Saturday, January 12, 2008

When a writer is having fun...

"Genius of the Carpathians"
The Far-Seeing Leader
General Secretary Mihai
. . . er, Ceauşescu

(Image from Wikipedia)

As mentioned yesterday, I have recently received the rest of the novels in Olen Steinhauer's Cold War series on an unnamed Eastern European nation. I've finished reading The Confession and am now reading 36 Yalta Boulevard. I'm not ready to write a long review post yet, for I want to finish them all and think about them, but I do have something to report.

In a passage that expresses perfectly the insipid imagination of the party hack writers who used their literary 'gifts' to extol their party hack leaders, Steinhauer depicts The Funeral Procession for Secretary General Mihai as observed through the watchful eyes of Comrade Inspector Ferenc Kolyeszar:
Children sobbed on fathers' shoulders; mothers clutched their heads whenever anything appeared on the cleared boulevard. Banners fluttered down from windows, announcing that MIHAI LIVES FOREVER IN THE HEARTS OF THE WORKING CLASSES and quoting him: "THE PATH TO FREEDOM IS TREACHEROUS, BUT WE ARE GREATER THAN MERE TREACHERY." His younger portraits hung from lampposts like Roman standards and filled shop windows. Magda grabbed my had as we were pushed forward. The motorcade began with white Militia cars, their aerials bound in black ribbons, then came the long hearse. Madga slipped as the crowd surged, but steadied herself on my arm. Bullhorns on the hearse's roof bellowed a slow dirge and a deep voice listing all his titles: Liberator of the Nation; Friend to the Young and Old; Fount of Imprenetrable Knowledge . . . . Seed of the Land; Thunderstorm in Times of Drought . . . . Academician of Worldwide Acclaim; Friend to the Animals of the Planet . . . . (The Confession, 296-297)
Steinhauer had to have been having fun inventing those titles. Or perhaps Steinhauer simply lifted them from a list of titles for General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party Nicolae Ceauşescu, who gave himself the title "Genius of the Carpathians," among other laudations in his personality cult (though Mihai would have been more of a Gheorghiu-Dej figure).

Ceauşescu, incidentally, may have gotten the idea for such titles from the North Korean titles for the great leaders there, for he visited North Korea in 1971 and was impressed by Kim Il-sung's juche philosophy, which Ceauşescu then attempted to apply in Romania, with predictably disastrous consequences of the sort that we continue to see in North Korea's failures.

Likewise, encountered in person, these great leaders always fail to live up to their great titles, as Steinhauer shows in Jan Soroka's memory of his youthful meeting with the great leader Mihai:
And then I saw Mihai himself . . . . Well, the photos and newsreels never really showed how short he was, did they? He was a head shorter than me. This was a shock, I can tell you . . . . Not just that he was short. He had a cold at the time, and whenever he breathed you could hear how hard it was for him. I was a kid, you know, and I couldn't imagine how such a great man could be like this -- short, snot-nosed, no better than the guy who sells vegetables in the market. And this was the head of our country? (36 Yalta Boulevard, 89-90)
Steinhauer does this bit of demythologization rather convincingly. A short, snotnosed leader who fails to impress up close. Some writer ought also do this with novels on Cold War North Korea.

Or has one already done so? Perhaps I need to read A Corpse in the Koryo by the pseudonymous James Church...

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At 6:56 PM, Blogger Olen Steinhauer said...

It's funny--when you point this out, I realize that with Mihai I was toying with the Ceausescu comparisons (the list of titles, as you point out, is a clear reference), though in my overall scheme I did see him more as Gheorghiu-Dej. As you'll see in the final book, his successor is the real Ceausescu plant, and by that point Mihai is viewed more as a Gheorghiu-Dej figure. I have a feeling that with this second book I still hadn't come to terms with how I would present the two leaders, and thus there's more cross-pollination than I might have wanted.

Glad you're enjoying it though, and yes, I was having a bit of fun with the titles, though half of them are from reality.

And I've said it before, but Church's Corpse in the Koryo is certainly worth your time. I'm not sure that he does the demythologizing of the leader in that (I read it some time ago), but the overall demythologizing of the culture works very nicely.

At 8:14 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

One thing that fascinates me about this unnamed Eastern European country that you've populated is the cultural area that it covers geographically.

You seem to have incoporated within it all the various ethnic groups of Eastern Europe, which has me wondering about its fictional borders -- I'm tempted to re-read it carefully and attempt to map it based on its description.

The place seems modeled mainly on Romania, but not solely, and I'm not sure what the primary language is, though I had the impression that it was Slavic rather than Romance.

I'll need to read again.

Yes, I am enjoying the series. That list of titles was hilarious, particularly "Friend to the Animals of the Planet." That's got to be one that you invented, right?

On your recommendation, and after I've finished your series, maybe I'll take a look at the pseudonymous Church's novel of a certain named Northeast Asian country...

Jeffery Hodges

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