Bullying, surveillance and exile: a childhood in Ceausescu’s Romania
Carmen Bugan’s memoir relates a tale of psychological cruelty after her father was imprisoned by Romania’s secret police
Romanian communist party general secretary and president Nicolae Ceaucescu in Bucharest on November 20th, 1989, addressing party members. He and his wife Elena were executed by firing squad in December that year. Photograph: Gerard Fouet/AFP/Getty Images
Author Carmen Bugan: ‘My father expected to be welcomed as this great political hero. I think, in his mind, he was a sort of Mandela’
On the morning of March 10th, 1983, a provincial grocer by the name of Ion Bugan put on his best suit, got into his red Dacia and drove to Bucharest. He stopped on a rush-hour street and covered his car with hand-painted banners protesting against the lack of food – and freedom of speech – in Ceausescu’s Romania.
That afternoon, Ion’s 12-year-old daughter Carmen came home from school to find the secret police in her living room. Her mother, Mioara, who had recently given birth, was in hospital with the baby; her sister was away, studying to be a gymnast.
It was left to Carmen and her elderly grandmother to hold the fort as the Securitate “confiscated” all their food, tore up their garden, installed microphones everywhere and – having obtained a set of keys to the house – came and went as they pleased at all hours of the day and night.
There follows a tale of mind-boggling psychological cruelty, which Carmen Bugan recounts in her memoir, Burying the Typewriter. During the four years of her father’s imprisonment, the family was repeatedly told that he was dead. Her mother was forced to divorce him.
At school, the other kids were taught to throw stones at Carmen because she was “the daughter of a criminal”.
Bugan, a published poet, can with a single sentence paint a portrait of almost visceral immediacy. In conversation, what is most striking is her warmth, humour and complete lack of bitterness; qualities that will, no doubt, be evident when she is a guest at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry this month.
Was it not traumatic, revisiting her teenage years to write a memoir? “It was quite difficult,” she says, “but then at the same time there is also the emotion of nostalgia. There were a lot of great memories as a little girl with my grandparents. And like every person in the world, I wanted to recapture that time.”
The early chapters of Burying the Typewriter present an idyllic pastoral lifestyle that is surely as alien to the experience of many urban western readers as the activities of the Romanian secret police.
Bugan laughs. “My children see chicken coming into the house all wrapped up, and they think that killing a chicken to eat it is really violent,” she says. “But even now, in the more isolated places in Romania, the old ways are still the ways. There’s still the sense that you live and eat off the land.”