Andrei Codrescu is a regular commentator on National Public
Radio. Codrescu wrote and starred in the Peabody Award-winning
movie Road Scholar. He is a MacCurdy Distinguished Professor
of English and comparative literature at Louisiana State University
in Baton Rouge, where he edits Exquisite
Corpse: A Journal of Letters and Life.
Read a candid e-mail interview with Codrescu conducted by FRONTLINE/World
series editor Stephen Talbot.
You fled Romania, your birthplace, in 1965 at the age of 19
and came to live in the United States. In 1989 you returned
to witness the revolution that ended communist rule. Do you
still feel like an exile?
is too strong a word. My mother and I were part of a deal in
the mid-60s between Romania and Israel. Israel bought freedom
for Romanian Jews for $2,000 a head. Ceausescu made a bundle
in hard currency. He also "sold" ethnic Germans to West Germany.
Instead of going to Israel, my mother and I came to the United
States. She had a fiancé here, and I was determined to write
in English. After so many years, I feel more American than anything
else, but I'm also Romanian and whatever other oddities of temperament
I picked up elsewhere, in Transylvania or France, for instance.
These days everybody is both an exile and a resident -- they
don't call it the global village for nothing.
As a teenage rebel, you had already started to write
poems that could have landed you in jail had you stayed in Romania.
Some poets you know became dissidents and revolutionaries. Still
others wrote paeans to the dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. What
is it about poets and tyrants?
Kundera wrote a wonderful analysis of the duplicity of poets
and the troubling relations between poetry and power in his
Is Elsewhere. His point is that poetry encourages irrationality
and sentimentality and thus appeals to the least reasonable
side of human beings. I have no quarrel with that, but then
look what reason has gotten us: "scientific" Marxism, eugenics,
materialism without borders. There has to be a balance between
the -- granted -- unprovable yearnings of the human heart and
the dictates of reason. In the past, tyrants have appealed to
"reason," but they used court poets to charm the masses. Many
dictators started writing poetry as students (Mao, Stalin, Ho
Chi Minh) but later preferred killing poets instead. Romanians
have a particular love for poetry and have a beautiful, vivid
language. The poets they love are not versifiers like Vadim
Tudor, but genuinely complex mystical souls like Mircea Cartarescu.
Andrei Codrescu jokes in a Lenin mask
with the discarded statue of Lenin that lays forgotten on
the outskirts of Bucharest.
When we first spoke about your going to Romania to do a story
for FRONTLINE/World, you told me, "For an American audience,
Romania is quickly becoming some kind of dark cloud whence descend,
in order, Dracula, orphans, crazed gymnasts and absurdist writers."
If that is the stereotype of Romania, what is the reality?
Those things you mention are part of the images we choose to
describe an exotic, to us, place. Other aspects are more solid:
a beautiful seacoast; wonderful mountains; gifted people; a
wicked sense of humor that has helped Romanians to survive a
largely hostile history; hospitality, sometimes extreme; and
physically attractive and energetic young people who, incidentally,
love American pop culture.
What do Romanians think of Americans?
I can qualify the above by saying that the Romanian love affair
with America goes through phases. After the end of the dictatorship,
that love was exaggerated, it was a cargo cult. They expected
everything advertised on American TV to be dropped from planes.
Later, they became more realistic, but Romania is sincere in
wanting to belong to NATO, for instance. There are no visas
required for American citizens.
are some traits that you believe distinguish Romanians from
others in the former Soviet Bloc countries of Eastern Europe?
Fortune teller Regina Maria Campina
wouldn't pose for a photograph with Andrei Codrescu unless
she could wear her solid gold crown.
Romanians are culturally European, very close to the French.
Socially, they are now building a society that is emotionally
closer to the Balkans, Turkey and Greece. The inept postcommunist
governments have kept Romania from implementing quick reforms,
so the economy is a mess, way behind Poland or Hungary. There
was never a clean purge of the "formers," either in government
or in the secret police. It's not so much a matter of traits,
as a political problem.
I like your description of postcommunist Romania as a country
where people, after four decades of totalitarian rule, "let out
a great sigh of relief that has morphed into quickened breath,
fits of anxiety, howls of agony -- a veritable caco(sym)phony."
Describe some of the excitement, anxiety and pain you saw this
I saw a lot positive energy, sometimes quite surreal, in young
entrepreneurs and artists. I saw also the unbearable misery
of retired people who can barely survive on miniscule pensions.
On the one hand, the cafés in the cities were full of young
people with cell phones, the streets were full of color, the
beaches were crowded with fine -- topless -- bodies, and villas
under construction dotted the countryside. On the other hand,
old folks crowded the churches hoping for a miracle so that
they could eat.
I have a friend whose mother was born in Romania, moved to Chicago,
and spoke English with a heavy accent. In the 1950s, her young,
American-born son would bring friends home to meet her, and when
she would greet them, they would flee, shrieking. She was mortified
to discover that her enterprising son was charging kids 50 cents
for an opportunity to meet "Dracula's mother." Is Dracula Romania's
cross to bear -- or an economic opportunity?
It's a fun thing to play with, and it's only fair that some
of the money Hollywood made on our famous native would come
back at last. I got quite a lot of mileage out of Dracula when
I was 20 years old. The girls got a funny feeling in their neck
when I talked to them.
In an NPR commentary on the Romanian government's plan to construct
a Dracula theme park in Transylvania, you said, "If Dracula Land
is a success, the promoters can go on and build Commie Land."
Do you have any suggestions for rides and attractions?
Yeah. Tourists can stay in bugged hotels; they can be followed
by shady guys, interrogated for hours by guys with dark glasses
and meet locals furtively in public parks. They can also starve
the whole time, which will be great for their diets.
FRONTLINE/World report features a new breed of Romanian capitalist
-- a man who started 10 years ago with a loan of $500 now owns
several companies and trains young Romanian women to be exotic
dancers for export to Japan and Italy. How would you describe
the current state of Romanian capitalism?
A pensive Andrei Codrescu.
Hodgepodge, improvised, wild, dangerous and possibly fun. Unfortunately,
nothing works in the entrepreneurs' favor. The laws are murky,
there are too many bribes to pay, and foreign investors shriek
with horror like your friend's kid's friends when they encounter
the bureaucracy. Romania needs, first of all, some decent packaging
and distribution businesses. Mailboxes Etc., for instance. I
think that the next president should be the CEO of FedEx, if
he (would) take the job.
You told me about a Romanian punk group named Cold Stuffed Cabbage
who sing an ironic anthem, "Cryogeny Will Save Romania," mocking
famous "frozen" Romanians, including Dracula and Ceausescu. What
do you make of Romania's youth culture?
The young are Romania's best hope. They are not afraid, they
don't whisper, slouch or hide. They are outspoken, in your face,
and they will eventually replace the still-scared old folks.
Families are pretty close, but attitudes are worlds apart between
the old and the young.
In your book about the 1989 revolution, The Hole in the Flag,
you report that elements of the Old Guard stage-managed the overthrow
of Ceausescu and found ways to insinuate themselves into the new
order. How democratic do you find Romania today? Who's in charge?
Good question. In my opinion, there are dozens of mini-mafias
operating at every level of society. Some of them have achieved
a modus vivendi, others are out only for narrow pieces of the
pie. These people lie to everybody, including the monitors for
the European Union, NATO, etc. They are giving Romania a reputation
for untrustworthiness, alas. Happily, there are also extremely
scrupulous and smart people who run various civic society projects,
such as Ioana Avadani of the Center for Independent Journalism,
Soros Foundation workers, terrific journalists, and graduates
from Western universities who are going back and doing good
Jason Cohn, one of your colleagues, describes Vadim Tudor, the
ultra-nationalist leader you interviewed, as a man who combines
characteristics of Elvis and Hitler. Is he a buffoon? a threat?
Andrei Codrescu gets an earful of
nationalist leader Vadim Tudor.
He's certainly a threat, but he's neither as magnetic as Elvis
nor as evil as Hitler. He's more of a clown in the Zhrinovski
mold. He'll say anything that comes to his mind, especially
if it's shocking or outrageous, and enjoys the reactions. He
does make a pretty good case against corruption and that finds
a large audience. Unfortunately, he's mostly a populist demagogue.
Nobody has any idea what he really thinks.
Gypsies have long been part of Romania's culture, though often
the victims of discrimination and persecution. What's their
status these days in the new Romania?
Ambiguous. There are rival Gypsy groups, some of them allied
with Ion Iliescu, the president, others still nomadic and flying
below radar. Ethnic Romanians are fond of blaming them for all
kinds of crime and for giving Romanians a bad image in Europe,
for petty rackets and begging. They have been persecuted in
the past, they were slaves until the mid-19th century, they
were victims of the Nazi Holocaust, and they are still discriminated
against. There are many initiatives to incorporate them into
the mainstream, but they are rightfully suspicious. They are
having a moment of ethnic pride now -- there is a revival of
tradition, including their ethnic costumes and music.
An early draft of your script concluded, "Romania broke my heart
even as it challenged my logic." What saddened you this time?
What surprised you?
Everything surprised me, good and bad. I ended up falling in
love again with the people and the landscape. I feel that I
should do more to help Romanians get out of their rut. In a
small way, of course.
Links relevant to this article:
In this NPR piece, Codrescu "paints a verbal canvas" of Romania
just weeks after visiting his homeland to survey the economic
and cultural scene.
Codrescu's Web site
Read Codrescu's biography and learn more about his work.