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
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
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
Canon Hugh Wybrew was formerly Vicar of St Mary Magdalen's
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
How would you describe his relationship with his
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
Do you think the family's faith helped them to
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
Books for the next two months:
November: Toby's Room by Pat Barker
December: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym