Element of the absurd — In Search of Romania by Dennis Deletant review

Deletant draws on nearly six decades’ entanglement with a country of contradictions in memoir that is both deeply personal and historically insightful.

Tourists, pupils and pioneers staying at a holiday camp on the Black Sea, Navodari, Romania in the 1960s.
Tourists, pupils and pioneers staying at a holiday camp on the Black Sea, Navodari, Romania in the 1960s. Credit: NTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo.

Communist Romania never really took shape in the Western imagination. While the violent fall of its dictator, Nicolae Ceaucescu, in 1989 certainly made headlines, the country he had ruled for so long seemed just another shade of grey on the monochrome palette of Soviet satellites. For many Western onlookers, the Romanian Revolution merely confirmed what they thought they knew already: beyond the Iron Curtain lay a shapeless world of suffering.

But Dennis Deletant never saw it like that. To him, Romanians were not faceless victims, indistinguishable from their neighbours, but real people with rich literary traditions. Like many British intellectuals of the Cold War era, he was also intrigued by the political experiment of communism. He had only been twelve years old when the Marxist historian, George Rudé, came to teach at his school, enthusing over his time in the Soviet Union in 1932, at the height of Stalin’s rapid industrialisation programme. The schoolboy was hooked.

As the young Deletant was developing a real passion for the Romance languages alongside his fascination with communism, Romania naturally appealed as a subject of study. In 1964, he enrolled as a student of Romanian at the University of London and a life-long preoccupation with the country began.

Today, Deletant looks back on nearly six decades of involvement with the turbulent history of the country, during which he developed a somewhat more critical stance towards what he witnessed there, even becoming a persona non grata in Ceaușescu’s Romania. Nonetheless, he concludes that ‘communism was never a misfortune for me’. As an outsider, with the freedom to study the system and even oppose its excesses from a position of relative safety, he has gained a unique vantage point.

In his new book, In Search of Romania, Deletant now revisits his troubled relationship with the country whose people and culture he has grown to love in spite, or perhaps because, of the brutal regime that had loomed over their lives for so many years. Written as a memoir, it is a personal history of the country the author knows like few other foreign observers.

Despite his lengthy entanglement with Romania, Deletant says that ‘the country has never failed to reserve surprises’ for him. Beginning with his very first visit in 1965, he treats his readers to many of these, startling anecdotes which spike the chronological narrative.

In 1969, for example, Deletant inadvertently found himself face to face with Richard Nixon. As one of only a handful of foreigners in Romania who spoke the language fluently, the author received an offer to work as a translator for the American news outlet ABC during Nixon’s visit to Ceausescu, Romania’s leader since 1965. Thrust into the front line of a baying mob of journalists, the Englishman tried to keep his head down. Suddenly, someone took his hand and shook it. Deletant raised his head in surprise and found himself looking straight into the face of the President of the United States.

In the early years of his reign, Ceausescu had gained appeal as a partner for the West within the communist world. Not only had he vociferously opposed the brutal invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 by hundreds of thousands of Warsaw Pact troops, but he had also eased press censorship, refused to participate in Warsaw Pact missions, and was fairly popular domestically. He seemed for a time a useful ‘thorn in the flesh of the Soviet Union’, as Deletant put it.

But Western politicians were swiftly disabused of their hopes for reform in Romania. Ceausescu’s idea of modernisation drastically differed from theirs. His political distance from the Soviet Union was born out of nationalism, not aversion to communism or dictatorship. In the years that followed his brief honeymoon with the West, Ceausescu’s regime would become one of the most brutal of the bloc, ultimately culminating in a violent backlash in 1989.

Ceausescu’s main instrument of control was his secret police, the Securitate. Their menacing presence enveloped Romanian society at all levels. Deletant was no exception, being subjected to a sinister mix of open intimidation and covert observation throughout his many stays in Romania. Often, he relied on the help of trusted local allies to mitigate the impact this would have on his life.

During one of his study visits, for instance, the administrator of his state-allocated ‘Hostel No 5’, on the Strada Brezoianu in Bucharest, warned him in advance of room searches by the Securitate. Domnul Alexandru was a gregarious man in his mid-twenties, who also worked as a stuntman at the circus. In exchange for his vital services, he wanted nothing more from Deletant than stories of life in the UK and an occasional bottle of imported whisky. But this system wasn’t perfect. During a longer spell of absence, a New Testament in Romanian, which Deletant had brought with him, disappeared from his room — clearly deemed a book full of dangerous ideas.

While such interference was part and parcel of life in communist Romania for locals and foreigners alike, the true extent of it only became apparent to Deletant when he gained access to his own Securitate files in 2006, many years after the events they described in disturbing detail. The files came in six volumes, part paper copies, part microfilm. Much to his bemusement, they charted his supposed work as an ‘agent of British intelligence’ between 1965 and 1989.

It is true that the secret police were never as effective as they appeared. Their surveillance network was patchy by necessity. All agencies combined, the Securitate only numbered 38,682 members of staff, whose task it was to monitor a population of 23 million. But ‘as with other machines of political oppression, the Securitate’s most potent weapon was fear’, concludes Deletant. And he would know, having experienced its sinister methods first-hand.

More than fifty pages of Deletant’s files are dedicated solely to his relationship with Andrea, his Romanian wife. The pair met through a mutual friend in 1971. She had been a student of English and German at the university of Bucharest and came from a line of intellectuals reaching back to the pre-communist era. Her family had already experienced what the regime was capable of when her grandfather was arrested in the middle of the night on 5 May 1950 and driven to the infamous Sighet Prison, close to the border with the Soviet Union. He was 71 years old at the time and one of around 180 similar political prisoners, most over 60 years old and prominent members of the pre-war elite. There were four former prime ministers among them and in the autumn of the same year, they were joined by bishops of the catholic and orthodox churches too. The group was held there until 1955, without charge and without trial. Many died. All were changed forever by the experience.

With such a background, Andrea’s wish to marry a foreigner, especially one deemed to be a spy, was not met with approval by the regime. Such was the depth of Ceaucescu’s paranoia that any marriage between a Romanian and a foreigner required his personal signature. Andrea was lucky in that she had a contact who was an old school friend of the Secretary of the State Council. The latter ensured that the application was slipped in with other papers that required the leader’s signature.

The Securitate never worked out what had happened — much to the amusement of Deletant, who laughed at the indignation leaping off the lines in his file decades later. However, the agents of the state got their own back on the young couple by doing everything in their power to refuse Andrea permission to leave the country so that she might join her husband in Britain. The Kafkaesque bureaucracy placed in their way nearly drove the two into despair. Such methods could be just as effective as threats and intimidation.

All these experiences make In Search of Romania a deeply personal account. The author has engaged with many Romanians over the years, from a multitude of social and geographical backgrounds. Their voices punctuate the narrative, but the focus is on Deletant’s close friends and family connections — mostly intellectuals, artists, authors and dissidents. The book is, therefore, largely an insight into the world of those who chose to resist the regime rather than those who tried to accommodate it.

But the picture of Romania that Deletant paints is a diverse one, full of colour, life and contrasts. He once wrote in a report for a newspaper that there was ‘an element of the absurd’ about Ceaucescu’s regime: the dictator presided over an oil producing country that rationed petrol; a car manufacturing country that restricted Sunday driving; a house building country that couldn’t provide energy for heating; a record grain producer that couldn’t feed its people. Deletant’s intimate connection to Romania and its people brings warmth and humanity to this strange world of contrasts.

When he looks at Romania today he is not convinced that all its contradictions have been resolved since the fall of the Soviet Union. ‘Although the Romanian Communist Party was declared dead in January 1990, no one produced a death certificate,’ he observes. Reluctant to look back and confront their past, Romanians find looking forward difficult too. The threat of Russian aggression looms large in the East, while allegiance with the West through EU and NATO membership has only gone so far in modernising the country.

Nevertheless, Deletant looks on in hope as the ‘search for good governance is pursued by many young Romanians’. His preoccupation with the country and its people continues.

Dennis Deletant, In Search of Romania. Hurst, 2022. 280 Pages, Hardback £20


Katja Hoyer