What do young Romanians know about the events preceding the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu 30 years? How is the era seen — even romanticized — by older Romanians? Lavinia Braniste's second novel examines these questions.
The Romanian novelist and translator Lavinia Braniste lives and works in Bucharest. Her first novel, Interior zero, was voted the best Romanian novel of 2016. Her second novel, Sonia ridica mana (Sonia raises her hand), was published in November 2019 by Polirom. DW spoke with her about historical memory 30 years after Romania's revolution.
DW: You were still a child in 1989. Why are you so interested in this period?
Lavinia Braniste: Romania's recent history should be taught in school. I did not learn about communism in school. In 1990, when it was still at school, we were using old textbooks that my mother's generation had used. Things had not even changed by 2001 — we were still using the same old textbooks, even for our history classes. I think it is essential that Romanian schoolchildren learn about this period. And, of course, it also matters who authors such textbooks and whose perspective on the events on December 1989 is reflected in them. While doing research for my novel, I learned that the 1989 revolution did not mark a clear break with our past. It was not like something came to an end and something entirely new emerged. Not at all. I think teenagers today, like everyone else, should be made to understand our history and why Romania is the way it is today. The events of December 1989 did not lead to a fresh start, did not somehow "purify" us, as my novel describes. The political decision-makers, and their successors, are largely the same as before. So that legacy is there. That means it's important to know about our past.
Your protagonist, Sonia, is asked when she will finally develop a social conscience. Would you say that Romanian teenagers these days are not engaged enough?
My generation was lethargic for a long time. But I am getting the feeling this now changing. My generation is beginning to get involved, to protest, get engaged and realize that we are part of one community. We live in a free world: We can travel wherever we want and study how others have solved their problems. Experiencing this encourages us to become engaged and "raise our hands," so to speak, though we are still somewhat hesitant. But I think we will now see progress.
Your novels touch on family issues — mother-daughter relationships, absent fathers and the interaction between young couples — in relation to the Communist era. Do you think we are too harsh on the generation of our parents if we accuse them of having been idle, or having failed to resist?
I cannot answer that question. This is a question that I was been thinking about even before I started writing this novel: How would my life have been in Communist Romania? I read that the Romanian secret police even recruited teenagers and schoolchildren. I have tried imagining how I would have reacted in their situation, or what it would have been like to be a persecuted novelist, or if authorities had threatened my family. I don't know if I would have had the courage to do something — though it is no wonder that things developed as they did with people thinking this way. It is hard to judge in hindsight.
A recent IPSOS survey found that 52% of Romanians believe they were better off in the past. Your novel also touches on this sense of nostalgia: "Things were not better, but we were better off."
That is quote from one of my university professors, one of my favorites. I guess he will be struggling financially these days. Our memory has ways of protecting us: It lets us forget all the evil we experienced to keep us from going insane. Forgetting allows us to survive.
Have you started working on a third novel?
Right now, I'm an artist in residence based in Zug, Switzerland, thanks to funding from the Landis & Gyr foundation. I am working on a children's book featuring a piglet named Rostogol. I am also thinking about writing a third novel. But, for now, I need to gather and process my thoughts. It will be a story about two sisters on a pilgrimage.