3 out of 4 stars
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Lehel Vandor is an ethnic Hungarian who grew up in Romania under the communist regime of Ceausescu. Vandor was a high schooler in 1989 when the Revolution happened, changing his world from one that was absurd and limited, but stable, to a chaotic one in which everything had changed overnight. Ears is his memoir.
The book consists of twenty-two short chapters, each of which could stand alone as an essay. They are arranged in roughly chronological order, so that the early chapters cover Vandor’s memories of his elementary school days under Ceausescu; the middle chapters, his memories of his high school years; and the later chapters, the Revolution and the upheavals that followed it.
Vandor does an excellent job of giving a feel for what it was like to live daily life in communist Romania. Most of the chapters are written in vivid detail about his personal experiences, but with enough historical and cultural background so that the reader doesn’t get lost. Earlier chapters foreshadow later ones. For example, in the chapter in which Vandor gets hooked on photography and learns to develop his own negatives at home in a darkroom, he mentions in passing that this skill would turn out to come in handy later, “when pictures of the ethnic pogrom of March 1990 had to be processed in as much secrecy as possible.”
The language is poetic and readable. There is a slight Eastern European feel to the grammar – for example, Vandor might say “every day I was walking to school past those trees” instead of “I used to walk to school past those trees every day” – but these phrases did not particularly interfere with comprehension for me, and they give the book a tone that is appropriate to its subject matter.
One chapter that must not be missed is Chapter XII, “Breath.” It begins, “My asthma, first diagnosed at the age of four, allowed me to build a detailed picture about the inner workings of the Romanian health service in the 1970s and ‘80s.” There follows a wide-ranging, but very well-integrated chapter that includes horrific, almost stream-of-consciousness descriptions of what it is like to have a severe asthma attack, which Vandor describes as “an obese monster” sitting on his chest “to read the latest edition of Sadism Weekly.” Vandor’s asthma was possibly caused by a chemical plant located in his hometown, and was certainly exacerbated when he was expected, along with other schoolchildren, to spend hours outside in extreme cold or heat, practicing drills for government events, or simply standing, waiting to see a leader drive by. “I lived in constant primal fear of my own body … I wish I [could have] had today’s usual teenaged angst about looks, weight, and, oh yes, muscles.” This flows naturally (by way of his parents’ efforts to help him) into a discussion of the Romanian health care system, where “local specialists [were] decades behind the Western knowledge.” And thence to the position doctors were put in, when it was considered subversive even to diagnose a patient with a disease like AIDS, which was supposed only to happen in the decadent West.
“Breath” also contains the most delightful segue I have ever read in a book, where after a detour into how his asthma kept him out of military service, Vandor writes,
“To paddle back to the topic of the Romanian health care system …”
Other memorable chapters include the one about music, and another about classic films. Vandor and teens like him would spend hours in a dark room with a radio, listening to an entire symphony or album at one sitting, and then spend months or perhaps years trying to get ahold of a copy of that album. Similarly, some films were more available than you would expect, and opened a door to another world for Romanians who were wearied, as anyone would be, by the soulless nonsense they had to put up with in daily life. Vandor also loved science fiction, with its often subversive social or political messages that “somehow slipped by the censors.”
In Chapter XV, the Revolution happens, followed by chaos and confusion; a blame-the-victim purge of ethnic Hungarians; increased poverty for everyone; and then a mad descent into consumerism, greed, corruption, and all the vices that had been pushed underground during the years of Ceausescu.
Vandor lives in England now. In its later chapters, the book becomes more of a series of rants, as Vandor analyzes, and grapples with his feelings about, a variety of complex topics that are inherently frustrating. There is the electronic, consumerist society of England and America, where people don’t have to work or wait for anything compared to the way Vandor grew up, with obvious bad results. There is his beloved Romania, with its pervasive corruption and “unconditional copying of the West.” There is the strange experience of living as an expatriate in England, feeling at home but not at home, while his original home has become a place where he finds it impossible to live. Meanwhile, England’s policies and rhetoric toward foreigners remind Vandor increasingly of the paranoid rhetoric he used to hear from Ceausescu, though with many obvious differences in the particulars. About all these things Vandor understandably vents a bit.
Nevertheless, even in the midst of earnest commentary and devastating insights, Vandor maintains a tone throughout the book that is cheeky and, dare I say, light. He does not indulge in self-pity, nor in doom saying, even while honestly describing depressing realities. Many of the hardships of the past and abuses of the present are presented with an indirect, pleasantly sarcastic twist. (After all, what else can you do in the face of absurdity?) Nor does he ever lose a certain humanistic sense of hope. He has not given up on Romania: “I hope that those valleys, hills, and plains will be inhabited by people who will regain their true identities – people who will be free (and, above all, able) to make genuine choices in their lives.”
I read this book to educate myself about the Revolution in Romania. It worked, and it whetted my appetite to learn more. If you have any interest in Romania, or in the events of 1989, or the Eastern Bloc in general, I urge you to read this book. I am giving it three out of four stars. It does not have a satisfying ending, through no fault of Vandor’s own. Vandor is, in some ways, at loose ends; Romania is in a constant state of chaos and transition; and the West is, of course, itself declining into increasing chaos. All these feelings will stay with you as you finish the book.
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