Book Review, Historical Fiction

I Must Betray You – Book Review by a Romanian

If you’re looking for the perfect read, this is it: a fast-paced, beautiful story, a historical fiction I can attest is extremely accurate and very well documented. Ruta Sepetys is not Romanian, yet she proved she can understand Romanians at least as well, if not better than they do themselves.

I am Romanian. I’m not old enough to have lived through communism, I was two when Ceausescu stood trial and got executed for the crimes against his own people. I evidently don’t remember anything from that time. But my parents and grandparents remembered everything. They made sure I was aware of what happened and also that I read enough about it to understand it. Living in fear and poverty is something that leaves deep marks. A proof of that is that we, as a people, have had a difficult time healing that part of ourselves. With this book, why that was is a lot more clear, as the author doesn’t only look at the historical part, but looks deep at the humans that lived through it and their reactions.

The main character is Cristian Florescu, an ordinary seventeen-year-old who lives in Bucharest in 1989. He tells us his story and that of his family in this totalitarian regime, when he is approached by the “Securitate” – the secret section of the police that deals with state enemies. Sadly, in Ceausescu’s regime, it is really easy to become a state enemy. Foreigners, for example, were treated like enemies by default. They were to be spied on, not to be trusted and forbidden to talk to without express permission from the secret police.

When Cristian is blackmailed to collaborate with them and spy on an American family, we come to know his inner struggle with the decision as well as the shame of his family finding out. He resolves in trying to outsmart the police, trying to undermine the regime and expose to the world what it’s like to be Romanian under a dictator.

Something that the author understood right away and was a powerful message of this book was how two-faced Ceausescu had been. He was appreciated by the West, as he had stood against Russia, the Soviet Union of the time, and had supported an independence of Eastern states. In reality, Ceausescu was collaborating with Russia and favored strong economical ties with them. This is what Cristian realizes and what actually pushes him to try to expose him to the entire world.

Cristian’s story is a deeply moving one. Being blackmailed into becoming an informer, he is forced to grow up early, forced to search early for an understanding of the world around him, all the while not ever being able to trust those around him. This was eye-opening for me. It is said one in ten Romanians was an informer. In reality, this number is surely higher. After the regime dropped, there where cases made public of brothers informing on their sisters. The fear of the regime was constant and the impossibility of trusting your own family made it even worse. Cristian’s story is revealing of this spread mistrust and it is a shocking one.

I appreciated a lot of things about his story. Cristian is tormented with his inner struggle about what to do and, to add to that, he falls in love. As if relationships are not complicated enough, a real openness is not possible. Too many things are left unsaid for a truly deep connection to be possible. That is available for the friendships in his life as well. The sense of loneliness in this kind of world is difficult to bear.

And yet, a lot of jokes are sprinkled throughout. That I find typical of Romanians. No matter what happens and the more difficult something is to deal with, the more we cover it up in laughter and do not really deal with it until it blows up. It is what happened with the Revolution. In all Eastern Europe the Revolutions were bloodless in 1989. Here, Ceausescu was executed. It was simply too much to bear any more. This book shows why. I never read another one to show it better. It’s simply a must read for anyone interested in how a totalitarian regime operates and, even more, it’s a beautiful story.

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