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A riveting story of being watched

06 September 2013

Hugh Wybrew on Burying the Typewriter by Carmen Bugan

Carmen Bugan was born the year before I went to Romania in 1971 to be chaplain at the Church of the Resurrection in Bucharest. I had wanted to serve in an Orthodox country, and living behind the Iron Curtain gave a peculiar twist to the experience.

I was under the wing of the Romanian Orthodox Church, and in my British passport was a multi-entry/exit visa. The British Embassy told me to assume that "they" knew where I was at any moment, with whom I was, and what was being said - and then to forget it. I soon became aware of the close watch kept by the Council for the Security of the State, the Securitate, on me and on those Romanians with whom I had any contact. I had no difficulties; and even if I had, at worst my time in Bucharest would have been cut short.

The Bugan family was not in that happy position. Carmen's father had come to the notice of the Securitate before he married. His first spell in prison was in 1961-68: he had spoken against the government, and had tried to leave Romania. From then until 1989, the Securitate watched him closely. From the time of his marriage in 1969, he was followed and harassed.

Undeterred, he continued to type leaflets critical of the government, which was dominated from 1965 by Nicolae CeauŞescu and his wife, Elena. He owned a typewriter, legally bought and registered in his name. Illegally, he owned another, which he kept buried in the back yard, unearthing it only at night to type his leaflets. His activity was, of course, known to the Securitate, for which Carmen says one in three Romanians worked. You never knew who was reporting on you. It might be a close neighbour or friend, another member of your family, or even the parish priest.

Of her father's anti-government activity, Carmen knew nothing. The earlier chapters of this riveting book - I read it in two days - describe her childhood in a village. It is an almost lyrical story, evoking traditional country life in Romania, even in the early 1970s a predominantly rural country.

Life was not easy, and became more difficult in the 1980s, when CeauŞescu was determined to pay off all the country's foreign debt. He exported everything he could, including food and power. Carmen's mother ran the village food-shop, and by the time some of the allotted supplies had been siphoned off by various officials, there was never enough to feed the village adequately.

In 1983, Carmen's father staged a one-man public protest in the Piata Romana in Bucharest. He had left home without telling his wife and children what he was planning. He was, of course, arrested. Once again in jail, he became a prisoner of conscience known the free world over: in 1986, he was Amnesty International's "prisoner of the month".

It was the worst period of communist oppression: CeauŞescu had become both megalomaniac and paranoid. The family was now subjected to intense interrogations, constant surveillance, and tight restrictions. Their dog was poisoned. Carmen's mother was "advised" to divorce her husband, in order to disassociate herself from him. Until she did so, her children were not allowed to go to school, and she was unable to find work.

Romania's prisons were overcrowded. Suddenly CeauŞescu announced an amnesty for all prisoners sentenced to ten years or more, except murderers. Carmen's father returned home, psychologically damaged. The family was under house- and village-arrest, unable to travel further than the nearest small town. Pressure on them by the Securitate increased.

It seemed that the government wanted to force them out, and be rid of the whole family. Friends advised them to ask the United States Embassy for asylum. In October 1989, they received US visas, and left Romania. On Christmas Day that year, the CeauŞescus were executed.

Bugan's book paints an evocative and moving picture of what life was like for most Romanians. It raises questions, one of which Carmen herself asks: was her father right to continue his political activity at such great cost to his family? We might wonder, too, how it was that so many Romanians collaborated with the regime: was it just to save their own skins?

That regime collapsed nearly a quarter of a century ago. The psychological damage that its oppressive rule did to Romanian society will take much longer to repair. Romania is now a member, with us, of the European Union. We need to understand the country better, to appreciate more the freedoms we enjoy, and to be more active in maintaining our own democratic society.

In 2010, Carmen was able to see some of the Securitate files on her father, including a photograph of the buried typewriter. They brought back to her the horror of what she and her family had endured. Her book gives us a graphic insight into what we have been spared. It might also make us wonder what information the British Government has about us in its secret files, and how it comes to have it. 

Canon Hugh Wybrew was formerly Vicar of St Mary Magdalen's in Oxford.

Burying the Typewriter: Childhood under the eye of the secret police by Carmen Bugan is published by Picador at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-1-447-21084-9.


Was Carmen Bugan's father right to sacrifice his family's well-being for his desire for a better life for the people of Romania?

How would you describe his relationship with his family?

What emotions did this book evoke in you?

In an interview, Bugan said that a child is like a camera because he or she sees but is not able to reflect on what is seen. How does she convey this in the way she writes through the voice of her childhood self?

How might a person who had lived through the events of this book as an adult have written the story differently?

Bugan did not want her son to learn the Romanian language at first, because of its negative associations for her. Yet she found herself singing songs to him in her native tongue. As we grow into adults, how does our relationship with our childhood affect us? Do you think it is different for someone who has suffered much?

Do you think the family's faith helped them to survive?

Which aspect of life in Romania under CeauŞescu do you think was hardest for the Bugan family to survive?

"You can trust better a book of fiction than a memoir" (page ix). Do you agree?

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 4 October, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Unapologetic by Francis Spufford. It is published by Faber at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10; 978-0-571-22522-4); (Feature, 7 September 2012; Books, 23 November).


The subtitle of Unapologetic describes what the author is aiming to do in the book: to explain "Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense." As the main title suggests, Francis Spufford makes no apology for Christianity or any effort to engage in "apologetics" in a conventional form. Instead, he writes a combative, wry, and strongly felt affirmation of the Christian faith. He emphasises what it feels like to believe rather than examining the propositions of religion. Spufford writes from personal experience, and concludes that because it can feel as if there is a God at times, it makes sense to live as if there is one. 

Francis Spufford was born in 1964 to the historians Margaret and Peter Spufford. He studied English Literature at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He was the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in 1997, after the publication of his first book I May Be Some Time (1996), which won several awards. Since then, he has written The Child that Books Built (2002), Backroom Boys (2003), and Red Plenty (2010). He now teaches on an MA course at Goldsmiths, University of London. 

Books for the next two months:
November: Toby's Room by Pat Barker
December: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

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