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with Andrei Codrescu
Andrei Codrescu is a regular commentator on National Public Radio. Codrescu wrote and starred in the Peabody Award-winning movie Road Scholar. He is a MacCurdy Distinguished Professor of English and comparative literature at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, where he edits Exquisite Corpse: A Journal of Letters and Life.
Read a candid e-mail interview with Codrescu conducted by FRONTLINE/World series editor Stephen Talbot.
You fled Romania, your birthplace, in 1965 at the age of 19 and came to live in the United States. In 1989 you returned to witness the revolution that ended communist rule. Do you still feel like an exile?
"Fled" is too strong a word. My mother and I were part of a deal in the mid-60s between Romania and Israel. Israel bought freedom for Romanian Jews for $2,000 a head. Ceausescu made a bundle in hard currency. He also "sold" ethnic Germans to West Germany. Instead of going to Israel, my mother and I came to the United States. She had a fiancé here, and I was determined to write in English. After so many years, I feel more American than anything else, but I'm also Romanian and whatever other oddities of temperament I picked up elsewhere, in Transylvania or France, for instance. These days everybody is both an exile and a resident -- they don't call it the global village for nothing.
As a teenage rebel, you had already started to write poems that could have landed you in jail had you stayed in Romania. Some poets you know became dissidents and revolutionaries. Still others wrote paeans to the dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. What is it about poets and tyrants?
Milan Kundera wrote a wonderful analysis of the duplicity of poets and the troubling relations between poetry and power in his novel Life Is Elsewhere. His point is that poetry encourages irrationality and sentimentality and thus appeals to the least reasonable side of human beings. I have no quarrel with that, but then look what reason has gotten us: "scientific" Marxism, eugenics, materialism without borders. There has to be a balance between the -- granted -- unprovable yearnings of the human heart and the dictates of reason. In the past, tyrants have appealed to "reason," but they used court poets to charm the masses. Many dictators started writing poetry as students (Mao, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh) but later preferred killing poets instead. Romanians have a particular love for poetry and have a beautiful, vivid language. The poets they love are not versifiers like Vadim Tudor, but genuinely complex mystical souls like Mircea Cartarescu.
When we first spoke about your going to Romania to do a story for FRONTLINE/World, you told me, "For an American audience, Romania is quickly becoming some kind of dark cloud whence descend, in order, Dracula, orphans, crazed gymnasts and absurdist writers." If that is the stereotype of Romania, what is the reality?
Those things you mention are part of the images we choose to describe an exotic, to us, place. Other aspects are more solid: a beautiful seacoast; wonderful mountains; gifted people; a wicked sense of humor that has helped Romanians to survive a largely hostile history; hospitality, sometimes extreme; and physically attractive and energetic young people who, incidentally, love American pop culture.
What do Romanians think of Americans?
I can qualify the above by saying that the Romanian love affair with America goes through phases. After the end of the dictatorship, that love was exaggerated, it was a cargo cult. They expected everything advertised on American TV to be dropped from planes. Later, they became more realistic, but Romania is sincere in wanting to belong to NATO, for instance. There are no visas required for American citizens.
What are some traits that you believe distinguish Romanians from others in the former Soviet Bloc countries of Eastern Europe?
Romanians are culturally European, very close to the French. Socially, they are now building a society that is emotionally closer to the Balkans, Turkey and Greece. The inept postcommunist governments have kept Romania from implementing quick reforms, so the economy is a mess, way behind Poland or Hungary. There was never a clean purge of the "formers," either in government or in the secret police. It's not so much a matter of traits, as a political problem.
I like your description of postcommunist Romania as a country where people, after four decades of totalitarian rule, "let out a great sigh of relief that has morphed into quickened breath, fits of anxiety, howls of agony -- a veritable caco(sym)phony." Describe some of the excitement, anxiety and pain you saw this trip.
I saw a lot positive energy, sometimes quite surreal, in young entrepreneurs and artists. I saw also the unbearable misery of retired people who can barely survive on miniscule pensions. On the one hand, the cafés in the cities were full of young people with cell phones, the streets were full of color, the beaches were crowded with fine -- topless -- bodies, and villas under construction dotted the countryside. On the other hand, old folks crowded the churches hoping for a miracle so that they could eat.
I have a friend whose mother was born in Romania, moved to Chicago, and spoke English with a heavy accent. In the 1950s, her young, American-born son would bring friends home to meet her, and when she would greet them, they would flee, shrieking. She was mortified to discover that her enterprising son was charging kids 50 cents for an opportunity to meet "Dracula's mother." Is Dracula Romania's cross to bear -- or an economic opportunity?
It's a fun thing to play with, and it's only fair that some of the money Hollywood made on our famous native would come back at last. I got quite a lot of mileage out of Dracula when I was 20 years old. The girls got a funny feeling in their neck when I talked to them.
In an NPR commentary on the Romanian government's plan to construct a Dracula theme park in Transylvania, you said, "If Dracula Land is a success, the promoters can go on and build Commie Land." Do you have any suggestions for rides and attractions?
Yeah. Tourists can stay in bugged hotels; they can be followed by shady guys, interrogated for hours by guys with dark glasses and meet locals furtively in public parks. They can also starve the whole time, which will be great for their diets.
Your FRONTLINE/World report features a new breed of Romanian capitalist -- a man who started 10 years ago with a loan of $500 now owns several companies and trains young Romanian women to be exotic dancers for export to Japan and Italy. How would you describe the current state of Romanian capitalism?
Hodgepodge, improvised, wild, dangerous and possibly fun. Unfortunately, nothing works in the entrepreneurs' favor. The laws are murky, there are too many bribes to pay, and foreign investors shriek with horror like your friend's kid's friends when they encounter the bureaucracy. Romania needs, first of all, some decent packaging and distribution businesses. Mailboxes Etc., for instance. I think that the next president should be the CEO of FedEx, if he (would) take the job.
You told me about a Romanian punk group named Cold Stuffed Cabbage who sing an ironic anthem, "Cryogeny Will Save Romania," mocking famous "frozen" Romanians, including Dracula and Ceausescu. What do you make of Romania's youth culture?
The young are Romania's best hope. They are not afraid, they don't whisper, slouch or hide. They are outspoken, in your face, and they will eventually replace the still-scared old folks. Families are pretty close, but attitudes are worlds apart between the old and the young.
In your book about the 1989 revolution, The Hole in the Flag, you report that elements of the Old Guard stage-managed the overthrow of Ceausescu and found ways to insinuate themselves into the new order. How democratic do you find Romania today? Who's in charge?
Good question. In my opinion, there are dozens of mini-mafias operating at every level of society. Some of them have achieved a modus vivendi, others are out only for narrow pieces of the pie. These people lie to everybody, including the monitors for the European Union, NATO, etc. They are giving Romania a reputation for untrustworthiness, alas. Happily, there are also extremely scrupulous and smart people who run various civic society projects, such as Ioana Avadani of the Center for Independent Journalism, Soros Foundation workers, terrific journalists, and graduates from Western universities who are going back and doing good work.
Producer Jason Cohn, one of your colleagues, describes Vadim Tudor, the ultra-nationalist leader you interviewed, as a man who combines characteristics of Elvis and Hitler. Is he a buffoon? a threat?
He's certainly a threat, but he's neither as magnetic as Elvis nor as evil as Hitler. He's more of a clown in the Zhrinovski mold. He'll say anything that comes to his mind, especially if it's shocking or outrageous, and enjoys the reactions. He does make a pretty good case against corruption and that finds a large audience. Unfortunately, he's mostly a populist demagogue. Nobody has any idea what he really thinks.
Gypsies have long been part of Romania's culture, though often the victims of discrimination and persecution. What's their status these days in the new Romania?
Ambiguous. There are rival Gypsy groups, some of them allied with Ion Iliescu, the president, others still nomadic and flying below radar. Ethnic Romanians are fond of blaming them for all kinds of crime and for giving Romanians a bad image in Europe, for petty rackets and begging. They have been persecuted in the past, they were slaves until the mid-19th century, they were victims of the Nazi Holocaust, and they are still discriminated against. There are many initiatives to incorporate them into the mainstream, but they are rightfully suspicious. They are having a moment of ethnic pride now -- there is a revival of tradition, including their ethnic costumes and music.
An early draft of your script concluded, "Romania broke my heart even as it challenged my logic." What saddened you this time? What surprised you?
Everything surprised me, good and bad. I ended up falling in love again with the people and the landscape. I feel that I should do more to help Romanians get out of their rut. In a small way, of course.