I have had several people e-mail me to ask me about the projects I alluded to in an earlier post. They’ve been keeping me busy and, as a result, I haven’t posted on this blog as much as I would have liked to. Let me tell you about one of those projects, the one that is not only the dearest to me, but also the most challenging.
In order to tell you about that project, I have to first tell you about my father. He was an extraordinary man who was a true intellectual. He spoke 11 languages, remembered word for word anything he read, calculated complex mathematical algorithms in his head, and could name and date any historical event or person or empire. That intellect landed him in concentration camp for 18 years when the Bolsheviks invaded Romania. After he immigrated to America and married my mother, he spent years writing what would be an account of what happened to him during that horrific time in his life. He titled his first book Dan, A Man Without Youth.
He self-published the book in the 80’s, but never sold more than several thousand books. My mother and he made a modest living and their priority was always my sister and me. Because he chose to send us to private school, he didn’t have the money to spend on having his book professionally edited or advertised. I’m at an age now where I think I have the maturity and skills to do his work justice. English was not my father’s first language and it’s evident in his writing. I want to rewrite his work and transform it into the story he always envisioned it would be. He always talked about a time when I would be able to edit the political portions of his book to make it more friendly for people who are less politically-inclined.
This is by far the hardest project I have ever had to write. I thought it would be simple because the story’s already written. What I’m finding as I rewrite the book is a constant need to question every word I put down. In rewording the passage, am I changing the meaning? Is it what my father would have wanted to say? Am I preserving his voice? Am I doing right by him? My father was an immigrant and I want the writing to reflect the voice of an immigrant. Fixing the English grammar just enough so that the right meaning is conveyed, yet leaving the work rustic enough that it feels foreign is more of a challenge than I realized it would be.
There are also several problematic areas in the plot of the story. My father was a man who was writing about horrors he had learned about and witnessed long after he experienced them. His writing reflects that in that he discusses topics early on in the book that his character is not actually introduced to until later in the work. I’m currently grappling with how eloquent my father was as a child. Having known my father and his intellectual prowess, I have no trouble at all believing that his child-self could debate philosophical ideals with Russian soldiers. I’m not so sure readers will be able to be so accepting, though.
Feel free to send me feedback, both good and bad, about the work. It’s still in its infancy, but I could use help with knowing whether or not I’ve captured the voice of a foreigner in the writing style.
Chapter 1 of Dan, A Man Without Youth
The heavy gate of the famous prison of Gherla closed slowly, making a sinister sound. Dan was dumbfounded. As he stood on the sidewalk, he could hardly believe that, finally, he was free. Part of him wanted to run as fast as he could, afraid the guard who closed the gate would call him back to tell him his release had been a mistake. He couldn't move, though. His feet seemed nailed to the sidewalk as questions of what to do and where to go rushed through his mind. What direction should he take? Where was the railway station? Finally, Dan decided to walk to the church that was within sight of the prison. Although his legs, unaccustomed to walking more than the length of his cell, fought him every step of the way, he managed to walk until he reached the front of the church.
Dan tried to open the gate to get inside, but it was locked. He wanted to pray and give praise to St. Anthony of Padua, the saint who had helped him get out of that wretched, cold, fortified place. Dan turned away, disappointed. He'd forgotten that now churches were only open on Sunday mornings or when someone was buried.
An old woman was passing by and stopped to take a long look at Dan. After a while, she said in a whisper, “Did they set you free, my son?” The words hit Dan's ears, but he couldn't understand them. The woman asked again. Dan, guessing at her question, nodded. The woman spoke again, and this time her words broke through the fog surrounding Dan's mind. “If you want to go to the railway station, you should take this street. Keep going until you pass a bridge. On your left there will be a restaurant, and if you keep going, you will see the station farther down.” “Thank you, Grandma,” said Dan, with a voice unused in years. He parted in the direction the woman showed him.
He walked as if he were in a dream. Everything he saw had a dreamlike quality. What was real? Did reality even exist? Beyond that heavy gate that so recently closed behind him was a nightmare. In a way, his time behind it was also like a dream... a nightmare or a dream that had lasted more than five years.
Is five years a long time? What does five years mean to a Milky Way star? Nothing! Not even a blinking. But for Dan, five years meant 30,000 working hours of slavery, five springs without seeing the cherry tree in his backyard bloom, five Christmas Eves full of tears and pain, without Christmas trees or Santa Clause.
In the street, everyone was in a hurry. Men and women, children and old people all were walking fast with eyes downcast, staring at the ground. No one was smiling. All the faces Dan could see were sad. Even the children had a serious look in their eyes.
Dan felt like a newborn. He walked down the street, looking curiously to the right and the left, feeling like kissing all those sad faces, especially of the children who were passing by. He had not seen a child for more than five years. He felt like stopping everyone and telling each person about the happiness of being a free man. But the people passing by didn't notice Dan. He was just another strange, slender man with a pale face and a tired looking bag.
The waiting area of the railway station was packed with people. When space had run out on benches, people sat on the concrete floor. Some people were sprawled out haphazardly, sleeping on the ground and Dan had to watch where he stepped so as not to step on them. Many people were smoking and the smoke had built up in the room to the point that everything was covered in a light fog of it. The second-class ticket booth already had a long line formed behind it when Dan entered the station and Dan went to stand at the end of it so he could validate the ticket he received from prison. That voucher for a free second-class train ticket was all that he got for more than five years of hard labor.
The line moved forward towards the ticket booth at a snail's pace. Looking at the people standing with him in line or sitting around on the concrete floor, Dan couldn't see a single smiling face. The Romanian people had forgotten how to smile ever since the Bolsheviks took over the country.
Finally, Dan arrived at the ticket booth. The clerk, seeing the prison voucher, looked up at Dan's pale face with compassion. Without saying a word, he validated it.
There were still more than three hours left before the train arrived at the station, so Dan went outside to escape from the smoke and breathe fresh air. It was a nice day towards the end of August with plenty of hot sun, so Dan looked for a shady place to sit under a big nut tree that wasn't too far from the station.
He was not hungry, in spite of the fact that he hadn't eaten anything in the past several days. How could he eat when almost all of the political prisoners had been freed and only he remained? There had been a political amnesty degree back in April or May, though no one was exactly sure when it happened. In Gherla, news from the outside entered with difficulty. The inmates just saw that every day 10 to 15 of them left the prison. In the beginning, they thought that these people were just being transferred to another prison, but the procedures resembled liberations. Rumors came through the walls, in different alphabets, that there had been an amnesty decree for political prisoners. Nobody knew this for certain, though, and above all no one knew how large that amnesty decree could be. Dan was confined in isolation in a small cell where, many years earlier, the famous outlaw Rosza Sandor was hung. He stared at that rusty hook in the middle of his cell's ceiling almost every day, especially at night when he couldn't sleep, and thought of that tragic event that had taken place more than a century before in that same room.
Dan had received some communication through the wall in a prison code about the amnesty degree. This wall separated his cell from a bigger room, where some hundreds of inmates were kept. First, he understood that only prisoners sentenced up to five years would be liberated. After a month or so, his friends from the big room transmitted through the wall that even prisoners sentenced up to ten years had left the prison. However, this uncertainty gave the prisoners many nights without sleep at all, and Dan was one of them. He had to worry more than the other ones because he had come to this prison on a disciplinary transfer. He made two hunger strikes while there, and was kept most of the time in solitary confinement. He had been punished many a time and he was promised that he would never be able to see his family again. That was why, after almost everyone else had been freed, Dan couldn't eat or sleep any longer. His health deteriorated and he had lost almost all hope of freedom. On a sunny day at the end of August, he was compeltely taken aback when he was called to be liberated.
Dan came from a very poor family and was the oldest of three brothers and one sister. His father, a clerk working for the government, didn't make enough money to feed and provide clothes for the entire family. Dan and his brothers and sister didn't have toys to play with like other children did; instead, they made do with what they could piece together with string and old rags. Worse than not having anything to play with, though, they often didn't have anything to eat. Many a night Dan and his siblings went to bed without having any food in their stomachs. Sometimes Dan had to go door to door in his neighborhood, asking for a pot of corn flour to tide them over “until tomorrow.” Now and then he had to go to the same neighbor four or five times in a row, begging for the same pot of corn flour, without having returned the previous ones. He was so ashamed of this, that if it weren't for his brothers' heart-rending cries for food, he would have preferred going to bed hungry. When he saw his little sister crying for food, he couldn't help going back out to ask for another pot. Sometimes he was unsuccessful and he went back home empty-handed. Then his mother would name each house from memory, to see where Dan might go to ask for another pot. If she was lucky and thought of the right neighbor, Dan would come home with another pot of corn flour and the entire family would have an evening meal of maize porridge to fill their empty stomachs.
Dan remembered that sometimes after the potato harvest, his mother and he went into the field at night to look for any remaining potatoes. In the summertime, most of their food came from the forest: mushrooms, wild strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries. In addition to foraging for food in the summer, Dan also brought home dry wood every day, so they would have something to keep them warm in the wintertime. He walked barefoot from spring, after the snow melted, until fall, when the new snow came down. His pants were so full of different colored patches that it was very difficult for someone to tell their initial color. When World War II began and his father was drafted into the Army, they didn't even have the little money his father used to bring home. The entire family would have died of hunger if Dan hadn't started working in a factory, the same one where his mother also worked a poor-paying job. He worked at night and during the day he went to school. He was used to burning the candle at both ends.
The train whistle awakened Dan from these sad remembrances. He saw the train approaching like a huge black snake winding through the hills. It moved slowly because it was a lower-class train and would take more than 24 hours to transport him from this station to Brasov, his home. Dan didn't have enough money to pay the difference for an express train. Full of eagerness to be near his loved ones again, he still had to wait another 24 hours. But what difference did 24 hours make when he'd already spent over 40,000 hours away in different prisons and forced labor camps?
The train finally arrived at the station and, with a great deal of noise, stopped in front of the platform. Dan got into a non-smoking coach and found a seat near the window.