My seventh book in the 2022 challenge is I’m an Old Commie! by Dan Lungu. The book satisfies Category 13 of the challenge, a psychological novel.
The story centers around Emilia, a retired woman who was a metalworker in a factory during Romania’s communist era and has struggled to adjust both to life after the fall of communism and to aging. Her daughter Alice has left the country and established a life in Canada with her new husband.
One day Alice calls Emilia to discourage her from voting for the former communists in upcoming local elections. To Alice’s horror, Emilia expresses some nostalgia for the life she had in those times. As the novel progresses, we learn that Emilia credits the communist system for getting her out of the rural life where she grew up into a more sophisticated urban life. Emilia also misses the camaraderie that she enjoyed with her coworkers.
However, Emilia also has enough self-awareness to understand that her perceptions of the past might not match up with reality. The rest of the novel involves her examining past memories and talking to people who knew her in her factory days.
What I liked
There’s a lot more humor than you might expect from a book like this. Nicolae Ceaușescu was one of the more brutal European communist dictators, and his national money-saving efforts caused a lot of suffering among the Romanian people. But even this didn’t stop people from telling jokes about the dictator and his equally notorious wife, Elena. Several jokes about the Ceaușescus appear in the book, and there are many other funny interactions among the characters themselves.
That said, no system is all good or all bad. And it’s not like corruption ceased to exist in Romania after the Ceaușescus were removed from power. It’s easy to understand why Emilia feels nostalgia for a time that was bad for many people around her because she benefitted from those circumstances. It explains a lot of political choices in any country, come to think of it.
What I didn’t like
There were two things that frustrated me about this book. The first is that it’s kind of just a series of conversations and flashbacks. Since nearly the entire book involves Emilia looking over her past, not a whole lot happens in the main timeline. There are times when that works, usually with the present-day timeline as a framing device for a past story (think Titanic). But the past anecdotes don’t form a cohesive story on their own.
The other thing I didn’t like was that the story just kind of ended. Obviously all stories end at some point, but usually there’s some illustration of whatever transformation has taken place over the course of the story, and I didn’t really get that here.
The theme of examining nostalgia for when times were different resonates with me. There’s also kind of a sub-theme that Emilia is blind to the privilege she had, which also often makes for good material. Despite feeling that the plot stakes were kind of low, I still recommend the book. The characters are well developed, and the story sheds light on a time and place that a lot of Americans might not know much about.
The next book is The Bucharest Dossier by William Maz. This satisfies Category 12, a contemporary novel where the action takes place in communist times. If the title gives you spy thriller vibes, you’re right, but there’s more to the story than that. Stay tuned!
Can you think of a time when nostalgia has clouded your judgement? Leave your thoughts in the comments!