The liberating holiday of Sânziene
A review of Bottled Goods. By Sophie van Llewyn. Publisher: Fairlight books, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2018.
Sânziene is a Romanian word for fairy. It comes from the Latin word Sancta Diana, the name of the ancient Roman goddess of the hunt and the moon. She watches over women during Sânziene, and her holiday has been celebrated in the western Carpathians since the time of Roman Dacia (ancient Romania). The yearly festivities on June 24th have claimed its place in Romanian folklore, associated with girls and women in white dresses looking for flowers that they can use to make crowns. Then they dance around a fire, jumping over the embers, to cleanse themselves and gain magical powers. Finally, they throw the crowns they made from the flowers over the houses. When a crown lands on the roof there will be a good harvest and wealth, if it falls on the ground there will be death. The protagonist of Sophie van Llewyn’s novel Bottled Goods takes part in this long forgotten ritual, which was illegal to practice in communist Romania.
Child of communism
Alina, Comrade Mangiu, teacher, wife, daughter, niece, and sister-in-law was born two years after communism took its hold over Romania. As she says about herself: “She is Alina and she is not Alina.” She is herself not really knowing what that entails. Her family heritage was denied to her as a granddaughter of landowners in Bucharest. Her mother was their opposite, a devout communist ashamed of her roots. Just as she was ashamed of her father, an important member of the liberal party. Another story silenced by communism.
Alina grew up in the calming sterile and concrete environment of newly built, ten-storey blocks of flats. Who is she? The incarnation of her aristocratic ancestors or a destructed girl from a family that treated peasants as hostages? Perhaps she was a child of communism. She is not sure herself, feeling orphaned by history and culture. The elements that shape Alina’s identity have been dominated by ideology, leading to a moral crisis of people like her. The protagonist in the story feels estranged from her own country. As the narrator points out: “She has no love for her country, for the government, for the beloved leader. She can’t believe in a regime that encourages brothers turning on brothers, mothers on their children. A regime that punishes innocent people.”
It is this human debility which she is faced as she was scolded for every gesture or word she utters against the party. She is excluded socially in her work place and placed under surveillance by special agents after her brother-in-law defected to France. She is also accused of not acting according to protocol, after one of her students brought an illegal newspaper to school.
Alina could not find her place in any of the roles she was forced into: the role of a daughter frightened by her mother, whom she cannot trust; the role of a teacher, who is unable to conform to the rules and report the misdemeanour of a little girl; the role of the author of a textbook in mathematics, whose work will never be published by the communist authorities; the role of a sister-in-law always suspected of wanting to run away; the role of a wife, who felt better after divorce, or, finally, the role of a communist. During the Sânziene holiday she discovers that, underneath the cover of all these roles, she is a woman. A magical woman from the Carpathians – Sânziene, who finds solutions to her problems while dancing, something turning out not to be such a good idea in the end. During the ritual she finds magical herbs and pushes her “problems-possessions-heritage” into a bottle.
Under all these layers, meticulously named by socio-political family conventions, there is her. Despite this “I”, Carpathian femininity cannot be said out loud, as there is no discourse that would enable it. There is, however, a force that is able to push the story forward, when everything seems lost, and all that is real transforms into a fantastic world of beliefs, superstitions and magic pointing in new directions.
The scene of the Sânziene holiday seems to be the zenith of the novel. It gives us a fresh perspective of the main character, introducing fantastic elements into the story. At the same time, it shows the world created by Sophie van Llewyn. This is a world of women, where Alina is accompanied by her mother and aunt. The story revolves around them while the men are in the background, functioning as deuteragonists. The women being the main characters, narrators and the acting force through novella-in-flash is a reference to the author herself, born in north-eastern Romania. In one interview she said: “The buildings, the mentality, even the food and drinks produced in communism didn’t just disappear from one day to the other. I attempted to refer strongly to the sensations from the times of communism to create a comprehensive, complex and accessible world.” The novel’s content was inspired by a story of her godparents, who were kept on the border for an entire day in the 1970s while their car was stripped clean.
On the other hand, it could also be a reference to feminism and the idea of écriture feminine – an attempt to showcase feminine nature, language, philosophy, mentality and sensitivities. Van Llewyn tells the story of the relationship between women, especially the one between mother and daughter; all of this while retaining the language of women in the available discourse.
Van Llewyn’s novel could be understood as a presentation of different scenes from the life of a woman and her attempt to define her freedom: private and political. As she emphasises: “In these times when so many democracies are slipping into totalitarian regimes, I think it’s increasingly important to show what a dictatorship means.” Her book does not limit itself to the freedom of women in a specific time and system, but could be viewed as a tractate on human rights, the right for every person to decide for himself or herself.
The novel is more than fast changing pictures of life in Romanian communism. It deals with any conceivable regime where the rule of law is put to the test and democracy is undermined. It is about how the state has no right to control the private sphere of life, divide people into who is more and less worthy. In any system, like communism, everything is possible or impossible depending on where you stand and whether you are for or against the ideology. This is a system that should be overthrown. One cannot deepen the divide between citizens of a country, build political capital based on bullying, creating a common enemy and incite intolerance and discrimination.
Private is political
The aspect of presenting women as protagonists is an accurate evaluation of communism and totalitarian states, as well as the idea that what is private is also political. This is how politicised the issue of family and femininity has become. The theoreticians researching Romanian communism have created two terms to define the changes communism inflicted on the family. They talk about affecting and brutal turnovers. The family, and the social roles attributed to it, is an important question. It is utilised to manipulate the nation. In communism and other regimes the family is put under immense pressure — be it legal, social or educational change. The family became a socialist unit, representing the natural and fundamental element of society. It has to be nurtured, supported and protected. The life of the family became subordinate to ideology.
In Romania each and every family was to be modelled after the family of the beloved leader Nicolae Ceaușescu, his wife, Elena, and their three children. He was seen as both the father of his family and the nation, she as the mother. Child-rearing was controlled, as were the duties of procreation and marriage. It could seem that the position of women would change, leading to emancipation within this attempt to indoctrinate the family. The 1954 Romanian Family Code mentioned equality between men and women in the public and private spheres. The first communist constitution of 1948 also spoke of equality of all citizens and respecting everyone irrespective of their sex, ethnicity, race, religion or culture. It had the same rights enshrined for both men and women, leading, in reality, to the doubling of responsibilities women had in society. Now they were not only mothers and wives, but workers simultaneously upholding their traditional roles in society.
A woman in the communist period was only emancipated on paper. One could say she was having a crisis of identity. She should be like Alina’s mother – a guardian of the family and tradition, but only the one prescribed by communist indoctrination. At the same time, she was supposed to be like Alina’s aunt: liberated having her own opinions, working on equal terms with men, while aware of her position. If she was not any of these, it would lead her to social ostracism. While she was working, she was still obliged to fill traditional roles: raise children and take care of others. In such a duality of function, it was hard for her to cope. She was expected to be a liberated communist, mother by choice and diligent worker, all at the same time. Where was the place for the real and not stereotypical woman – in the world of fiction and the long forgotten female holidays like the Sânziene? Under the guise of darkness, during that one night of the year, she could find her femininity and imagine it as a moment of liberation. It stays fleeting, as there is no escape from the regime – or your own heritage for that matter.
Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht
Kinga Anna Gajda is an assistant professor at the Institute of European Studies of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. She holds a PhD in literature.