Beyond the Iron Curtain

Revisiting the Literary System of Communist Romania

by Ștefan Baghiu (Volume editor) Ovio Olaru (Volume editor) Andrei Terian (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection 274 Pages


Drawing on methodologies pertaining to Digital Humanities, World Literature, and Comparative Literature, the volume aims to challenge some of the enduring clichés regarding the literary production of Romanian communism. The first section focuses on socialist realism, socialist modernism, representations of the rural, and rural modernity. The second section deals with literary cosmopolitanism, literary dissidence, countercultural literary production, minority literatures in Romania, and the relationship between genre fiction and state politics. The third section looks at the communist literary production from a transnational perspective, exploring the Romanian polysystem during the ideological thaw, as well as forms of literary dissidence across the Soviet bloc.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Contributors
  • The Communist Literary System Revisited: New Approaches on Totalitarian (Meta)fiction (Ștefan Baghiu, Ovio Olaru, and Andrei Terian)
  • Representing Romanian Communism: Evolutionary Models and Metanarrative Scenarios (Andrei Terian)
  • Rural Sites and Socialist Topics
  • What Makes a Socialist-Realist Novel? Style, Topics, and Development in Romania (1948–1964) (Daiana Gârdan)
  • The Faces of Rural Modernity in the Romanian Novel of the Agricultural Collectivization (Cosmin Borza)
  • Literary Safe Spaces: Functions of Rural Settings in the Romanian Novel (1948–1989) (Emanuel Modoc)
  • Übermänner: Hegemonic Masculinities in the Romanian Socialist Modernist Novel (Andreea Mironescu)
  • Reframing Literary Cosmopolitanism
  • The Geolocation of Literary Dissidence: Vernacular Cosmopolitanism, Highbrow Subculture and Conviviality in the Iași Group (1975–1989) (Doris Mironescu)
  • Representing Countercultures and Alternative Lifestyles: Hippies and Bohemians in Minority Literatures from Romania (1968–1983) (Imre József Balázs)
  • The Death of a Communist Superstar: Marin Preda’s Last Novel and the Rise of Black-Market Postmodernism (Ștefan Baghiu and Costi Rogozanu)
  • Metafiction and Passive-Aggressive “Showing” Techniques in the 1980s: Mircea Nedelciu and Gheorghe Crăciun (Ramona Hărșan)
  • UFOs and Extraterrestrials in Romanian Communism (Mihai Iovănel)
  • Transnational Connections
  • Ethnocentrism by Proxy: The Ideological Triangulation of Romanian-German Literature (Ovio Olaru)
  • Fictionality Unbound: Cold War Anti-Politics and Theories of the Narrative across the Iron Curtain (Adriana Stan)
  • The Functionality of Literatures Translated within the Romanian Thaw Polysystem (Alex Goldiș)
  • Reverse Socialist Realism: Three Recipes for Dissidence in Communist Regimes–Petru Dumitriu, Solzhenitsyn, Czesław Miłosz (Costi Rogozanu)

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List of Contributors

Ștefan Baghiu, Assistant Professor, PhD: Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, Romania, Faculty of Letters and Arts.

Imre József Balázs, Associate Professor, PhD: Babeș-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca, Romania, Faculty of Letters and Arts.

Cosmin Borza, PhD Researcher: Romanian Academy, Sextil Puşcariu Institute of Linguistics and Literary History in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

Daiana Gârdan, PhD Candidate: Babeş-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca, Romania, Faculty of Letters, Department of Comparative Literature.

Alex Goldiș, Lecturer, PhD: Babeş-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca, Romania, Faculty of Letters, Department of Romanian Literature and Literary Theory.

Ramona Hărșan, Senior Lecturer, PhD: Henri Coandă Air Force Academy, Braşov, Romania.

Mihai Iovănel, PhD Researcher: Romanian Academy, G. Călinescu Institute of Literary Theory and History, Bucharest, Romania.

Andreea Mironescu, PhD Researcher: “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University, Iași, Romania, Department of Interdisciplinary Research in Social Sciences and Humanities.

Doris Mironescu, Associate Professor, PhD: “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University, Iași, Romania, Faculty of Letters.

Emanuel Modoc, PhD Researcher: Romanian Academy, Sextil Puşcariu Institute of Linguistics and Literary History in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

Ovio Olaru, Assistant Professor, PhD: Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, Romania, Faculty of Letters and Arts.

Costi Rogozanu, PhD Candidate: Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, Romania, Faculty of Letters and Arts.

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Adriana Stan, PhD Researcher: Romanian Academy, Sextil Puşcariu Institute of Linguistics and Literary History in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

Andrei Terian, Professor, PhD: Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, Romania, Faculty of Letters and Arts.

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Ștefan Baghiu, Ovio Olaru, and Andrei Terian

The Communist Literary System Revisited: New Approaches on Totalitarian (Meta)fiction

Over the course of the past few years, the international academic world has seen a rise in the number of volumes dedicated to Romanian literature, from Romanian Literature as World Literature (2017) and The Culture of Translation in Romania/ Übersetzungskultur und Literaturübersetzen in Rumänien (2018) to Ruralism and Literature in Romania (2019) and Theory in the “Post” Era (2021).1 Notwithstanding the various complex reasons behind this phenomenon, which deserves further inquiry, it is, perhaps, possible to explain it, at least superficially, by simply looking at the titles of the aforementioned books. On the one hand, they illustrate the attempt of employing state of the art concepts, methods, and theories in the study of Romanian literature (such as world literature or post-theory in peripheral cultures), while on the other, they betray the intention of redeeming, in the eyes of literary history, entire realities and conceptual spheres that had been marginalized by previous dominant narratives (a prime example would be the importance of translations, historically disregarded in a culture obsessed with being original, or ruralism, which Romanian literature sought to abandon in its accelerated path towards urban modernity).

Given these circumstances, the present volume would seem like a superfluous exception because, regardless of the standpoint from which we consider the issue, one cannot claim that postcommunist literary criticism, literary history and, generally, postcommunist Romanian society completely ignored its recent past. On the contrary, one of the particularities of Romania when compared to other East European cultures is the tendency to prolong postcommunism long after the threshold of European integration. Despite analyst Charles King ←9 | 10→proclaiming “the End of ‘Eastern Europe’”2 as early as 2000, and despite two professional commentators of contemporary Romanian issues deciding to postpone “the end of postcommunism in Romania” until 2005,3 the nearly obsessive debates regarding (post)communism continued to dominate Romanian society throughout the 2010s. Precisely this civic fervor explains why communist Romanian literature was late in becoming the object of academic study. This is not attributable entirely to the fact that, up until the mid-2010s, any public debate on communist had to favor either pro- (almost never) or anti-communist (almost always) positions. This is typical of any debate involving divergent ideological values. More important is that, regarding Romanian communism, nearly every academic debate on the subject was, up until recently, laden with various myths, stereotypes, and clichés that impeded or, in any case, encumbered critical—and especially self-critical—reflection on the object of study.

This matter of fact is discussed at length in the book’s opening chapter, signed by Andrei Terian, who presents the metanarratives at play in articulating—in a more or less conscious manner—several of the most important Romanian literary histories that seek to depict the communist period from a postcommunist perspective. Despite Nicolae Manolescu, Marian Popa, and Eugen Negrici cultivating divergent views in regard to ideology and literary interpretation, Terian’s analysis shows, by drawing on Hayden White’s “metahistorical” instruments, that, in full swing of postmodern irony, all of the three authors prefer to resort to heroic, satirical, or tragical scenarios in describing Romanian literature during communism. Such an approach is indicative of a “structural anachronism” of contemporary Romanian literary historiography, which justifies his implicit plea for renewing its concepts and methodology. At the same time, Terian shows how White’s conceptual arsenal is itself insufficient in exploring the complexity of historiographical discourse and, as a result, puts forward a new dimension complementing existing “metahistorical” categories (Terian, “Representing Romanian Communism: Evolutionary Models and Metanarrative Scenarios,” in this volume).

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Rural Sites and Socialist Topics

The first section, titled “Rural Sites and Socialist Topics”, represents a further development of young researchers with the archives of the Romanian novel. Some of the recent projects to which each of the three authors in the section have contributed, Daiana Gârdan, Emanuel Modoc, and Cosmin Borza—in addition to the volume’s editors—attempt to merge literary studies with the field of computational analysis. This explains the latest methodology employed by Daiana Gârdan, whose purpose is to determine, by means of stylometrics, “what socialist realism means” in the Romanian literary field.4 We consider the analysis useful even beyond the confines of Romanian literature, as it shows that, within the otherwise undifferentiated mass of socialist realism novels, there is a distinct group of works that distinguish themselves from the corpus. Admittedly, this calls for a lengthy debate, since the entire mass of socialist realist novels possesses a somehow monolithic character5 by imposing an ideological coherence in reference to socialism by large, but what Gârdan succeeds in showing is useful for future studies: she paints a portrait of the socialist realist novel. She shows, on the one hand, how strongly socialist realist novels differ, from the point of view of style, from those that do not abide to the imposed formula, and then puts together a network of the most frequent terms encountered in this type of fictional work.

“The content word analysis outlines three main themes: corporeality (mouth, head, hands, feet), with its most frequent cooccurrences being adjectives describing physical traits (big mouth, black eyes, etc.), temporality (instant, days, years, night, time), and human condition (man, woman, heart, world, soil, village, home, road). The socialist realist novel is governed by social themes. While it is true that the most frequent content words are fairly generic, rendering them malleable enough to conform to any ideological mold imposed by the regime, they still substantiate the subgenre’s complex thematic structure.” (Gârdan, “What Makes a Socialist-Realist Novel? Style, Topics, and Development in Romania (1948–1964),” in this volume).

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In her article, Gârdan goes against “anticommunist discursive clichés”; similarly critical of the ready-made arguments of Romanian anticommunism are Emanuel Modoc and Cosmin Borza with the following two contributions in this section. Emanuel Modoc discusses the way in which the rural novel represented “a safe choice” for communist literature, performing the role of “literary safe space.” Modoc’s contribution to this volume is preceded by his interest for the portrayal of nature in communist and postcommunist Romanian fiction6 and the rural backdrop in the texts of the historical avantgarde.7 The rural “setting” therefore functioned especially as a strategy of positioning oneself within the literary field. Modoc departs from prevalent misconceptions of literary historiography, according to which the rural setting dominated the Romanian novel well after the First World War. Albeit influential literary critics such as E. Lovinescu (1881–1943) proclaimed the dominance of the rural novel as early as the start of the interwar period and claimed that it undermines the Romanian novel in its entirety, recent studies have shown that this is far from the truth. Drawing on Ruralism and Literature in Romania8 and other quantitative research related to The Digital Museum of the Romanian Novel,9 we can confidently get behind Modoc’s claim that rurality was rather a marginal theme in the Romanian novel, where social mobility was reserved for the elites,10 and the novel’s modernization took place precisely through the depiction of actual rural labor, which is nonetheless still largely underrepresented.11 Beginning with the communist period, ←12 | 13→however, as previously shown by Cosmin Borza in “How to Populate a Country. A Quantitative Analysis of the Rural Novel from Romania (1900–2000),”12—a contribution Emanuel Modoc builds on when defining the model of the rural novel—rurality acquires a new function, that of reflecting large-scale social changes:

“It would be false to say that socialist realist fiction accomplished the utopia of Collectivization in a predictable manner. If we look at the main titles published during the first ten years of socialist realism, we can see that at least an equal (if not greater) amount of attention was awarded to novels portraying the 1907 peasant uprising as the collectivization novels. Concerning the rural novel, socialist realism was a period of critical importance, because rather than simply imposing a collectivist utopia, it also drew attention to the exploitation of peasants in pre-Communist times.” (Emanuel Modoc, “Literary Safe Spaces: Functions of Rural Settings in the Romanian Novel (1948–1989),” in this volume).

Concerning rurality, Cosmin Borza gives an account of how the novels addressing agricultural collectivization were read and puts forward a new reading of rurality in Romanian literature, which becomes “infinitely more complex once it is reread and contextualized beyond the communist, as well as the postcommunist interpretative frames” (Cosmin Borza, “The Faces of Rural Modernity in the Romanian Novel of the Agricultural Collectivization,” in this volume). Borza decides to resume the debate about the collectivization process—as it was featured in Romanian literature—precisely because of a narrative issue, but especially in historiographical sense. As Borza shows,

“[r]‌egardless of whether displaying anticommunist attitudes or rhetoric or if its main focus falls on the technical or bureaucratic aspects, or if it engages in transdisciplinary approaches, the main pursuit of research into the Romanian collectivization process is, more often than not, to deliver information and to argue that the communist totalitarian regime conducted a ‘war against peasantry,’ effectively contributing to ‘the tragedy of the countryside’” (Borza, “The Faces of Rural Modernity”).

This means that now, more urgently than before, given that the Romanian rural milieu is faced with countless crises (displacement, chaotic urbanization, migration, etc.), a lucid analysis is required concerning the manner in which the rural has been instrumentalized from the period of socialist realism and especially during the de-Stalinization process. Borza thus shows that, during communism, ←13 | 14→literature took the most important steps in diversifying the themes featured throughout rural novels as the social body compelled literature to address these issues: “through its dependency on the most extensive and radical process of socio-political restructuring during communism, the collectivization novel initiates and cultivates the richest diversification of rural imaginary in the entire Romanian literature.”

We have integrated within this dedicated section for rural literature and socialist topics, Andreea Mironescu’s contribution about Romanian “Thaw Literature,” wherein the author performs a feminist reading of Nicolae Breban’s canonical novels, explaining how masculinity is produced and performed in the literary production of the 1960s. Albeit generally regarded as a period of ideological thaw and cultural production that is finally in sync with the West, Andreea Mironescu interprets this period as one that initiated a certain aggressive masculinity in Romanian literature or, in any care, an increasingly more aggressive masculinity, which—we would like to point out—instilled in the readerships the idea that great literature is the literature performed by dominant masculinity. Mironescu draws on the concept recently developed by Andrei Terian, “socialist modernism,”13 dealing with literary production under communism, and discusses Nicolae Breban’s prose as defined by “Socialist Übermänner: Studs versus Prophets:”14

“On the other hand, the narrator justified the hierarchy of masculinities by invoking an animal-based vocabulary, describing inequalities in terms of ‘nature.’ This choice of words is constant throughout the novel and manifests itself through the repeated use of words such as ‘stallion’ and ‘trotter,’ especially when referring to Cîrstea, or ‘mare’ when referring to Lelia—an equine imaginary evoking racialized features, thus a sort of ‘natural’ superiority within one’s own species, as well as an indecent amount of sexual availability going against social conventions and which the characters display almost unwillingly.” (Andreea Mironescu, “Übermänner: Hegemonic Masculinities in the Romanian Socialist Modernist Novel,” in this volume).

Reframing Literary Cosmopolitanism

The second section of the present volume discusses, by way of several case studies, the cosmopolitan dimensions of communist literature. The section opens ←14 | 15→with Doris Mironescu’s article, who theorizes the concept of “vernacular cosmopolitanism”15 and links it, during the latter part of Romanian communism, to the dissolution of “communist internationalism.”16 Mironescu starts in his analysis from the activity of the Jassy group, coagulated around writers such as Luca Pițu, Dan Petrescu, Sorin Antohi, Liviu Antonesei and Dan Alexe, and finds here the prerequisites of some form of cosmopolitan dissidence. Mironescu links this phenomenon to what Imre József Balázs discusses in the present volume in regard to Hungarian authors from Romania, namely a sort of peripheral, marginal cosmopolitanism, which brings them closer, by virtue of its catalytic momentum, beyond the linguistic differences, to “the German Aktionsgruppe Banat, the Monday Circle hosted by the Faculty of Letters in Bucharest, the Păltiniș School of philosophers.” The article also enters a dialogue with the theory of “geolocating” literature, since the geographical position of Jassy (in the country’s easternmost point) is illustrative of an ex-centric cosmopolitanism:

“Writers of late communism had to struggle against a system knowledgeable in regard to repression, of course, but, at the same time, they dealt with the literary field’s inertia, with cultural taboos, and with generational conflict. In the case of the Iași Group, the challenge of repressive totalitarianism came hand in hand with that of a national and local tradition that, by force of habit and because it had been seized by official party doctrine, had to be resisted. While communist internationalism seemed to grant writers the opportunity for some sort of intercultural dialogue, in the form of a sui generis ‘communist cosmopolitanism,’ it was only natural that the last decade of socialist power—with its isolationism and state-commandeered terror—would severely chip away at this dialogue.” (Doris Mironescu, “The Geolocation of Literary Dissidence: Vernacular Cosmopolitanism, Highbrow Subculture and Conviviality in the Iași Group (1975–1989),” in this volume).

The second chapter of the section, authored by Imre József Balázs, is related in subject to that of Doris Mironescu, namely the formation of minority literary ←15 | 16→groups within Romanian communism. Balázs builds on the concept of “counterculture,” which is of course deserving of a debate on its own in communist states, given that the meaning of counterculture is entirely different from what is customarily understood under this term in the West. After distancing itself from Moscow in 1968, the Ceaușescu regime declares itself open to Western influence “for about a decade” and, through a “self-legitimizing strategy, it developed the image of a country where globally relevant ideas and practices could freely circulate, and where artists and thinkers were free to consider adopting alternative lifestyles or join countercultures inspired by the beat and hippie movements.” This climate, of course, will slowly fade away in the early 1980, against the backdrop of the economic crisis, but during the 1970s as well, after the country adopts a series of increasingly harsh measures through which culture starts to be controlled and centralized as form of expression. Balázs hereby puts forward a collective profile of Hungarian and German authors from Romania, among whom the most important names belong to Péter Egyed, Dezső Palotás, William Totok, Rolf Bossert, Horst Samson, and Herta Müller. The majority represent extremely interesting cases, since, within a society that is legitimized through scientific materialism, minority intellectuals attempt to formulate Marxist criticism against this very system:

“The critical position of the German young generation growing up in the 60s owed to other reasons beyond this common generational and social concern as well. Their criticism was very much directed against the concealed right-wing political options of their parents—this confrontation with the past, partly inspired by Western Marxism, came to fruition in the form of a politically engaged critical art created by a ‘minority within the minority,’ which was inspirational to the whole Romanian literary scene and later led to the international success of authors such as Herta Müller.” (Imre József Balázs, “Representing Countercultures and Alternative Lifestyles: Hippies and Bohemians in Minority Literatures from Romania (1968–1983),” in the present volume).

Ștefan Baghiu and Costi Rogozanu discuss in their contribution to this section the case of Marin Preda, the most prominent post-war Romanian prose writer, to whom many studies have already been dedicated. But the article’s authors do not necessarily focus on presenting the author to an international readership, nor on reassessing his work in any special manner, but especially on conceptualizing a rather interesting phenomenon for the emergence of “literary fame” and the communist network of literary superstars. Generally seen as an opaque and predictable system—since it is centralized and state-commandeered—, the communist system has not been so often discussed as a hierarchical system of producing viral authors, authors that eventually acquire the superstar status of Western writers from the same period. Baghiu and Rogozanu call on articles from the ←16 | 17→literary press of the year 1980, a year coinciding both with Marin Preda’s death, as well as with the publication of the last—and perhaps most controversial—of his books, The Most Beloved of Earthlings. The myth surrounding Preda’s death is associated by the two authors with a symbolic death of the Romanian novel as it existed during communism, but which set out the future of the Romanian novel through Preda’s example. Moreover, far from being an ordinary death, it occurred in connection to alcohol and narcotics consumption, something that occasions a debate on the myth of the bohemian, pre-grunge auctorial practices:

“The death of literature in east European societies has much more to do with a death of the status of the writer himself. The status of several writers achieved during communism was that of both read and acknowledged superstars. Their works had impact, their voices were the most important elements in the cultural and political discourse. This led to unprecedented sales of their books and the high control of opinion in Romanian Society.” (Ștefan Baghiu, Costi Rogozanu, “The Death of a Literary Superstar in Communism: Marin Preda and The Most Beloved of Earthlings,” in the present volume).

Ramona Hărșan writes about the experimental literary circle coagulated around Gheorghe Crăciun and Mircea Nedelciu, discussing their textualist formula from a new perspective, framing it as a “passive aggressive showing technique.” Hărșan, not unlike Imre József Balázs, discusses communist cosmopolitism and reassesses the authors’ intra-fictional meta-discourse as autofictional formula. She shows, for instance, that the meta-discourse is not the most important component in deciphering the works, but rather the autofictional narrative impetus of recovering the marginals: “with Nedelciu, it is the narrative, not the meta-discourse that holds the key to the main level of significance of his literary project, as he designs an impressive fictional array of misfits, of alienated ‘communist Sixty-eighters’ unable or unwilling to ‘sign the social contract’ with the regime, which he features as protagonists in his short stories and novels.”

The last chapter of the section dedicated to cosmopolitanism is authored by Mihai Iovănel, author who returns to the study of communist literature after having published his History of Contemporary Romanian Literature: 1990–2020.17 The subject belongs to Iovănel’s scientific interests, who, both in his History and in his previous books,18 analyzed the position of popular literature within the Romanian space. It is worth mentioning that nearly all of Iovănel’s analyses are reframings of exceptional literary themes as they go through periods with different literary policies, as he has proven in the chapter from Ruralism and Literature in ←17 | 18→Romania, “Peasants and Intelligent Machines.”19 In the present chapter, Iovănel discusses UFO sightings in Romanian nonfictional prose during the communist and postcommunist period, attempting to shed light on how communist society dealt with depictions of extraterrestrial phenomena. Iovănel illustrates several distinct “waves” in the local literature on the subject. We therefore encounter “[t]‌he first two waves, the import and adaptation/locating of the Western (and Soviet) literature on UFOs, along the two aforementioned coordinates—UFOs as a contemporary mystery and UFOs as a historical mystery—occur in Romania almost at the same time, once the subject is given a ‘green light’ in 1968. They will continue to coexist until the end of communism.” Iovănel demonstrates that the tendencies making themselves clear during communism anticipate the theme’s proliferation during postcommunism through the pseudoscience that eventually replaces the non-fictional component:

“Ever since the last communist decade, the pseudoscientific shift taking place in the non-fictional literary production dealing with the topic of UFOs had started to elicit ironic reactions from within the literary world itself—including from science fiction authors who, feeling contested on their own playing field, started to contrive parodies of the excessively provincial adaptations of these themes.” (Mihai Iovănel, “UFOs and Extraterrestrials in Romanian Communism,” in the present volume).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (January)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 274 pp., 5 fig. b/w, 2 tables.

Biographical notes

Ștefan Baghiu (Volume editor) Ovio Olaru (Volume editor) Andrei Terian (Volume editor)

Ştefan Baghiu is an assistant professor of Romanian literature and literary theory at the Department of Romance Studies at Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu. His main fields of research include literary translation as a cultural phenomenon, quantitative literary research, cultural studies, and Romanian postwar literature. He is the coordinator of The Digital Museum of the Romanian Novel. Ovio Olaru is an assistant professor of German language and literature at the Department of Anglo-American and German Studies at Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu. His fields of research include German, Romanian, and Scandinavian studies, as well as digital humanities. He is also a translator of Scandinavian literature. Andrei Terian is a professor of Romanian literature at the Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu. His research focuses on twentieth and twenty-first century Romanian literature, history of the novel, comparative and world literature.


Title: Beyond the Iron Curtain