Imagine that one fine day you are forced to leave your town. A few of you get together and pretend to be a sort of travelling company, going from town to town in the hope of escaping the enemy. And you put up with all the limitations because it’s going to be just for “a while”. For then to find yourself on your way to France and never be able to return to your country, your town, your former life…
What’s the offence you’ll ask. Well you happen to be able to create magic with your pen, and we all know how terrifying that is to a person who wants to crush all free thoughts and especially any opposition. And even if you appear to be on the “enemy”’s side, your fate is not secure. That’s too far fetched, you’d say. And I’d say, well then, give this article a read: Issac Babel (this is a succinct presentation of a rather ‘common’ practice and I’ve picked Isaac Babel because his name appears in Memories too.)
Teffi takes us on a journey from Moscow to the Black See; her journey of running from the Bolsheviks. And while we are “touring” with her and her travelling company we see the horror of the Bolshevik revolution <<“A train that came under fire has just pulled in. With dead and wounded on board.” Dead. Wounded. How accustomed we had grown to these words. No one felt any particular alarm or distress. No one said, “How awful!” or “What a tragedy”>>, the terror << “She does as she pleases. She conducts the searches, she sentences, and she shoots.”>> <<The Bolsheviks had tortured and killed his brother, and he has only just managed to escape them himself”>>, the suffering and the limitations <<The owner of the hardware store on the corner is selling a length of curtain. She’s only just taken it down. Fresh as can be – nails and all. It’ll make a wonderful evening dress. You simply can’t do without it. And you’ll never get a chance like this again”>> . She also takes us round the soviet literary scene, the Russian theatre, journalism, popular ballads, you name it!
But the most important is that she subtly presents us with what life under communism really means.
* Limited products, ratios, huge queues, deprivation.
<<She came back full of excitement and said, “Guess what I’ve brought?”[…]and placed a bar of chocolate on the table[…]
“Where’s it from?” we began to interrogate her.
“You won’t believe it – you’ll think I’m joking. I simply bought it at a little stall. And nobody asked anything at all. I didn’t need any papers, and I didn’t have to line up. I just saw it in the window, went in and bought it.”>>
I also remember the bread ratio, queuing for over 4 hours for eggs and they finished when I was 3 persons away, having bananas and oranges only at Christmas. In fact I have a pretty similar memory, but not about chocolate but about bananas, green/yellowish bananas. It was right after the revolution and a shop in town had green bananas. We queued for hours and bought as many as we could afford. We put them all to ripe on top of our bookshelves covering an entire wall of your living-room(maybe around 3 m long and about 60cm in width). To this day, almost ripe bananas are my favourite thing in the world, that flavour is what happiness tastes like and I think it will be with me till the end. I believe this might be the case for others as well. Not only from Romania, but from other ex soviet countries. And I am saying that with a bit of confidence, because I encounter something similar in another book about communist, a book that I absolutely adored: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine: “Communism, my dear,” I said when I managed to get hold of a bunch of bananas for hers and let them ripen on the windowsill, given her just one each day so they’d last for a while”
** Bribes, governmental mafia.
<<And everything went like clockwork. That is, they would be closed down, pay a bribe, reopen, be closed down again, pay another bribe, etc.
“Do your police take bribes?” I asked Grishin-Almazov.
“How can you ask such a thing! The money goes exclusively to charitable works. I emphasize the word goes” he replied buoyantly.>>
***people reporting other people, the impossibility to trust anyone, fearing for one life…
<< “You’ve got a guitar in your luggage, haven’t you?”
Sleepy as I was, I felt frightened. What if she went and reported me to the captain for carrying musical instruments “while the people are starving.”
“Please be so kind as to hand over your guitar.” the pike-maiden pronounced icily. “It’s required in the hospital bay, where we have a sickly element.”
“So that’s your attitude toward your civic duty, is it?[…]”Well, you haven’t heard the last of this!”>>
****Having to hide, to take other identities, fear, executions, running…
“My father’s gone into hiding. He told me I must never forget, not even for one minute, that I am a stoker. Only then will I be able to survive and carry out the task[…]”
How many more journeys would he make, with his bronze cross on its grimy string? One? Two? And then he would rest his weary shoulders against the stone wall of bleak cellar and close his eyes…>>
Romania is mentioned towards the end of the book: “we’re heading for Romania, where the captain will hand us over to the Bolsheviks.” And also a popular dish eaten especially at Christmas and during winter gets a mention: “fatback and onion” -the footnote says: the layer of fat under the skin of a pig’s back – is considered a delicacy in many parts of eastern Europe (see photo).
And because we are talking here about memories, and I’ve mentioned Romania, and a friend asked me the other day if I’ve watched My little pony when I was a child, I will share with you a last memory about the cartoons we used to watch under communism. I used to live on the left riverbank of the Danube, literally a stone’s throw away from Bulgaria, so we were able to see Bulgarian cartoons in the evenings, when every TV programme ended on the Romanian television channel(yes, just 1 TV chancel for around 3-4 hours a day!! Plus black and white TVs) . Well, one night, when the Revolution was in full swing in Bucharest, my aunt visited us, probably for the adults to discuss the current events. They left sometime in early evening, maybe around 8pm but they return soon after saying that the army and part of the Security where exchanging bullets in the town centre so they couldn’t go back home safely. At first we closed everything and stayed in the dark, but everything was quiet(we used to live on the outskirts of town, anyway) so I was allowed to watch the evening cartoon but with no sound on, just in case the violence was moving towards us, to be able to hear it in time. Luckily nothing happened, and only some scratches on the side of some flats buildings in town were left from that night, and that was pretty much the most dangerous thing happening in our little corner. But those cartoons will always be with me and remind me of that day!
But that’s it folks, I kind of hijacked this review with my memories, back to Teffi’s Memories.
Well she was quite famous and popular, therefore she had a less hard time managing to escape. In a good time, I’d say; as other just as famous as her were not that fortunate. In a way it is the same old USSR memories that others have shared, yet not less important or heartbreaking. She does make them ‘hers’ with all the details about the literary scene, yet it was the part that actually bored me. I cannot say I was that interested in that scene, or that I know much about, or that I was interested in learning more, but for those interested in this particular topic, the book is a fountain of knowledge. As a literary style, it’s rather easy to read and quite funny sometimes, yet, as with almost any book talking about communism, I cannot closed my eyes to all that unnecessary suffering, the injustice of the dystopia that is the socialist doctrine.
PS: you can watch 2 of the Bulgarian cartoons I was mentioning following this links: