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Born in Serbia Tomislav Longinovic, PhD, is a world expert in Slavic folklore and imagery. His works include Vampire Nation: Violence as Cultural Imaginary and Vampires Like Us. He’s taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop, at Harvard, and is emeritus professor of Slavic, Comparative Literature, and Visual Culture at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Reading the novel Red Hands, which tells the story of Communist Romania through the eyes of Iordana Ceausescu, the dictator’s daughter-in-law, brought back memories of Tomislav’s youth in what was then Communist Yugoslavia. ‘We had relatives who came to live with us in Belgrade from Romania during those worst years of heat and food restrictions,’ he recalls.
Tomislav was happy to meet up with Red Hands author Colin W. Sargent to discuss his responses to the book, two contrasting communist regimes… and seagulls!
TL: From where I am right now, I’m looking across the Danube to Romania. I told some friends I’d be talking to you. One said, “Romanian smugglers would drop goods right here in the Danube. Old scrap metal.” He pointed to the shore. “Even now, it’s full of scrap metal at the bottom that wasn’t picked up. The Romanian ships would drop, Serbian ships pick up.” There was also a contraband business in oil.
CS: Something’s always going on behind the scenes.
TL: That’s very resonant in Red Hands. Of course, to Romanians, Yugoslavia was a Western country, a haven. My family had Romanian relatives across the river. When they were cold and hungry, two or three came here to take refuge with my father during the final years of the Ceausescu regime. So it’s all very close to me.
CS: I’m hoping Red Hands connects with your Vampire Nation, the way the West has unconsciously or consciously tried to submerge Balkan countries with blood and vampire imagery. Even the Romanians couldn’t resist. During the Romanian revolution, crowds put up “Death to the Dracu Grandson” posters on subway walls in Bucharest while Iordana and her son were fleeing the city.
TS: That’s a really, really good connection [which makes Iordana’s sneaker fascination for the West, along with other young members of the Nomenclatura, more complex]. I really liked reading that part.
CS: I laughed at the idea that playing bridge was forbidden by the Ceausescus, because it brought intellectuals together. Was that the case in Yugoslavia?
TS: No, not on that level at all. The main terror was in 1945 to 1948, and then when Tito broke with Stalin, things began to stabilize. Tito was tracking a middle course, getting western loans. We were comparatively lucky. None of my family was part of the communist movement. I always felt a private life at home, at the dinner table, in the 1950s to the middle 1960s. I found the same thing in the private moments of Iordana’s life–they’re described quite well in Red Hands. My father would always say, “Never say that in school!” Then we’d listen to the BBC and Radio Free Europe at night.
CS: What was the impact of the movie Dr. Zhivago on Eastern Bloc countries?
TS: It was bigger in Yugoslavia than in the rest of the Soviet bloc. We already had movies like that, our own Black Wave in films, critiquing the government. It got funny. Movie production companies created one edit was for film festivals outside the country, one inside the country or they would never be shown.
CS: Was godlessness in fashion in your Yugoslavia?
TS: Not really, not to that extent. My family was Orthodox Christian.
CS: Iordana is privileged, and like all of us she ducks in and out of self-knowledge. From your position just across the river, do you think of her as a character who’s strong, weak, or how would you describe her?
TS: I would say very strong. Everything she had to go through. She’s part of the Nomenclatura but sort of drops off, which makes her more interesting. It made me remember that I refused three times to join the communist party: at the end of high school, during University years, in the Yugoslav army [compulsory], which was a little hard to pull off. To stand up and say you have no interest in that. But to me the army wasn’t fighting about the fate of the nation, but only for communism, which weakened the whole idea.
CS: Romanians were nicknamed the polenta people, flexing to any attack but somehow surviving. I can see a parallel to Italy, but is there a parallel to Yugoslavia?
TS: The Romanian word for it is mamaliga. It’s a delicious dish, by the way. We were always brought up with the sense that we were the in-between country; that we were part of the east and west, being able to connect both.
CS Iordana and I were connected by our each having a son. But more like the ‘raindrops that touch us all at once, uniting us,’ we were also connected by our love for seagulls. You love the coast. You must know some gulls by name. What’s your take on seagulls?
TS: That’s a good question for me, because their number since I was a kid has been steadily and rapidly increasing. I used to draw them in flight. They’re a menace now, beautiful from a distance but frightening up close. There’s a city in Croatia where kids can’t be taken outside; the gulls will steal their lunches. More recently, when alone in nature, like during yoga, I can almost feel like I can talk to them. You know, I call them over.
Originally published in the UK in 2020, RED HANDS by Colin W. Sargent is now out in the USA!
This historical fiction is drawn from eighty hours of unique interviews and told in Iordana’s own voice; a true-life tale that spins readers into the pleasures, excesses and horrors of late twentieth-century Europe.
Iordana is brought up with all the perks of Romania’s corrupt communist regime. She marries the eldest son of the monstrous dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, and provides him with a grandson heir…
But revolution stirs. In 1989 crowds kill anyone with the Ceasescu name. In all the blood and chaos, can Iordana keep her little son alive?
And here’s Colin himself, describing his book and the real life Iordana Ceasescu:
Heedless, headstrong, and headlong love. Who knew it would doom her country, too? Intelligent, nubile Iordana wasn’t interested in communist strategies while she enjoyed spectacular privilege – unimaginable to the 20 million souls living under the iron fist a dictatorship ruled by a murderous family she chose to marry into. But as a member of the elite Nomenclatura during Romania’s cool 1960s, she had to have her Valentin. Just as she rose in the Ceausescu clan despite her parents’ objections, so she fell when the murderous dictator and his criminal partner were taken down. “Death to the Dracu grandson” rang through the subways. An angry world chased Iordana and her son in an effort to wipe the name Ceausescu off the face of the earth. They hunted her from Bucharest to Israel to Canada to closer than you think. She escaped to the other side of the world, only to find herself branded an illegal alien in a quiet suburb on the coast of Maine.
Where to go? Where to hide? How will her son even register for school? A tiny town in America will have to do for now.
Grab a copy of Red Hands now!
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