Dear Comrade Novak, by Silvia Hildebrandt

December 1 2020 release

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Prologue: 1st December 1989

They call him Attila the Hun, Falcon of the Steppe, Hunter of Faggots. Oddly enough, his first name really is Attila. When he was young, his parents, his friends, and the whole village gave him the nickname “Attikó.” But now, no one dares to call him that anymore. All too aware of his amazing career in the secret police, no one believes he’s only twenty-seven years old.

His interrogations last fifteen minutes; the time it takes to play Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero,” which Attila always uses when working on a subject. Over the years, he turned his job into an art, every second perfectly choreographed, beginning with a calm voice, asking about the weather, how nice the sun is shining today, isn’t it? Pretending to be your friend, only to introduce more instruments, more inquisition tools the louder the music plays, to get the information he needs in the last thirty seconds. Blasting in a grand drum finale crushing and breaking the human mind.

Nobody breaks men faster in the cellar offices of the Securitate.

On this day in December, he’s called for his hardest job. Only Attila the Hun, the specialist, can crack this task. Only he can reveal the intrigues from the inner circle of the military, the betrayal from within. Only he can interrogate a fellow comrade from the first class garrison of Timişoara.

Attila has his special routine. Leaving his office, he grabs his blood-stained leather gloves and marches exactly five steps down the corridor. He puts the gloves on right before he touches the handle to the little room with no windows and soundproof walls. He doesn’t look at his subject when he enters. They have to observe him, to look upon him. No words are spoken as he puts the LP record on the player and the clarinetist tricks them into thinking that this is a joyful and light occasion, just a formality.

He doesn’t deviate from this routine on this day in 1989 as he aims for the chair in the middle of the dark room. After he clears his throat and turns on the table lamp, this is always the first time he looks at the man seated in front of him.

But on this day, the first time since he started his career, he gulps, he gets nervous. The first man who makes him, the High Inquisitor, anxious. He knows exactly who is sitting there. His best friend since kindergarten. Save him, his heart wants to say. Finish him quickly, his survival instincts tell him.

“Tiberius Nicolescu,” Attila takes a deep breath.

“Hi there, Atti.”

Attila fidgets with a paper, his arms shielding his body. He can’t look in the eyes of the man in front of him. He’d fail. This task can’t be fulfilled. This is the end. He can’t destroy his best friend from childhood. He thought he could, but it seems impossible now.

“Nice career. High Investigator of Timişoara. Who would’ve thought that, huh?” asks Tiberius, ex-Căpitan of the Romanian People’s Army, charged with plotting the murder of President Ceauşescu.

“I am the one who asks questions here,” rumbles Attila’s voice along with Ravel’s snare drum.

“Uhhh, now I’m afraid. Okay, as you wish. You can ask me anything. You always start your gig with some small talk about the weather, don’t you?”

Attila’s tongue ties up. He can’t move. A rage grabs its claws into his inner organs.

“So, ah, it’s unusually warm for this time of year. Ten degrees Celsius, slight drizzle, no snow. Wind from North-West.” Nicolescu’s eyes hypnotize him, hold him captive. “Or that’s what I’ve heard in my windowless underground cell.”

“You’re lucky we didn’t send you to Bucharest.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m grateful for that. I bet they don’t play music there while they crack your bones? Nice record. Still the same I gave you as a present for your fifteenth?”

“What did you do on October 20th?” Oh, this doesn’t go as planned. Attila feels his confidence leave him every second, every minute the music rises.

“October? I don’t know anymore. You tell me.”

“Does the name ‘White Winter’ ring a bell?”

“No, should it?”

Attila opens his mouth, but Nicolescu cuts him off before he can speak. “Of course it rings a bell. Who doesn’t know what the ‘White Winter’ is? People love gossip. It’s a group who conspires to commit Ceauşescu’s death. I bet they’ll soon make a telenovela out of it, it’s so popular in the yellow press.”

“They had a meeting on October 20th.”

“Oh.” Tiberius’ eyes widen, in a mocked expression of shock. “How do you know, General-Major? That’s some big news. Why don’t you tell your Mareşal? Or… hm… did you attend that meeting too? Ah, well yes, now I remember. You were once a dedicated member of that group… We’ve been missing you for years. What kept you so long? Family? Your job? Were you finally brainwashed by those motherfuckers in the Department?”

“You were seen at their meeting point on October 20th. And the week before that. We observed you attending their groups for half a year.”

“Yeah. Don’t you find that thrilling, hm? Perhaps I’m an undercover agent, nah?”

“You were not our agent. Nobody enlisted you to do this. You were there on your own decision.”

Tiberius scoffs. “Yeah, there are some plans in the military even you don’t know about. What makes you think you can spy on everything?”

“I can.”

Nicolescu pretends to be chewing gum. “Oh, so you have no secrets? You know everything about every citizen in the Socialist Republic? But tell me, does your boss know about your… little hugger-mugger?”

Attila gulps, he balls his hands to fists, back straightening. “They know everything.”

“I’d bet all my money they don’t. Or you’d not be here.”

“Don’t mess with me.”

“Yeah, okay. But they weren’t suspicious why you kept on asking about the files on Mr. Károly Viktor, chemistry teacher in 1979 in Timişoara. You know, the one who got killed because of some ass-fuckery? You knew him? They are aware you knew him so well?”

“I know his story. He was our teacher and he got rightly killed for his propensity.”

“They know why you freaked out when you saw him hit by a car? And ain’t you nervous that your boss saw that photo in your wallet, you know the one. Depicting your lover? What did you say to him? ‘Oh, it’s my cousin.’ Cousin my ass.” Nicolescu yawns. “Oh, the record stopped by the way. Wanna change to B-side? It’s so quiet without the music here.”

The fifteen minutes are over. And both comrades Novák and Nicolescu are deep in the trenches.

“No music anymore.”

“So it’s only you and me. Showdown at High Noon?” Tiberius winks at him. “Yeah, I like that. You’ve seen Star Wars? Reminds me of the last movie. They showed it legally you know.”

“I will get you for mocking me like this.”

“Oh, no, you won’t, Darth Vader. I know information about you which will set me free, don’t worry. So…” He pretends to stretch, as if he woke up a few minutes ago, as well as he can being tied to the chair. “When will it finally snow, whaddya think? No real winter without sleighing, huh?”

Attila stands up, arranges his glove which slips while he fidgets with it, and makes a move for the door. “I’m not through with you.”

“I’m looking forward to our second date, sweetheart.” Nicolescu blows air-kisses. “Buzi, buzi, it’s one to one in the grand finale. Who will win? Who will make the first mistake? Man, I am in for this. The first time an enemy is equal to me.”

Attila gets out of the room and doesn’t close the door behind him. While he goes back to his office, trying desperately to show confidence in his steps, he still hears Nicolescu’s laugh. “Goal! Goal for Nicolescu. And Novák goes back into defense. It’s a free kick, everybody knows he’s an excellent striker. But he’s surprised by Nicolescu’s defense. Will he break through it? Will he stay on-side? It’s only half-time and we’re thrilled for the second half. There can only be one winner. And one loser.”

 We asked Silvia Hildebrandt to write an introductory piece to Dear Comrade Novak. In it, she explains how she came to write the book, and its effect on her personal identity.
Silvia Hildebrandt

We fled Romania for Germany in 1990, after the revolution and the civil war between Hungarians and Romanians. For the most part, we were looked down upon as poor, illiterate gypsies. So I denied I was born and raised in Romania, in an attempt to assimilate with German culture. Over the years, my teachers recognized my talent for writing. Somehow, I always wrote stories set in the USA. But my 6th grade literature teacher encouraged me to write something about Romania. ”You have so many unique stories to tell,” she said. But at that time, I’d buried my identity deep within me. No, never. Never would I write a novel set in Romania.

Twenty years later, after my first published novel – A Century Divided, set in New York City – I needed a new idea for a second. By happenstance, I landed back in Romania. I wanted a story set in Eastern Europe because I loved Russian novelists like Tolstoy and Pasternak and their very own strong, melancholic narrative. And because I’m a lazy bitch and didn’t want to do research on Russia, I decided to set my next piece in Western Romania, where I was born. As the plot developed over the weeks, I was stuck in the middle and in order to finish a novel, I need to know the end in an early stage of writing. But I didn’t know where it should lead, so I reached out for the writer’s best friend. Google.

“Romanian History 1980s” was my search query. And if an old agent of the Securitate monitored me, he would’ve thrown up his hands in despair as to my ignorance. “Romanian Revolution 1989” was the first answer and I nearly fainted. Of course! I had totally forgotten. Like a black hole in my memories and my brain, this event no longer existed in my life. Slowly, from an author’s point of view, I dug into the Romanian history and into my own. While writing, I had to remind myself that I was there; in that scene, with my characters walking around in Timișoara and in that Romanian village they call their hometown; this wasn’t just their story, but my own as well.

It’s borderline crazy describing such a feeling. Like living in two alternate universes, I re-discovered my own heritage. Near the end of writing Dear Comrade Novák, I watched Ceaușescu’s last speech conserved on youtube. The piece of footage every Romanian knows and love-hates to this day. The footage my beta readers and editors still remember, shown on US and British TV. But for me, it was the first time I witnessed that confused old man become lost in the sudden uprising of the people he oppressed for so many years. To this day, the turning point of my own childhood had always been the opening of the Berlin Wall. I didn’t know anything about the events in December 1989 in Romania. But with every documentary I watched while writing Dear Comrade Novák, I felt like reclaiming my own identity. No, not the Berlin people dancing on the ruins of the Wall had shaped me, but the December events of 1989. Ceaușescu, the last bastion of communism in Europe, fleeing in his helicopter. The Romanian flag with the cutout communist sigil in the middle. The people in Timișoara lighting a thousand candles for the murdered masses, shot on 17th December. There: forty kilometers from my hometown, the bloodiest, most epic of the 1989 revolutions began.

“Why wander into the distance, when the good is so close?” is a popular German saying. And it’s true. I’m excited what future ideas I’ll have in my writing career. But I know one thing: Romania will continue to play a big part in it.

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There is no such thing as a private life in the Socialist Republic of Romania. There is no such thing as a homosexual. No such thing as love. Not a single case of AIDS. Those corrupt western ideas simply don’t exist.

In 1980s communist Romania, three school graduates form an unusual friendship: Attila, who’s in love with his teacher; Tiberius, son of secret-police parents, and Viorica, who will be forced into a marriage arranged when she was four. In the years leading up to the tyrant Ceaușescu’s downfall, conspiracy and revolution challenge the bonds of friendship and love to their breaking point.

Published in Germany (2020) as Die Stadt der Freiheit by Plattini-Verlag.