How to Smell a Lie

I live in Trump’s America, and lies are the air we breathe here. I mean, the literal air in Seattle is literally not good for breathing because of wildfire smoke, but this is not what my post is about. This is about the last six months—no, it’s not about COVID-19 either—but about the novel I researched and outlined, and I was ready to start writing this week (because I still need to do something while the world crumbles around me and the kids are in remote schooling).

I’ve recently rediscovered the history of the Romanian uprising of 1989, a history that comes in two conflicting and compelling narratives. Here’s how I smelled the lying version.

Fact versus Fiction

First, let me tell you a little bit about my skillset. I’m a fiction writer and I also write essays on this website, so I’m familiar with both fiction and nonfiction writing. And this is what I know: Fiction is orderly, fact is chaotic.

Fiction writers know what I’m talking about. There are so many craft books out there explaining how to organize your novel from the moment the first glimmer of inspiration hits you. There are narrative acts to design (and plot points, and subplots, and twists), characters’ needs and wants to expose, chronology to keep right, world building to develop, author’s voice to hone—to name just a few—and they all have rules that end in very strict results such as genre and wordcount.

There’s constant, certified, crushing order in fiction, whereas the source of nonfiction is at its heart chaotic, like a birthday party where lots of things happen at the same time. The common narrative line is the party, yes, but the stories coming from it are quite different, depending on who tells them: the birthday kid or the bored grandma sitting in a corner.

The nonfiction author’s job is to find patterns and add structure to the chaos of life. The author needs to create narrative lines, structure the timeline, and include sources that validate the aspects chosen for emphasis. Facts that don’t support the thesis or the theme are irrelevant and are erased from the narrative, even though they’re just as true as the rest.

Narrative A

Back to the Romanian uprising of December 1989. I learned Narrative A from Romanian magazine articles and from breathless anchors on Romanian TV shows discussing documents declassified after 30 years. I watched interviews with people who had been active at the Revolution, and I asked my family in Romania what they remembered. This is what I learned (simplified):

  • Mikhail Gorbachev of USSR hated Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania, so he decided to remove him from power via a military coup in 1989
  • in August 1989, covert Soviet agents began moving in on the territory of Romania, awaiting their orders
  • in December 1989, Gorbachev gave the order, and the Soviet agents began creating popular unrest in the city of Timișoara, first gathering crowds at the house of a priest slated for removal from the city, then destroying property in the city to create more chaos
  • the people of Bucharest, goaded by Soviet agents, followed Timișoara’s example, and poured into their own streets
  • in Bucharest, Ceaușescu tried to pacify them by offering a small increase in government funds, which only enraged people
  • the Soviet agents maneuvered the masses into chaos, which forced the president to order the army into the streets
  • when the masses attacked the president’s building, the leaders of the army (who worked for the KGB) convinced Ceaușescu to abandon the city via helicopter, while the leaders of the Securitate (the Department of State Security) called off their agents, hoping for a peaceful transition of power
  • the leaders of the army and the Securitate took over the national TV station and soon the levers of power
  • after abandoning their helicopter, and other mishaps, Ceaușescu and his wife were arrested
  • the military coup was a success, but the people of Bucharest continued to protest against communism and the Securitate, so, in order to push them back into their homes, the Soviet agents (now called “terrorists” by the media) began shooting into the crowds, especially at night
  • the new military leaders finished Ceaușescu off in a sham trial followed by execution (and misplaced his dead body for a while)
  • after the president’s death, many people chose to go home, so the terrorists stood down
  • the new civil leader was Ion Iliescu and he was Gorbachev-approved
  • the head of Securitate (who had protected Ceaușescu before the uprising and who refused to shoot civilians during the uprising) was arrested by the army leaders under the supervision of the Soviet ambassador to Bucharest
  • Romania lived under a gentle Soviet occupation until 1991, when the USSR collapsed

This version of events was a huge shock to me. For kids like me, the years after the Revolution had been all about MTV and Beverly Hills. And now I learned we had been under a Soviet occupation. Wow…

Courtesy of https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/

Also, Narrative A provided the second major historical shift of my life. The first had been when I realized that communism wasn’t as awesome as I’d learned from communist textbooks (I wrote about it here). But I accepted this new shift easier. After all, history has a way of constantly changing on us, hence this whole website.

The New Novel

Growing up, I stopped trying to understand what had happened at the Revolution. In the spring of 2020, Narrative A grabbed me because it explained a still unsolved mystery about those days: Who killed more than a thousand people in December 1989 and wounded many others? Who were the so-called terrorists? The dead were real and their families had never received justice. Now we had some answers: the Russians did it, which is not a farfetched proposition, considering recent events in Ukraine and Belarus. And let’s not forget the 2016 US election interference.

Because I’m a writer, my brain ignited: I could write a novel about these amazing revelations. The narrative lines were there to exploit, the characters had compelling arcs, the stakes were high. I wasn’t going to write about Romania in 1989, though, because that wouldn’t be engaging/interesting/compelling on the US market, so I came up with a sci-fi world with events and characters based on Narrative A.

After weeks of research, I started outlining my sci-fi thriller. In another month, I had it all written up: the premise, the characters with their arcs, the three-act structure with all its necessary scenes—all based on Narrative A with its gripping story. My protagonist was a man in his fifties with a deep sense of loyalty, who worked in the Secret Police, and who was close to the dictator of this futuristic European country. The borders were closed and a belligerent neighbor country stood ready to attack. When his son tried to flee the country and was arrested, my protagonist had to choose between his love for his child and (what he thought was) the greater good of his country. Pretty decent stakes, right?

Narrative B

Life interfered with my neat plan of working on the manuscript next. I signed with my agent and I had to prepare my immigration thriller for submission to publishers. Then I had to revise another manuscript, but finally, I was back to my sci-fi thriller, just in time to distract myself from the madness of our upcoming elections.

I was ready to start writing scenes, when I learned of Narrative B from a presentation of a book written by Andrei Ursu, Roland O. Thomasson, and Mădălin Hodor, based on years of sifting through the archives of the Securitate, and named (and I translate the Romanian title here) Shooters and Mystifiers: The Securitate’s Counterrevolution in December 1989. An excerpt can be read here.

I bought the book and here’s its summary (also simplified):

  • in December 1989, in Timișoara, a priest was scheduled for forced removal from the city, and his parishioners gathered around his home to protect him
  • the Miliția (the local police) tried to disperse the crowds but people resisted, blocking the streets and asking riders of buses and streetcars to join them—and many did
  • Ceaușescu’s wife had the idea to gather workers in all the factories of Timișoara and to send them out to fight the protesters, but the workers decided to join the protests
  • the Securitate was asked to disperse the crowds, so they started shooting at people from random places—their term for protecting Ceaușescu’s regime through terror and panic was “The Resistance”
  • people died in the streets and Radio Free Europe broadcasted their anguished cries (I remember hearing them)
  • some brave people rode the train to Bucharest and started spreading the uprising there
  • in Bucharest, Ceaușescu tried to pacify the protesters by offering a small increase in government funds, which only enraged people
  • the gathering broke into chaos, and the president ordered the army into the streets
  • many soldiers on duty were between the ages of 18 and 21, doing their mandatory service, and they refused to engage
  • when the masses attacked the president’s building, the military and the Securitate leaders tried to save him by blocking the assailants and clearing the path to the presidential helicopter
  • the protesters took over that building and the army leader was forced to order all aircraft grounded
  • opportunists and common people appeared on the newly seized TV station and announced to the country that the dictator had fled
  • the army declared itself on the side of the Revolution, but the Securitate continued its Resistance plans, which were to scare the population into retreating, so that the president could return. The orders were to shoot for short periods of time into civilian buildings and army targets, especially at night
  • the presidential helicopter landed in a field for fear of being shot down by anti-aircraft missiles, and after a few car changes and other mishaps, Ceaușescu and his wife were arrested
  • the people of Bucharest continued to protest against communism and the Securitate, and the Resistance to terrorize them, now with more casualties than before
  • the new military leaders finished Ceaușescu off in a sham trial followed by execution (and misplaced his dead body for a while)
  • the terrorists stood down, now that their leader was dead
  • the new civil leader was Ion Iliescu, an old-time communist who thought communism could be saved in Romania
  • the head of the Securitate (who had protected Ceaușescu before the uprising and who ordered the shooting of civilians during the uprising) was arrested
  • Romania began its bumpy transition from communism to capitalism, which continues to this day

How to Smell a Lie

As a writer, the problem I had with Narrative B was that I couldn’t find a ready novel waiting to be plucked from it. It was all a jumble that could be reduced to “people who’d had enough with the misery of communism risked their lives to change their lot, while the authorities tried to put them down.” At every turn, random things happened that changed the course of the uprising. The people who grabbed power were the best prepared at a moment when the chance of their lifetime appeared. Everybody played their cards as well as they could at the time. Some won and some lost—mostly the Romanian people, who thought they’d have a bright future but instead were mired in economic hardship and lack of justice for years.

Looking at the two narratives side by side, I could see that one was neatly organized and the other was a mess. I should mention here that in a country of 23 million people in 1989, the Securitate employed thousands of agents and half a million informants, which was like a state within a state. All those people needed a future in the new Romania, and so their history had to be rewritten and cleansed. They were no longer the force that had kept the country in chains for decades and then tried to kill the uprising. The Russians did that.

I could go into more detail, as I’m sure I got some of the specifics wrong, but there’s really no point. I remember growing up with the glorious history of communism, only to learn in 1990 that it was all a lie, so it seems plausible to me that the former leaders of the Romanian communist regime would try one more time to obfuscate their history. As a writer, I can tell fiction from fact just by its tidiness. I know how to smell a lie.

To me, it seems plausible that a popular uprising would create a pushback from the authorities and that the aftermath would be messy. I accept Narrative B (the common people’s heroism) instead of Narrative A (Moscow playing deadly games with Romania), and I’m grateful to those who risked and even gave their lives in 1989 so I could write these words here and now. I won’t be writing that sci-fi thriller though, because I’d be reusing—even marginally—the narrative the former Securitate has invented in order to exonerate itself. Yeah, it hurts to throw away all that work, but that’s the right thing to do.

8 thoughts on “How to Smell a Lie

  1. I love this, Roxana! It’s always courageous to interrogate too-tidy versions of history, but especially so when you’ve invested so much work AND it’s a topic that holds personal significance. Too many readers turn to fiction, especially on topics they are less familiar with, assuming that they are reading “lightly fictionalized” history. Taking liberties with historical fact is always fraught, especially when it shores up one version of history over another. I admire your commitment to integrity. Fiction writers, unite! I can’t wait to see where you go next, whether you rework the project or start something entirely new. Happy writing!

    • I’m questioning lots of things these days, as I guess many of us are, in a country where lying has become so mainstream. Where “alternative facts” are not shameful anymore, but just the way we play the game. You know, wink, wink, and a smile–we all do it, right? No, we don’t all do it.
      It’s tiring to doubt everything, but it’s also the sane thing to do. And I definitely try not to add to this depravity just because it’d be convenient or not a big deal. I hope we’ll see better days soon.
      Thanks for understanding me, Melanie, and for your support. I’m glad to hear your voice again.

    • Thank you so much for reading, Stefan. I’ll try to tell my best story, given that it reflects reality in important aspects. It might seem like there’s a huge gap between fiction and reality, but fiction that doesn’t illuminate reality doesn’t quite work. I’m not going to use Narrative A because that would be disrespectful to the people who fought and died at the Revolution, but I’ll think hard about another narrative that (as is always my goal) reflects reality somehow.
      So glad to see you found my blog, and I hope you enjoy my stories here. Talk to you soon!

  2. Your search for the truth–assuming there is one–makes a great story in itself, Roxana. At the risk of giving a fellow author unsolicited advice, I wonder whether the two narratives are incompatible. To state the obvious, there are plenty of novels in which more than one perspective appears, and the reader doesn’t necessarily know which is reliable. I also recall your post a while back about your Me Too experiences in Romania; and if it were me, I’d be tempted to throw that into the pot as well. No science fiction required; the truth, even in fictional form, is strange enough.

    • Thanks, Larry. I’ve been thinking about “rewriting history” as the new idea for the novel: people trying to alter the way the past is recorded and to permanently bury the truth. But I don’t have a path forward just yet. I needed to clear the deck first and give myself space to look at this wealth of information from multiple angles. If I figure out how to make an engaging narrative from it (you know, all those craft books mentioned above), I’ll write about that journey then.
      As always, thank you so much for reading!

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