Sing On in the Face of Horror: On Liliana Corobca’s “The Censor’s Notebook”

Cory Oldweiler reviews Moldovan author Liliana Corobca’s novel “The Censor’s Notebook,” translated by Monica Cure.

Sing On in the Face of Horror: On Liliana Corobca’s “The Censor’s Notebook”

The Censor’s Notebook by Liliana Corobca. Seven Stories Press. 496 pages.

ON THE NIGHT of August 20, 1968, the Soviet Union sent tanks into Czechoslovakia, intent on quashing the nascent liberalization known as the Prague Spring. The Soviet campaign was backed militarily by Hungary, Poland, and Bulgaria, and ideologically by East Germany, but opposed by the remaining two Warsaw Pact signatories, Albania and Romania. Albania’s Enver Hoxha had no interest in abetting the Red Army’s imperialist escapades and would use the invasion as justification for finally leaving the alliance one month later. Romania’s go-it-alone tendencies had long clashed with Moscow’s authoritarian designs, and the gap between the two countries had only widened since 1965, when Nicolae Ceaușescu came to power. Soon after he took control, the cover of Time magazine from March 18, 1966, showed an illustration of “Party Boss” Ceaușescu, with movie-star wavy hair, a thousand-yard stare, and a (red) furrowed brow, under the headline “Eastern Europe: Life Under a Relaxed Communism.” Ceaușescu was an ardent nationalist and, during his early “relaxed” years, had sought to bolster both Romanian identity and his own image by easing cultural and political restrictions, along the lines of what Alexander Dubček had done in Czechoslovakia.

Romania’s Communist Party Central Committee met at dawn the day after the Soviet invasion, and Ceaușescu was unequivocal in his condemnation, according to a transcript of that meeting translated by Delia Razdolescu, calling the incursion “a serious mistake.” Romania, he said, must be clear “that nobody, in no way whatsoever, can assume the right to interfere in the affairs of other states,” adding that they must rally the people “to defend Romania’s territorial integrity and to reject any interference in our country’s domestic affairs.”

This defiant, independent path paid dividends internationally, starting with Richard Nixon’s visit the following year, the first by a US President, but Romanians’ domestic gains were short-lived. In July 1971, soon after returning from a visit to China, Ceaușescu instigated a small-scale version of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, reprioritizing socialist realism and neo-Stalinist aims, and intensifying the cult of personality that would help him hold onto power for the next 18 years.

One institution that saw its workload increase in the wake of Ceaușescu’s so-called July Theses was the General Directorate of Press and Publications, or GDPP, Romania’s shadowy department of censorship. The organization, which officially didn’t exist, had its fingers in everything from literature to newspaper articles to foreign titles translated into Romanian. Ceaușescu would dissolve the GDPP in 1977, not because he decided to stop censoring but because, after 28 years, the department had been so successful at inculcating self-censorship throughout the political and artistic spheres that a dedicated apparatus was no longer deemed necessary. How exactly the GDPP achieved its goals became a bit clearer following the collapse of communism and the opening of the department’s archives, but the everyday work of individual censors remains largely unknown. Scholars believe that the approximately 300 censors kept notebooks documenting their work, but none of these notebooks remains; all were destroyed — shredded or burned, per department regulations.

Moldovan author Liliana Corobca has extensively studied censorship under the Romanian communist regime, and she used this considerable expertise in crafting her 2017 novel The Censor’s Notebook, a riveting imagining of one of those missing historical records. As her fictional avatar writes in the novel’s preamble, “[W]hat a censor really thought and how they related to their work, what their unofficial attitude toward censorship was, and not only that, can be found only in this notebook.” Monica Cure, whose English-language version of the novel deftly captures its various registers — from bureaucratese to gossip, from the indignant to the plaintive — writes in her afterword that translating the novel was both challenging and edifying, as she worked to decipher the myriad historical facts strewn throughout Corobca’s fiction. The impressive result is a dense, oblique, at times arcane faux-historical document that shows a painstaking attention to verisimilitude, as the fictional Corobca takes pains to point out: the notebook retains misspellings (e.g., fushia), multiple spellings (e.g., Zukerman and Zukermann), and malapropisms (e.g., aestheticizeability), and is missing 14 pages, which we are led to believe may themselves have been censored, possibly by the notebook’s author, Filofteia Moldovean. What makes the novel remarkable, however, is Filofteia’s sorrowful life story, her conflicted attitudes toward her job and her coworkers, and Corobca’s startling illumination of the expansive and sinister extent of censorship, not just in communist Romania but anywhere that seeks to control words, thoughts, and deeds.

The novel is ingeniously structured as though it were a nonfiction publication of a genuine censor’s notebook. It opens with a brief email exchange, from April 2016, whereby a fictional version of Corobca obtains the titular notebook from Emilia Codrescu, a longtime GDPP employee, who stole it in June 1974, before moving to West Germany. Corobca’s preamble then lays out the particulars of the notebook, which was begun on February 4, 1974, when Filofteia was in the Literature and Art Division of the GDPP. She explains that the last two sections, as presented in the novel, were written at the same time as the first two; Filofteia simply flipped the notebook over and started writing from the back. Where the first two sections show a censor striving — and eventually failing — to remain focused on the task at hand, the contemporaneous sections, symbolically hidden by their unorthodox entry, read more like a diary, revealing personal history, office gossip, and volatile emotions.

Corobca explains that the 30-year-old Filofteia came to write so freely in her notebook that she was “potentially suicidal,” and by the third section, Filofteia has indeed embraced her daring exposé, writing whatever comes to mind. The final two sections chronologically are written after Filofteia has been transferred, essentially for reeducation purposes, first to the Import-Export Department and ultimately to The Lodge, where she sojourns among masked “Brothers” preparing for the demise of the regime and the perpetuation of censorship. Finally, there is a brief first-person account from Codrescu detailing her theft of the notebook and her attempt, in the 1990s, to return it to Filofteia. She too offers her thoughts on her former coworker, from both before she stole the notebook — she was “more soldierly, more serious” than other censors, even “rather obtuse” — and after reading it: “If modest Moldovean wrote the way she wrote, what was in the notebooks of others?”

The way Filofteia writes early on is unremarkable. She has been a censor for seven years, after being recruited during her third year of college, and her first notebook entries are dated, dutiful summaries of meetings, professional advice she has received, troubling passages from works she is censoring, or minutiae of the job, such as the rule that disallows too many references to red in a single work of art. (Don’t tell Krzysztof Kieślowski.) Censorship, as practiced by Filofteia and the GDPP, is more a collaboration with authors, because censors “didn’t just take out things, they also added them in,” meaning failure or success often came as a surprise to an author who had no idea where some of their words came from. Some authors, we learn, begin to accept this unacknowledged and unsought relationship, adjusting their writing to the dictates of the censors. The ultimate goal, Filofteia proclaims, is to continue to find something to cut even if there is nothing problematic in the text, to always leave your mark on everything you read. “Only when you reach this stage can you call yourself a real censor. We are few.”

Filofteia’s opinions about writing in general start to creep in, and they are often fit for Twitter. She passes multiple judgments both on the novel, which “should’ve died out long ago, but it doesn’t even show signs of aging,” and on novelists, who are “completely devoid of imagination.” And she has many hot takes for poets, at one point musing: “On second thought, what sane person takes up writing poetry these days?” Indeed. She realizes that her writing has “other aims as well,” other audiences. She imagines her work escaping the incinerator and being read by, she hopes, an agent of Romania’s secret police, the Securitate. “He’ll be so astounded, he’ll be so angry!” It is evident something is changing in Filofteia, but she maintains that this is all just part of the job. “This is a censor notebook, it’s not a journal. Roza and Hermina claim that they’re writing journals.”

Hermina is Hermina Iancovici, the “delicate one,” the one always crying over the poetry she is censoring; Roza is Rozalia Toth, the “fiery one,” the one always relating her recent dates or love affairs. The three women share Literature Office Number Two, a sterile space more redolent of Lumon Industries than Wernham Hogg or Dunder Mifflin. Their supervisor is Salvatore Zaharescu-Zukermann, whom Filofteia also refers to as Zuki or Z. From Codrescu’s early personal account, readers know that Zuki is Securitate, but it is not clear that Filofteia is aware of this until late in her notebook, when it is, essentially, too late. For her, Z. is simply a mentor and, maybe, a fleeting love interest.

As Filofteia opens up, she reveals an incredibly complex, murky, impassioned, and frequently contradictory character; in other words, she is remarkably human. The outlines of her past slowly emerge as well, and they are heartbreaking. She grew up “a poor orphan with communist [step]brothers who hunted partisans.” One of those partisans was possibly her father, her mother’s second husband, a man whom she never met and whose name she does not know because her mother died without telling it to her. Filofteia was married in her teens, pregnant at 18, and divorced as soon as her husband realized he was tricked into marrying her by her stepbrothers. She abandons her son so she can go to college “without a regret,” and the boy ends up living with his father, who becomes a successful Securitate agent. Filofteia is left lamenting that she never even bought the child a toy.

Her moods vacillate between apathy — “I’m a block of ice, there’s not a line that can thaw me, not one novel impresses me” — and rhapsody: “What I can’t imagine is what life would be like without these manuscripts, without feeling their weight pressing down on your knees, or in your arms when you take them home and read them in bed […] without smelling their scent.” She realizes that writing can be “a release, it can relieve you of all kinds of thoughts, it’s like a kind of therapy.” She repeatedly expresses scorn for writers but imagines herself as more than a censor. “You feel as though you can write better than any author. It’s an illness, you have a problem and you don’t realize it.” She does realize it, however, and tries to resist: “If I were crazy, I’d say: in front of a manuscript, I am God! But I’m not crazy and I affirm that in front of a manuscript, I’m almost a god.”

The siren song of literature is too enticing, however, her enchantment with reading too strong. Her opinions grow ever more emphatic and, to the secret police, more dangerous, more revolutionary — “Who knows what effects a book can have on an entire nation?” One tantalizing passage in the notebook appears not to have been written by Filofteia, coming instead from a nosy Securitate agent, like Zuki, or one of his informers, such as Roza, who is later revealed to be Zuki’s girlfriend. The passage begins, “Esteemed comrade Moldovean! How many times have I told you to stop beating around the bush in this notebook?!” and concludes, “You deserve to be thrown out of Censorship!” Filofteia clearly doesn’t revisit earlier entries, or she simply doesn’t care, because she continues to push the envelope:

Communism will fall because of reading, they’re all becoming smarter than the smart ones, they ask too many questions, they have more and more desires and requests, constitutional rights, written and unwritten rights. We can barely keep writers under control. No censorship exists that can resolve the problems of the entire world, all the readers.

(Passages like this one, and countless others, feel as if they could be, with a few substitutions — democracy for communism, say — taken from the pages of a recent Republican Party platform.)

Finally, Zukermann has heard, or read, enough, and he transfers Filofteia to Import-Export, telling her it will do her “a world of good,” though she interprets his motives a bit more archly, writing, “Well, going by the look on his face, he seemed to be saying: You’ve gone off your rocker and you need a break, but I hope I’m guessing wrong.”

She is not wrong, and sees the new job as a punishment, feeling like “a convict, an innocent prisoner.” Import-Export gives her access to all the books shipped to Romania, including many sent unsolicited by US intelligence agencies. It is revelatory and terrifying to learn so much about the outside world, such as how Poland has to import “capitalist wheat” to feed itself. “I’m much too astounded and overwhelmed and nervous and frightened and …!” After just one week, her new position has “completely and fundamentally changed [her] view of the world and of censorship! It’s turned my soul upside down!” But instead of railing against censorship, she clings to it even more tightly. Her indoctrination continues with a posting at The Lodge, a quasi-religious outpost led at the “very top” by a writer who “can be none other than God.” Their ultimate goal is “to educate the Censor inside every thinking human being. To train them to be their own Censor, but to not even suspect it, to not know.”

It is an insidious and confusing conclusion, with implications and insinuations that left me with more questions than I could possibly enumerate. In its own way, Filofteia’s fate seems as shattering as Winston Smith winning the victory over himself and coming to love Big Brother. Part of what feels so uncomfortable is the pressing relevance of a fictional account of censorship from nearly 50 years ago in communist Romania. On the day I began writing this review, Friday, August 12, 2022, the author Salman Rushdie was attacked by a man with a knife, likely because he wrote a novel, The Satanic Verses, that resulted in a price being put on his head in 1989 by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. A spokesman for Iran’s current Foreign Ministry denied involvement in the assassination attempt but said that Rushdie had insulted “the holiness of Islam.” The day before, National Public Radio published a story admonishing Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke for using the work “motherfucker” in response to a man who chuckled when O’Rourke mentioned the Uvalde school shooting where 21 people were killed, including 19 children. A week earlier, the residents of Jamestown Township in western Michigan voted to defund the local library because it refused to remove LGBTQ-themed books for young adults. And the instances of ostensibly democratic Americans seeking, in the year 2022, “to educate the Censor inside every thinking human being” go on and on and on.

So many are so afraid of people speaking out. And perhaps that is understandable, as Filofteia extols: “Quiet. Quiet. Silence means censorship. The most efficient way of censoring.” Don’t let them silence you. Speak out with uncensored voices, even if that voice insults, offends, challenges, or enrages. Or, as Rushdie put it in May at the PEN America Emergency World Voices Congress of Writers: “We can emulate Orpheus and sing on in the face of horror, and not stop singing until the tide turns, and a better day begins.”


Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.

LARB Contributor

Cory Oldweiler writes about translated fiction and nonfiction for several publications, including Words Without Borders and the Southwest Review. His criticism also appears in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Star Tribune, among other outlets. He wrote the 2015 novel Testimony of the Senses, inspired by the symphonies of Gustav Mahler.


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