I asked Silvia Hildebrandt to write an introductory piece to Dear Comrade Novak, her second novel, published in 2018. In it, she explains how she came to write the book, and its effect on her personal identity.
We fled Romania for Germany in 1990, after the revolution and the civil war between Hungarians and Romanians. For the most part, we were looked down upon as poor, illiterate gypsies. So I denied I was born and raised in Romania, in an attempt to assimilate with German culture. Over the years, my teachers recognized my talent for writing. Somehow, I always wrote stories set in the USA. But my 6th grade literature teacher encouraged me to write something about Romania. ”You have so many unique stories to tell,” she said. But at that time, I’d buried my identity deep within me. No, never. Never would I write a novel set in Romania.
Twenty years later, after my first published novel – A Century Divided, set in New York City – I needed a new idea for a second. By happenstance, I landed back in Romania. I wanted a story set in Eastern Europe because I loved Russian novelists like Tolstoy and Pasternak and their very own strong, melancholic narrative. And because I’m a lazy bitch and didn’t want to do research on Russia, I decided to set my next piece in Western Romania, where I was born. As the plot developed over the weeks, I was stuck in the middle and in order to finish a novel, I need to know the end in an early stage of writing. But I didn’t know where it should lead, so I reached out for the writer’s best friend. Google.
“Romanian History 1980s” was my search query. And if an old agent of the Securitate monitored me, he would’ve thrown up his hands in despair as to my ignorance. “Romanian Revolution 1989” was the first answer and I nearly fainted. Of course! I had totally forgotten. Like a black hole in my memories and my brain, this event no longer existed in my life. Slowly, from an author’s point of view, I dug into the Romanian history and into my own. While writing, I had to remind myself that I was there; in that scene, with my characters walking around in Timișoara and in that Romanian village they call their hometown; this wasn’t just their story, but my own as well.
It’s borderline crazy describing such a feeling. Like living in two alternate universes, I re-discovered my own heritage. Near the end of writing Dear Comrade Novák, I watched Ceaușescu’s last speech conserved on youtube. The piece of footage every Romanian knows and love-hates to this day. The footage my beta readers and editors still remember, shown on US and British TV. But for me, it was the first time I witnessed that confused old man become lost in the sudden uprising of the people he oppressed for so many years. To this day, the turning point of my own childhood had always been the opening of the Berlin Wall. I didn’t know anything about the events in December 1989 in Romania. But with every documentary I watched while writing Dear Comrade Novák, I felt like reclaiming my own identity. No, not the Berlin people dancing on the ruins of the Wall had shaped me, but the December events of 1989. Ceaușescu, the last bastion of communism in Europe, fleeing in his helicopter. The Romanian flag with the cutout communist sigil in the middle. The people in Timișoara lighting a thousand candles for the murdered masses, shot on 17th December. There: forty kilometers from my hometown, the bloodiest, most epic of the 1989 revolutions began.
“Why wander into the distance, when the good is so close?” is a popular German saying. And it’s true. I’m excited what future ideas I’ll have in my writing career. But I know one thing: Romania will continue to play a big part in it.
Dear Comrade Novák is one of the most devastatingly honest and brutal books I have ever read, yet I could not put it down. I read the last 65% of it in one sitting.
Set in Romania in the 1980s, Dear Comrade Novák follows three school friends: the ethnic Hungarian Attila; the Romanian Tiberius, and the Roma Viorica, through the last decade of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s despotic rule, culminating in the Revolution of 1989.
Hildebrandt is unsparing in her descriptions of the functioning of the country under the eye of the Securitate (the secret police). Who is a friend? Can family members be trusted? Can lovers? And when a man carries a secret – that he is gay – something that is not just forbidden in Romania, but denied completely – what does he do?
Weaving major events of the 80s – Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the devastating rise of AIDS – into the narrative, Hildebrandt paints a bleak and unwavering picture of people trying to find a way forward in a corrupt and cruel society, a society layered by ethnicity and political allegiance. Some may stay true to their inner selves; others cannot; heroism is easy to imagine, but personal survival is a strong imperative, even when the violence and fear of everyday life overwhelms happiness.
Dear Comrade Novák is not escapist fiction. It is an uncomfortable book, one that should leave you shaken. I will remember it long after I have forgotten many other books I have read or will read. Five stars.