Burying the Typewriter is a book which falls into two parts. It is also a book which feels like it has two parts missing. It is at most only half of the story. It is a book which is crying out for a sequel. It is also, crucially, not a story about dissidence in a totalitarian state. This is the story of Carmen, whose father was a dissident against the Ceausescu regime in Romania. It is her testimony, and as such it is a story of the effects of dissidence on those at one step removed. It says little about the detail of her father's protest or why he chose to oppose the regime.
The first half of the book tells of Carmen's childhood. She gives a highly detailed account of an idyllic existence, of loving grandparents, of magical christmases, of holidays on the black sea, and of a bounteous countryside.
All of this changes half way through when her father, having been producing anti government materials in secret for years, in partnership with his wife, goes off to protest in public. He is arrested, tried and imprisoned, but the punishment isn't limited to him, as his family are interrogated, subjected to constant surveillance, and harassed by state agents. Carmen's mother is forced to divorce her father. Carmen and her sister are constantly marked down at school (having previously been model students). Friends and neighbours are intimidated into shunning the family.
When eventually her father is released and the family is granted asylum in the US, the petty vindictiveness of the state continues, as the house is sold, a dog is poisoned, and death threats are made.
Sitting at the centre of the book is one big question. WHY ? It is a question which points straight at Carmen's father. The actions of the Securitate are horrendous, inhuman, evil. This is a malevolent Kafkaesque bureaucracy at work, protecting the privileges of the ruling elite in the name of corrupted socialism. However, the question is why did he, a man with two young daughters, and a wife about to give birth, choose to expose his family to what he knew to be pitiless state terror? Was he a hero, or recklessly selfish, or a combination of the two?
Carmen herself, alludes to the question, listing half a page of questions for her father, but in the end concludes that the question itself is too long. Later in the book there is a brief reference to rows between father and daughter, but in the end how Carmen herself feels about her father and his actions and how they resolved their relationship remains unknown. Whether that is because it was never resolved, whether it is too personal, whether Carmen keeps her counsel out of loyalty to her father, or whether that is a subject for a further book remains a mystery.
Outside the story itself, the way in which Carmen has constructed her tale says much. The first half has a feeling of hyper-reality, as if the author has created this slightly unreal, incredibly happy world as something to hold on to, to strengthen her through the horrors which are to come. This unreality is acknowledged at the end of the book as Carmen recognises the seeds of future tragedy within her idealised existence. The fact that the book is written in the present tense, unusual for a memoir, both gives the events an immediacy and adds to that feeling of brittleness of reality.
A slightly odd feature is the fact that the titles of chapters often work as spoilers for their own content. So for example, her father is released from prison, one turns the page, and the next chapter is called 'house arrest'.
As well as the resolution of her relationship with her father, the other yawning chasm, which points to a sequel, is what happened when the family arrived in the US. The family cross the border into Italy around 1990, then the narrative suddenly jumps to 2006 and we meet Carmen, the successful academic, married with children, returning to Romania to examine archives and to revisit childhood haunts. We have learned to care about her, and want to know how she got there.
In the end though, this is almost a book beyond criticism. Whatever any reader may feel about what she chooses to include or exclude, or how she chooses to tell her story, this is her testimony, her account of how she survived the horrors of an adolescence blighted by state terror. It is her right to tell it her way.