At Home We Speak In Whispers

* Excerpts from an interview with prose writer, political analyst and journalist Stelian TĂNASE (Observator cultural no. 121, 18-24 June 2002) Why did you choose to publish At Home We Speak in Whispers at this particular moment? Books come and go in a writer's imagination. Circumstances come and go. The National Council for the Study of the Securitate** Archives (CNSAS) was established and it was for the first time I had access to the files. I applied, and I got a reply in a shorter time than I had expected. My file was indeed found, but in a truncated version. I know that operative surveillance files such as mine are generally a lot more voluminous. But that is what they found at the CNSAS, or what the Securitate handed over to them. This is the administrative side of the affair: now I was able to publish such a book. I submitted the application without giving it too much thought beforehand. I had read a few books on the issue published in the West: Tina Rosenberg, who wrote a brilliant chapter on the informants in Czechoslovakia, and Timothy Garton Ash's My File. Actually, there was a heated debate going on all over East Europe. By the way, Gaspar Tamas Miklos wrote an enthusiastic review on my book in Budapest, comparing my case with that of a Hungarian writer, at least from the perspective of the reactions triggered by the aforementioned story among Budapest people. There is a difference, though: that writer had been an informant. I never was. All this gave me the courage to make public an issue that initially seemed private to me. Basically, I did not read my file with the intention of publishing it. What was your first reaction when you first came face to face with that file? I had tremendous difficulties in reading it. I spent a morning at the CNSAS, as I was allowed to consult it only in someone's presence; I leafed through it a little, but I wasn't able to really read it. I pottered about, file in hand, for one hour, I read a few pages, and I was extremely shocked – not because I discovered who had been snitching on me, but upon realizing the human sleaze gathered in those pages, and seeing the real job the Securitate was doing. I revisited a world as depicted by Gogol, sunk into darkness and without substance, living under the stigma of triviality, the world – better-said, the underground world we used to live in. What came as an emotional shock to me was the version of my life presented there by the Securitate. Things I did not recall were written there, while other, important things I remembered well, weren't even mentioned. For instance, in August 1989 I had been interrogated, but there was no mention of this episode in the file. Did you eventually manage to read that fragment that counted as your Securitate file? I asked for a photocopy of the file feeling that, without the permanent presence of a witness beside me, I would be able to read it more easily. When I left the CNSAS, I was staggering like a drunk man. I sat down on a chair in an outdoor café, and it took me an hour to pull round. I just couldn't get up and go. My life changed completely from the moment I saw my file. But you knew well the world you had lived in, and that the Securitate would never shrink from anything. The file was only the confirmation of things that were already evident. Why was it so devastating to you? Because, like everybody else, I had forgotten. I had pulled down the curtains to put it out of my mind. In all honesty, I didn't manage to read it very easily at home either. I would read two or three pages and feel the need to stop. It was like a bitter pill one has to take in small doses. I was tempted to throw everything to the trashcan. I had done that before with some of my manuscripts. In this case, it was not a manuscript, but it was something very private anyway, which belonged to me, although it was an "emanation" of that institution. I realized that I was fiddling with a false problem, because the original file would remain there in the archive forever, whether I was going to read it or not. The hideousness could not be removed anymore. I speak in these terms because the Securitate were like garbage men: they gathered all the waste, all the trash with the purpose of discrediting people, blackmailing them, and eventually destroying them. Let us not imagine the Securitate as a service that gathered objective information about so and so. The world in that file was horrible. Everything was seen through the eyes of a person who perceived the world as an ugly place. They were ugly, and they thought everybody else was ugly too. That is why I felt the need to reply. Consequently, I did something I hadn't been doing for a long time: I browsed through my diaries. I read the entries from the exact same period that figured in the file. I saw what I had noted down on a particular day, and what the Securitate had recorded from my telephone calls, for example. The file contained phone surveillance reports, street surveillance reports, all kinds of notifications and reports from informants. Thus I understood this fracture between the two versions of my life and I gave up the idea of throwing away that file which lay like a corpse in my house. A corpse I could not elude. What were the consequences of putting the diary and the file face to face? Reading again the diary induced me a sort of relaxation. I said to myself that these things must not be hidden away, kept solely within the private space. I realized this file was a case. And I wondered how we had been able to endure being censored, subjugated, lied to for so many years. Why did we go down on our knees for so long, why didn't we fight back? These were the questions I was asking myself. And I reckoned a book could be the best answer. I hoped I would stir up a debate on these questions. And your hope came true? Not to the extent I expected, because people were more interested in the identity of the informants. I had anticipated a debate on the intellectual milieu we lived in during the 1980s. I wasn't able to start off this debate, and I can say I am a little disappointed. I had had a similar experience when I published the book on the Noica-Pillat trial, but on that occasion I was more cautious. I knew the list of informants because I had read all the pieces of evidence. I knew who had given in and who hadn't, who was sneaking on whom, who had been blackmailed by the Securitate in 1959-1960. However, I refused to make those names public, and I made a correct decision. Thus, the discussion about that book went to the core of the matter, centered on the phenomenon itself. At Home We Speak in Whispers was a different matter. Although I never divulged the name of the very close person who was informing on me, his name was found out in the end. I considered it a private matter. I wouldn't say, though, that I am unhappy about having published the book, or dissatisfied with its aftermath. There was a substantial discussion; and I believe it will go on, because I know about other writers who took their files and plan to publish what they found therein, using one formula or another. The great problem in such books is how an intellectual, a vulnerable man like everybody else, can withstand the pressures of dictatorship. He may be even more vulnerable than others. Certainly. The world expects, though, the writer to be a god capable of resisting any pressure from outside, including the context of dictatorship. Do you think you took some risks when you decided to publish this book? I am accustomed to taking risks. I did this in the 1980s and 1990s too. Yes, I took risks, and I was aware of it. I thought that was the right thing to do, that I had to go for it, and that Romanian society needed that kind of debate. In Poland or in East Germany these matters were discussed ten years ago, and now faded away from the public eye. We must tune in to these key debates in Europe, as long as we keep speaking of integration. Has your portrait changed in any way after the publication of the book? I don't know. It is for others to tell. However, I should point to a few people who called me to say, "Did you know I've had some doubts in connection with you so far?" Now I even remember a phone call from a very important person who said, "I didn't know you did what you did. Congratulations for the courage! As we are all paranoiac, we didn't know exactly whose side you were on." It's true, everyone was suspicious of everyone else. […] Our society was aberrant precisely because it constrained people to be heroes in their daily lives in order to survive.
* Title of Stelian Tanase's book published in 2002 (the original title of the interview: "The Credibility of a Talk-Show Host is an Institution").** Former Romanian communist secret police.

by Svetlana Cârstean