop him from accepting Agopian’s invitation to the Capșa restaurant, a place so exclusive in the late ‘70s Bucharest that the necktie was compulsory. Clearly, a writer as popular as Marin Preda had a pass. An important point in these memories is the advantages and privileges of writers in the pre-1989 period, when a poet like Nichita Stănescu could earn ten thousand lei a month, even though he did not give much at his place of work, i.e. the editorial office of România literară magazine, while our memoirist and his wife together earned “a third of Nichita’s income”, other writers earned three to four times more than Nichita Stănescu, just as the literary ecosystem at that time functioned on the basis of a whole infrastructure, an example being the Pelișor palace, which in the 1950s was a “creative house for writers who served the regime”, but literary magazines like Luceafărul also enjoyed institutional support, as it was located in a “house of creation for writers who served the regime”. 

At the same time, print runs were reaching figures unimaginable now: a completely forgotten novel (and its author), with a title of strange, unintentional humor – Ana, the donkey’s mistress – appeared in 1978 in a print run of ”22,310 copies”. Another example of the state’s involvement in the cultural activity of the time is the countless translations made before 1989, the training of a writer as passionate about historical themes as Ștefan Agopian had not only read the classics of 19th-century European realism, but also lesser-known novels such as Heinrich the Green, the novel of the Swiss prose writer Gottfried Keller – translated for us in 1970. But also the historiography of Latin classicism. But the shortcomings of the second half of the 1980s, when Romania was enduring the austerity of the Ceausescu regime, are apparent in the colloquium on the contemporary European novel. Three writers are sent by the Writers’ Union to this colloquium in Bratislava (then a city in socialist Czechoslovakia), the youngest of them being our protagonist. The group of three writers included a legend like Radu Tudoran, and their mission? To find shops with ‘huge bunches of bananas’ and to live in houses with radiators and hot water.

Ștefan Agopian’s memories of life under Communism are also a document on how to survive when you discover that you are living in a historical provisionality, when a world whose socio-political realities you thought were stable is replaced by another with realities to which you try to adapt (see the list on page 80, the professions that disappeared at the beginning of communist industrialisation), i.e. the Romania of the first years of the Stalinist Dej regime. In those years, you had to know how to make soap, so children beating the streets learned naturally which fruits were edible, which rain-grown mushrooms not to eat and, and if things got bad, they could always steal chicken from the neighbors, as our prose writer’s mother did. It is not only the petty-bourgeois craftsmen who disappear in 1950s Romania, but also the carnival strongmen of the early 20th century, as we can see in the pages about the character Titi Boldescu, forced to give up his unregulated Greco-Roman carnival wrestling because of a clash with a national Greco-Roman champion (in the outside world, these carnival wrestling bouts would form what is today’s the wrestling industry). Deprived of his occupation due to increasing urbanization, and thus the professionalization of sports, Titi Boldescu will die in poverty and “forgotten by everyone”, another symbol of the transition from one socio-economic reality to another. 

And Ștefan Agopian has the merit of presenting the turbulent history of Romania in the middle of the last century from the perspective of women: “The main beneficiaries of those times were primarily men. After all, they had forged politics, they had been the small and the big landowners, they had committed war crimes, they had worn the green Fascist shirt. Women were, in most cases, the collateral victims of those events.’’ A rare example of a post-war Romanian writer’s exposure of phallocracy, just as interesting as his indifference towards organized religion: ”As each day passed, it became clearer to me that God does not exist or, if He does, has nothing to do with my passage through this world.” An extraordinary confession, when one considers that it is made in a cultural space dominated by the power of the Romanian Orthodox Church. For current generations, these recollections of a writer associated with the metafiction of postmodern prose may be relevant for several reasons. They can show a world, it is true, that was completely alien and under authoritarian socialism, but which did not yet face difficulties such as cities choked with cars, problems that contributed and still contribute to climate change: by the 1970s, most Romanians traveled by train, and the best-known poet of the time, Nichita Stănescu, did not have a personal car, which would be unthinkable now. I can also show how to avoid the current neo-liberal rigors that annihilate personal life and use the system – as a now forgotten poet named Valeriu Pantazi did. Just as Agopian himself never cared about the obligations of military life (the pages describing his time in the army could be considered a kind of M*A*S*H set in one of the most authoritarian regimes of Soviet-style socialism) and refused to be a chemistry professor. 

Beyond such elements of social history, these memoirs belong not only to one of the most original prose writers to appear in post-war Romania, a prose writer who moved our prose away from the expectations of realism as it was understood beginning with writers like Slavici and Rebreanu, but also to a writer with an incredible sense of humor and always skeptical of authority figures.  

Photo: Stefan Agopian and his book Writer under Communism (source: YouTube)

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