In the winter of 2010, I was sitting around a group of international students in my small studio apartment in Krakow, watching Cristian Mungiu’s Tales from the Golden Age, the 2009 omnibus of fanciful snapshots of life under communism in Romania. For many in the humble audience, these were positively tales from another world, hilarious but deeply unsettling in their constant reminding that even though the stories are whimsical, the underlying narratives are as real as they can be. The fakery of the ‘Golden Age’, a concept born out of communist propaganda, was exposed in all of its comical contradictions.
Nearly ten years later, a new set of tales have emerged, though the fakery hasn’t budged. This time, the stories are real, biographical, and provide a magnificent insight into the unrelenting machine of totalitarian falsification. And it’s one of the rarest instances of how to fight fake news with fake news, right at the heart of the raging machine.
Ioan T Morar’s new book Fake News during the Golden Age: Memories and Tales about the Communist Censorship (2020, Polirom), which I have written about previously in the pages of this blog, is a testament to the subversive power of ‘fakenewsery’.
Our fake-news age focuses on fake-news as tools of misinformation. Its perpetrators and critics alike focus on the phenomenon’s power/danger of deception. Morar’s book focuses, instead, on the fake as a survival kit and a potential weapon against censorship – neither of which are features of our political and social mess.
As a writer and journalist during the 70s and 80s, Morar felt the weight of communist censorship in every possible way. His literary output and professional activity were inflected and shaped by the constant interplay of what you want to write and what you are allowed to write, by the day-to-day struggle of how long and how far you can keep out of the maelstrom of collaboration and collusion with the government and its ever-present tentacles. Fake News during the Golden Age is a witness to this decade-old wrestling match with a dogged regime which promised a losing battle from the start. And yet, Morar wasn’t defeated.
If I have to take only one thing home from this 300+- page book, it must be the author’s ability to reprogram fakery to fight against its makers, like John Connor reprogramming the Terminators to fight against the machines that made them. This is by no means the only fil rouge of the book, but it is the most compelling thread of all, and is that which had me finish this book in record time.
Morar’s book documents the catalogue of falsifications during the Ceaușescu regime (Parts 1 and 2), the dictator’s twisted insistence on the human rights of the New Man (the right to life as ‘obligation to life’ as a result of the regime’s natalist policy from 1966 onwards, the right to freedom and personal safety as ‘the freedom to follow the Party and collaborate with the Securitate, the State Security, and so on), the myth of economic excellence (‘we’ll finish the five-year plan in four and a half even if we have to work for six’), dietary paternalism in the service of the citizen (‘Romanians are too fat, let’s starve them to get them in shape’), fake advertising and fake coffee, the atheist Father Christmas who lost his rosary, the merit of cost-free (but ineffectual) education, and forgive me, but I go on – football teams that didn’t exist, degrees never earned and diplomas never awarded (the falsification of CVs from the lowest apparatchik to the presidential couple itself), fake statements of popular support, fake environmentalism, fake photography, and so many other fakes and falsehoods. This is all known to the student of the period, and Morar only insists on these issues as they affected him personally. But the true relish of the book lies in the overturning of fakery against the fakers, which takes up the third and last part of the book, titled ‘The tiny velvet heroism’.
For a man or woman of moral uprightness, living through the Ceaușescu regime was a major challenge. How to avoid becoming an informer for the State Security, how to be a writer and not write eulogies for the Eternal Leader, how to remain true to yourself and beyond suspicion of dissidence, all the trials which the free world has never had to deal with shaped Morar’s career and journalistic activity. ‘Comedy is tragedy plus time’, Morar quips, quoting Woody Allen, quoting the 1958 New Yorker, quoting the 1957 Cosmopolitan. Reading Morar’s book, however, one can see that tragedy can become comedy without the extra time. And that is because of Morar’s ability to turn fakery on its head and slap the mandarins with it. How did he do that?
Struggling to evade the vigilance of the government and its rarified network of stool pigeons (as Solzhenitsyn might have said), Morar tells how the idea came to him to falsify stories that nobody could fact-check. One thing led to another, and before he knew it, Morar was leading the one-man operation ‘Fake News’ against government censorship. This was risky business, and if the government had called his bluff, it would have landed him in prison, or worse, in labour camp. But that didn’t happen, and the Faker was free to counterfeit his merchandise and parade it under the party’s red noses. He published poems by Cassius Clay which the famous boxer never wrote, love letters to Julio Inglesias which had never been sent, philosophical aphorisms by Bud Spencer which the Italian actor and swimmer had never written. He published poems under his son’s name, then only a few months old (omitting the last name). He anglicised his name ‘John T Miller’ to pass for an American author that his Romanian alter-ego was publishing in translation. This kind of multi-layered fakery was a huge serious joke performed on a dead-serious regime. The forgery worked because it was carefully designed, and because it leveraged the ‘weapons’ of communist totalitarianism: ignorance and fear of the outside world, professional mediocrity and, the most subversive of all, gullibility. Only the fall of the regime in 1989 put an end to this charade.
Fakery is bad, but reprogrammed fakery is sometimes the only cure to fakery. Many writers will tell you that fiction is their lifeline. Many will tell you that fiction is their way of expressing dissent. Ioan Morar’s book proves that this is as true as it can be.