A Killer Detail: Catch-22

Rewriting a manuscript requires reading other writers and learning from them new ways of using the language – unthinkable ways, uncomfortable ways, unlikely ways. This is a quick list of what I took away from Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22.

Rhetorical Devices

WWCASWhen Joseph Heller doesn’t use alliteration, he uses anaphora, or anacoluthon, or asyndeton – or everything else in the book.

“There was not an organ of his body that had not been drugged and derogated, dusted and dredged, fingered and photographed, removed, plundered and replaced.”  – Catch-22, p. 23

Sometimes he creates his own words, if he needs to.

“There was a urologist for his urine, a lymphologist for his lymph, an endocrinologist for his endocrines, a psychologist for his psyche, a dermatologist for his derma; there was a pathologist for his pathos, a cystologist for his cysts.” – Catch-22, p. 23


Catch-22His dialogue works as counterpoint to his exquisite narration. The dialogue is not symbolic and it is not distilled. There are lots of thankyous and goodbyes. The characters talk to each other without catching a breath, as if that would prolong their lives in an alien world where death is waiting to strike the moment people shut up and get onto the battlefield.

“Yes, I do. No, a mart. Do you know what a mart is?”

“It’s a place where you buy things, isn’t it?”

“And sell things,” corrected Milo.

“And sell things.”

“All my life I’ve wanted a mart. You can do lots of things if you’ve got a mart. But you’ve got to have a mart.”

“You want a mart?”

“And every man will have his share.” – Catch-22, p. 76

Although this simple dialogue doesn’t seem to do much work, its lines weave themselves with similar ones throughout the chapters, creating a coherent support of symbols and facts, and allowing for a solid reality to emerge from all that clamoring. Nothing is random in this book. That last line is what Milo will use to justify his syndicate’s crimes.

Creating Humor

Heller creates humor using the simplest method: juxtaposing unexpected images in the same sentence or paragraph.

“The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likeable. In three days no one could stand him.” – Catch-22, p. 17

“Doc Daneeka was Yossarian’s friend and would do just about nothing in his power to help him.” – Catch-22, p. 37

In most cases when Heller uses these kind of disjoint sentences, the previous lines are dead serious, and it’s this continuous juggling of seriousness and hilarity that takes the reader out of any comfort zone, out of any predictable experience, and makes this writing so memorable. After all, this is a story about war, and it’s a story about the fear of dying, which are always dead serious subjects.

Pictures at an Exhibition

Heller does something quite unusual for a novel: he repeats the stories and the words of his characters across multiple chapters. The story of Appleby who had “flies in his eyes,” the story of Orr and the whore who hit him in the head with a shoe, Milo’s adventures – they recur until the reader feels trapped into a whirlwind of familiar crazy faces. The lack of visible plot for hundreds of pages adds to the effect. We are watching pictures at an exhibition, it seems, not a story unfolding, and Heller’s habit of jumping back and forth in time enhances this feeling of being trapped with no chance of escape. That’s what Yossarian must’ve felt every time Colonel Cathcart increased the number of missions soldiers had to fly before being sent home. What makes the reader stick to this crazy story (“Are you crazy?” is one of the questions the characters ask each other most often) is the writing itself: the rich narration, the humor, the absurd dialogue, the exact depiction of the absurdity of war.

Said What?

Writers know that they should just use “said” after a line of dialogue, and strive to convey the emotion through the words uttered or the gestures and facial expression of the speaker. Going for the extreme, here is a list of verbs that Joseph Heller uses instead of “said,” to the effect of turning expectations on their head once more. Oh, and these verbs come with their “-ly” adverbs more often than not, such as “inquired curiously” and “barked gruffly” and “insisted lamely” – in case anybody misses the point.

Accused Commented Interrupted Repeated
Acquiesced Complained Jeered Replied
Addressed Concluded Joked Reported
Admitted Confessed Lament Reproached
Admonished Confided Lashed out Responded
Advised Conjectured Laughed Retorted
Agreed Contended Maintained Roared
Announced Continued Moaned Screamed
Answered Corrected Mocked Scolded
Apologized Countered Mourned Scoffed
Applauded Cried Mumbled Shouted
Asked Decided Murmured Shrieked
Asserted Declared Mused Snapped
Assured (him) Decreed Noticed Snarled
Barked Demanded Objected Sneered
Began Directed Observed Sobbed
Begged Emphasized Offered Spoke
Bellowed Exclaimed Ordained Sputtered
Bleated Explained Ordered Stammered
Bluffed Exploded Persisted Stated
Blurted out Faltered Persevered Suggested
Boasted Gasped Pleaded Taunted
Bragged Gloated Pointed out Teased
Brooded Grieved Pouted Threatened
Cackled Groaned Prodded Thundered
Called Grumbled Promised Told
Cautioned Guessed Proposed Urged
Censured Guffawed Protested Wailed
Chanted Hastened (to explain) Purred Wanted to know
Charged Hesitated Queried Warned
Chided Hissed Reasoned Went on
Chortled Howled Rebuked Wept
Chuckled Ignored Recalled Whimpered
Coaxed Inquired Reflected Whined
Comforted (him) Insisted Rejoiced Whispered
Complained Instructed Remarked Yelled
Commended Interjected Remembered Yielded

How My Five-Year-Old Helped Me Write a Scene

Writing at Louisa's - Photo by Jerry Jaz

Writing at Louisa’s – Photo by Jerry Jaz

“Can I come with you to the little house?” my five-year old daughter said.

“No, honey, I’m working there,” I said.

“What are you working?”

“I’m writing a book,” I said.

“Can I read it?”

“You can, when it’s done, but it’s not done yet…”

“I can help you,” she said, picking up a few crayons and markers.

She doesn’t know it, but she’s already helping me.

The Medicine Women Scene I Wrote This Week

“Mama,” Eena said, “why didn’t the bell ring today?”

She crouched in front of the two Y-shaped branches sticking out of the floor by the trapdoor, but didn’t dare touch the bell hanging from the horizontal stick held in between. The rope tied to the short spur on the bell’s hoop was limp, as it had been all day, sagging on the ground before disappearing into the hole at the corner where the trapdoor met the floor.

“I don’t know…” Rada said. “I don’t know…”

Eena caught the glance her mother threw at Grandmother Zia and she saw fear. She felt like crying, but knew that her mother wanted her strong. She had been feeling a lump in her throat since the day the Cartographer’s legs buckled from underneath him outside their door. Eena saw him lying in the mud, his face and hands covered in purple boils, the cold rain pouring over the village and over him, and she felt so sad for him, especially when Great-grandmother Ana didn’t allow anyone to touch him and she ordered him to get back on his feet and walk by himself into the tunnel that led to the cellar underneath the roundhouse.

“Where’s my chocolate?” my daughter asks my high school friend who visits us from Paris every few months, and each time he brings for my kids two boxes of dark chocolate ribbons, one raspberry-flavored, one orange-flavored.

Eena had seen sick people before, but she cared a lot about the Cartographer because each time he visited he brought her sweets and small toys carved from wood and sometimes even painted, and he told her stories of faraway lands. She was not allowed to see him now, none of them was, except for Great-grandmother Ana, who opened the cellar’s trapdoor in the floor and climbed down alone. Before she closed the trapdoor over her head, Great-grandmother Ana told the three of them to stay in the house and wait for the silver bell to ring. When it did, they were to put food, water or whatever medical things Great-grandmother Ana needed on a wooden tray and to leave the tray on the stone steps of the cellar.

That day, Eena heard her mother and grandmother say that the Cartographer had a fever and that the gods might take him – where? – and that the pox looked different than what they had seen before, maybe a new disease the Romans had brought to the Dark Sea harbors. Eena had heard about the Dark Sea from the Cartographer, but she didn’t dare interrupt to ask who the Romans were or what a harbor was. Ever since Great-grandmother Ana went down into the cellar to try her remedies on the Cartographer and to learn how to cure him, Eena had seen fear in her mother’s eyes. Fear made Eena want to cry.

“I didn’t cry,” my daughter said after the two shots at her five-year checkup. “Did you see that I didn’t cry? But it hurt, more than a splinter, but less than when I fall and hurt my knee.”

The cut on Eena’s arm hurt today but was also itchy around the edges. It hurt in the morning, when Rada removed the bandage, to let the wound dry. The day after the Cartographer arrived, Rada cut open the skin on Eena’s left arm with a sharp blade and rubbed on the ointment that Great-grandmother Ana had sent up from the cellar. It hurt, but Eena pursed her lips and took in deep breaths while Rada sang an incantation about turning death into life and poison into medicine. The ointment smelled sweet and sickly and somehow Eena knew that it had come from the Cartographer’s purple boils, but when she asked, Rada told her to be quiet and not to worry. Now she had an itchy wound on her left arm and she wanted to scratch it.

“No!” Zia said, shaking her finger at Eena. Eena’s right hand froze inches away from the scab on her left arm. “Mine itches too, but I try to not think about it. Think about something else!”

Five3Something else… Eena looked up, following the smoke rising from the fire, through the hanging hunks of meat, to the opening in the roof, between the tall rafters. She counted the skinned rabbits, the legs of lamb, the plucked pheasants hanging from long ropes of dried entrails over the open hearth, but she ran out of fingers on her two hands and stopped.

“How long do we wait until we go in?” Rada said.

“Give her till sunset,” Zia said.

“Nobody cares,” my daughter sings when she cries. “No-body ever cares how I feeeeel.”

Eena heard the tremor in her grandmother’s voice and she couldn’t help it anymore. Tears welled up in her eyes. She sniffled and tried to think of something else. She hummed the song about baby bears up in the mountains. Great-grandmother Ana’s face appeared over the image of baby bears.

“May you read this story to me?” my daughter said.

“No way,” I said, “it’s too long.”

“No problem, read it one page at a time. One at a time, remember?”

“Mama…” Eena said, “can you tell me a story?”

“Now?” Rada said. “What story you want me to tell you?”

Eena heard anger where before there was only fear.

“Mama, how do you become a doctor?” my daughter said.

“You first have to go to medical school, then learn from an older doctor until you know how to be a doctor well enough that you won’t hurt the people you’re trying to help.”

“But,” she said, “how did the first person become a doctor then?”

“Tell me how you became a medicine woman…” Eena whispered.

She held her breath. Her mother was going to send her to her sleeping fur, behind the hide screen, even though telling a story would help all three of them wait for the sunset. But that was just the way her mother was sometimes.

“First,” Rada said, “I was born in the Goddess’s line of medicine women. Then, my mother taught me the healers’ secrets. For twelve years I was her apprentice.”

Rada sat down on the bowl-shaped stone slab in front of the open hearth. Her eyes looked even darker in the light of the fire. Eena sat down next to her. The itch on her arm burned.

“And, Grandmother Zia, how did you become a medicine woman?” Eena said.

“I learned from my mother,” Zia said with a nod toward the closed trapdoor.

Grandmother Zia walked toward the low table at the back of the house, where the orange sun flooded in through the square window hole. She sat on the floor with her legs crossed and opened a small bag of wheat. Her thin fingers scooped the grain out and poured it into a hand-mill.

“But how did the first medicine woman become a medicine woman?” Eena said, turning back to Rada.

Eena felt that she must have said something smart because her mother had that dimple in her left cheek and that glint in her eye that she had when she was pleased, like that time when Eena not only recognized the bleeding helmets Rada had planted in the garden, but also remembered that the mushroom was a good sign that the mountain cave where Ea, the Goddess, had hidden Her poison was somewhere near.

“Ah,” Rada said. “There’s a story about that first medicine woman, Eena.”

A story, yes! Eena shifted in her place, by her mother. She picked the ends of the thin rope tied around her waist, two twines, one red, one white, and with their ruffled tassels held together, she brushed over the scab on her left arm. It felt better, but now she only wanted to scratch more at it. Instead, Eena focused on her mother’s thin lips moving.

“Once upon a time,” Rada said, in almost a whisper, “before the days of Queen Hestia, who turned the gardens of the East into the wasteland of Steppewynd, the Goddess used to roam the earth and watch over Her people. One late winter, after the ewes had their lambs, Ea disguised Herself as an old woman with six fur overcoats and came down on earth right here, where the Buzeon and the Hierasus Rivers meet. Here, there once stood a shepherds’ village. Ea carried in Her arms a baby girl in a white lambskin bunting. The ewes in the pens heard the baby cooing and smelled her bunting and they woke up the shepherds with their bleating. When they came out from their huts, the people saw the old woman laying the baby on the snow-covered ground between two leafless willow trees, but they couldn’t say a word to Her or take a step toward Her until She disappeared into the morning mist.”

“Was that baby the first in our line?” Eena said.

“Yes,” Rada said, “she was. And the people in the village knew in their hearts that the child was a gift from the gods, and they took her in and gave her a rag soaked in sheep’s milk to suckle on and they cared for her as if she were one of their own. And after six years, they were repaid for their kindness, because the girl showed them that she could heal wounds and bring relief from pain.”

“You have to always take responsibility for your actions,” I said.

“What does respon-see-bee-lee-tee even mean?”

“What was the girl’s name?” Eena said.

“In the beginning, they called her Twin Willows,” Zia said from the back of the house.

“That’s the name of our village!” Eena said.

“That’s because our village was later named after the first medicine woman’s name,” Rada said.

“But she had another name,” Zia said, folding the empty linen sack on the table. “Root-Setter.”

“That’s not a beautiful name,” Eena said.

“Mother,” Rada said, turning toward Zia, “should we tell her now?”

Zia finished pouring the wheat flour into a bowl painted with red, white and brown spirals.

“She’ll be six years old in the spring anyway,” Zia said shrugging.

“Root-Setter meant that she was the one who set the roots of our line,” Rada said turning back to Eena. “Each of us medicine women gets a sacred name when we are twenty years of age and give birth to the next baby girl in our line. The Goddess reveals our name in that moment, when the child is born. The name is not meant to be beautiful, but to describe our purpose on earth.”

“That’s why people sometimes call you the Time-Giver?” Eena said.

“That’s my Goddess-given name, yes,” Rada said, “a name I learned from the Goddess when I gave birth to you.”

“What does it mean?” Eena said.

“I don’t know yet, but I do know that it’s what the Goddess wants me to be.”

“And Grandma Zia is the Family-Keeper because she takes care of our family? And…” Eena said, but stopped before uttering Great-grandmother Ana’s Goddess-given name.

“Yes,” Zia said, “we’re chosen by the Goddess and the Goddess protects our line as long as we do what She has put us on earth to do and never marry and each have a daughter at the age of twenty.”

“That’s when I’ll get my name too?”

The silver bell gave a faint ring. Rada got to the trapdoor first and opened it.

“Mother?” Zia called down the dark steps.

“The Stardust-Gatherer is dead,” the Cartographer’s voice rose from the cellar. It was a tired voice, a sad voice. “But I’m alive.”

Eena’s arm didn’t hurt anymore. The pain was different now and it came from inside her stomach and from the throat and from the rims of her eyes.

“But… you said that the Goddess protects us…”

“She protects our line,” Rada said. “Just our line…”

The Conversation We Had on Memorial Day

Five2“I don’t want to ever die,” my daughter said.

“We all do, sweetie. Everybody who ever lived died or will die.”


“It’s good that it’s like that. We all get to live for a long time, and then we make room for other people to live too. If all the people from the beginning of time still lived, there would be no space on earth for us now.”

“Then let’s go on a different planet to have more room. We can go to Saturn, and one of its moons has water so we can get water and then jump on Saturn and live there.”

“That’s a great idea, honey, but there’s no rocket ship that can take us there. “

“Can we talk to the scientists to give us one?”

“They don’t know how to build one yet. But if you want, you can be a scientist when you grow up and build a rocket ship to take us to Saturn.”

“I can’t. When I grow up I won’t be a scientist, I’ll be an actress.”

“Oh. Ok.”

“But we can talk to them anyway and see if they can invention a planet that grows and grows so there’s always space on it. That way nobody needs to die anymore.”

Our Borders: Ageless Youth and Deathless Life (An Epilogue)

Once upon a time, there lived a king and a queen, both young and beautiful, but heartbroken because they couldn’t have children. They had tried everything, they went to doctors and philosophers, astrologers and soothsayers – but all for nothing. They had lost hope when, one day, they heard of an old medicine man from a village not far from the castle, so they went to see him.

“Whatever you’re looking for,” the medicine man told the king and the queen, “it will only bring you sorrow.”

“We didn’t come here to ask you about sorrow,” the king said, “but to ask you if you have medicine that could help us have a child.”

“That, I have,” the old man said, “but you will only have one child, a boy. He will be handsome and brave, but you won’t have him around in old age.”

The queen and the king took the medicine that the old man gave them and returned to their palace full of hope. Not long after, the queen was with child. The kingdom, the court and the servants all celebrated the news. When the time came, the unborn baby started crying from his mother’s womb and refused to be born. The doctors tried everything to make the baby stop crying and be born, but nothing helped.

“Hush, my son, hush,” the king said, “and I’ll give you a great kingdom to rule when you grow up.”

The baby kept crying.

“Hush, my son, hush,” the king said, “and I’ll give you a beautiful princess to marry when you grow up.”

The baby kept crying.

“Hush, my son, hush, and I’ll give you ageless youth and deathless life…”

The baby stopped crying and was born. The whole kingdom celebrated for a week the news of an heir to the throne.

3. GalatiThe baby grew into a smart and brave little prince. The king and the queen sent him to school and philosophers, and everything that an ordinary child learned in a year, the prince learned in a month’s time instead. The king and the queen were proud of him, and the people in the kingdom were glad that they were getting a king as wise as King Solomon, but, the prince grew thoughtful and sad as the years went by. At his fifteenth birthday’s feast, while his parents celebrated together with their merry courtiers, the prince rose from his seat and spoke.

“Father, it’s time for you to give me what you promised me when I was born.”

“My son,” the king said, “how can I give you such an impossible gift? What I said back then was only to make you stop crying.”

“If you, my father, can’t give me what you promised me,” the prince said, “then I have to search the world for the thing I was born for.”

The king and the queen begged him to stay. The courtiers fell on their knees.

“Your father is growing old,” they said. “Soon we will make you our king…”

Nothing could change the prince’s mind, so the king gave him his blessing. The queen saw to the journey preparations. The prince went to the royal stables, where the king kept the strongest and the fastest horses in the entire country. The prince grabbed each stallion by the tail and wrestled it down on its knees until none was standing. The prince looked around once more and saw an old, plagued and wretched horse in the back of the stable. The prince went to it and grabbed its tail, but the horse turned its head and spoke in the human tongue.

“At last, a prince worthy of serving! What are you wishes, master?”

The horse stood firm on his feet while the prince tried to force him down on his knees.

“If you want to find ageless youth and deathless life,” the horse said, “you must ask your father to give you his sword, his spear, his bow, quiver and arrows, and his clothes from when he was your age. And you must take care of me yourself for six weeks, and feed me my barley boiled in sweet milk.”

7. GalatiAfter days of searching, the prince found his father’s old things inside a dusty coffer in the castle’s cellar. They were all rusty and broken, but the prince mended them himself and after six weeks he had the clothes and weapons looking all new and shiny. And after six weeks of grooming, the horse shook his mane and turned into a beautiful stallion with four wings on his back, ready to leave whenever his young master commanded.

The court and the whole kingdom were in mourning. The prince, on his winged horse, with his shiny sword in his hand, said goodbye to the queen and the king, to the courtiers, the servants and the people. One more time they begged him to stay, but the prince opened the way for the convoy of carriages and soldiers that his parents were sending along for the journey. When he reached the border, the prince stopped the procession, divided the gold and the food among the soldiers, and sent them back home. He only saved for himself what his horse could carry, and headed east. After three days and three nights, they arrived at the edge of a field sprinkled with white human bones.

“We’re now on Gheonoaia’s land,” the horse said. “Gheonoaia (The Termagant) used to be a woman, but the curse of the parents she disrespected had reached her, and she turned into a monster. No one who ventured on these lands made it out alive. Right now, Gheonoaia is with her children, but tomorrow, she will catch up with us in that forest on the horizon, and she will try to kill us. She is huge and fast, but you should not be afraid. Be ready with your bow and arrows, keep your sword and spear handy, and we will prevail.”

They journeyed into the forest and rested there, taking turns on the watch. The next day at dawn, they started crossing the forest when they heard a roar and a howl behind them like nothing they had ever heard before.

“Hold on to me,” the horse said. “Gheonoaia is coming.”

And coming she was, knocking down trees in her path. The horse flapped his wings and rose above the forest, above Gheonoaia and, from up there, the prince shot an arrow that cut off her left leg. He picked up the leg and put it in his bag. He pulled a second arrow from his quiver and fit it in his bow.

“Stop, prince,” Gheonoaia said. “I promise I won’t hurt you.”

The prince didn’t believe her, so she wrote it down in her own blood.

“Great horse you have there, prince,” Gheonoaia said. “If it weren’t for him, I would’ve eaten you alive. Instead, you defeated me. Until today, no mortal crossed my forest. The fools who tried didn’t get farther than the field where you saw their sun-bleached bones scattered.”

She invited them to her house where she lived with her three daughters, all beautiful as angels. She gave them the best food she had, but while the prince and the horse ate and rested, Gheonoaia moaned in pain from her severed leg. The prince took pity on her and pulled the leg out of his bag. Gheonoaia took it and put it back in its place where it healed in an instant. Gheonoaia was so happy that she asked the prince to pick one of her daughters as his bride.

“I’m not looking for a wife,” the prince said, “but for ageless youth and deathless life.”

“With your horse and your courage,” Gheonoaia said, “I’m sure you’ll find it.”

Three days later, the prince mounted and headed east. The horse took him beyond Gheonoaia’s lands, to where they found a field half covered in colorful flowers, half covered in tar and ashes.

“Why is the grass burnt over there?” the prince said.

“We’re now on Scorpia’s land,” the horse said. “Scorpia (The Shrew) is Gheonoaia’s sister, but meaner and stronger, and she has three heads instead of one. She too disrespected her parents and their curse had reached her too. Scorpia and Gheonoaia hate each other and try to steal each other’s land. When Scorpia is angry, she spouts hot tar and burns down everything in her path. It seems like they’ve had a quarrel not long ago. Let’s rest now and be ready tomorrow at dawn.”

4. GalatiThe next morning, they got up and started crossing Scorpia’s land when they heard an even louder roar and howl than ever.

“Hold on to me,” the horse said. “Scorpia is coming.”

And coming she was, biting earth and sky in her way, pouring fire and tar on every living thing in her path. The horse let her get close, then flapped his wings and rose in the sky above. The prince pulled out his sword and slashed off one of Scorpia’s heads and put it in his bag. As he readied his sword again, Scorpia asked him to forgive her and promised not to harm him or his horse. The prince didn’t trust her, so Scorpia wrote it down in her own blood.

The prince went to Scorpia’s house, where they feasted together with Scorpia’s beautiful daughters, and the prince took pity on her and gave her back her head. Scorpia put it back on its neck and it healed right away. Three days later, the prince and the horse left again, heading east.

After they crossed Scorpia’s lands, they found themselves in a field covered in flowers, where there was always springtime, and sweet springtime smells wafted about in the cool breeze.

“We’ve made it here,” the horse said, “but we have one more trial before the end of our journey. Beyond this field, there stands the palace of ageless youth and deathless life. But the palace is surrounded by a large forest, tall and thick, where savage beasts dwell. They never sleep at night and they never tire of watching the palace. There’s no way of defeating them, so we won’t even try. Instead, we’ll fly over the forest and I hope my wings will take us all the way there.”

They rested for three days and the horse built up his strength.

“This is the time of day when the fairies feed the beasts,” the horse said, “and they’re all gathered in the palace’s courtyard. This is when we should fly over the forest. Hold on to my saddle and pull in my reins. Don’t hinder me! Here we go!”

The horse flapped his wings and rose into the sky and from up there they saw the palace of ageless youth and deathless life. It was shining in the morning sun and neither the prince nor the horse had ever seen anything as beautiful in their entire lives. The horse flew over the forest, and he almost made it to the edge, but he was so tired. As he descended onto the front steps of the palace, his back hoof touched the top of a tree and the entire forest erupted with howls and the raging beats joined in the clamor.

The lady of the palace rushed out and calmed down her babies, as she called them. She was a beautiful fairy, slender and sweet, and the prince couldn’t utter a word when he first saw her. The fairy looked at him with tenderness and asked him why he came.

“I’m looking for ageless youth and deathless life,” the prince said when he found his voice.

“If that’s what you’re looking for,” the fairy said, “you’ve found it.”

The prince left the horse to rest in the garden and he followed the fairy into the palace where he met her two older sisters, who were just as beautiful and welcoming. He thanked them for saving him and his horse from the beasts, and the fairies prepared a wonderful dinner served on golden plates. Then they took the prince and the horse and introduced them to the beasts of the forest so they could wander safely about from then on.

The fairies took the prince into their home so they wouldn’t be alone anymore. The prince didn’t need to be asked twice to make the palace of ageless youth and deathless life his home. On the day of his wedding with the youngest fairy, the three sisters told the prince that he was free to wander wherever he wants inside the borders of their kingdom, but they showed him a valley behind the palace called the Vale of Tears where he was not allowed to go because a terrible thing would happen to him if he did.

5. GalatiThey all lived happily without knowing time. The prince stayed young as he had been on the day he had arrived at the palace. Each day was bliss for him. He would walk through the forest, stroll through the golden corridors of the palace, spend time with his beautiful wife and his sisters-in-law, breathe in the perfume of flowers and rest under the mild sun and the gentle breeze. Sometimes he went hunting for rabbits and little birds, and one day, as he was following a white rabbit, he shot an arrow and missed, he shot another and missed again. Annoyed, the prince followed the rabbit and, with his third arrow, he hit it. He walked to the rabbit, picked it up by the ears and put it in his bag. And that was when he realized that he had set foot into the Vale of Tears.

On his way home, the prince felt, for the first time, a painful longing for his mother and his father and for his kingdom and the people and places he had left behind. He didn’t dare tell the fairies, but they soon noticed the sadness in his eyes and his restlessness.

“Oh, my poor husband, have you stepped into the Vale of Tears?” the youngest fairy said.

“I did, but without my knowing,” the prince said. “And now I’m wasting away with longing for my parents and my country, but I don’t want to leave you. We’ve been so happy here. I think I should go home one more time, to visit, and then I’ll be back, and I’ll never leave again.”

“Don’t even think about it,” the fairies said. “Your parents have been dead for centuries. If you leave this place, you’ll never come back. Please stay with us because you’ll perish if you leave.”

All their pleading and all their tears couldn’t change the prince’s mind. Not even the horse could quench the prince’s longing for his parents and his country.

“Whatever happens to you,” the horse said, “it will be your fault and your fault alone. But you are my master, and I’ll take you back if that’s what you wish. But on one condition, that when we get there, if you want to stay for even an hour, you must set me free.”

“I will,” the prince said.

2. GalatiThey got ready for their journey back. On the front steps of the palace, the prince hugged his sisters-in-law and kissed his wife and left the three fairies sobbing and wiping their tears. They traveled westward and, after a while, they reached the field where Scorpia used to dwell and they found towns and roads instead. The forests were now fields of wheat. The prince asked the people there if they knew what had happened to Scorpia and her daughters. The people laughed at him and told him that their grandfathers had heard stories about Scorpia from their grandfathers, but those were just bedtime stories for little children. Their laughter angered the prince, and he spurred his horse, but didn’t notice that his hair and beard had turned gray.

He asked the same questions when he reached Gheonoaia’s lands and he got the same answers and the same scorn. He couldn’t understand how so many things had changed in only a few years he had been gone. He spurred his horse, but now he noticed that his legs were weak and his white beard reached down to his waist.

After he crossed the border of his father’s kingdom, the prince found more towns, more roads, but nothing he remembered from before. Where the palace of his childhood had stood, now there were ruins overgrown with weeds where spiders dwelled. He dismounted. The horse asked him if he was going to stay a while.

“Not for long…” the old prince said.

“Then I must say goodbye to you, my dear master. If you want to go back to the fairies, I can take you there, but we must leave right now.”

“You go…” the price said, “and I’ll follow you… Soon.”

The horse flapped his wings and flew away. The prince stayed behind and worked his way through the ruins, shuffling his feet from roofless room to crumbled hallway, around thick trees that grew out of broken flagstone and he sighed and cried as he remembered the proud and beautiful castle that used to stand there. He tried to remember his parents’ faces, but couldn’t.

6. GalatiHis white beard now reached down to his knees. His eyelids were heavy and he was tired. He found the ruins of the stable where he had first met his horse. He found the stairs to the cellar from where he had got his father’s old weapons and clothes. He climbed down the stairs holding onto the walls and at the bottom he sat on a coffer to catch his breath and wipe his tears.

He stood up again. He had nowhere to go but back to the fairies’ palace. The coffer he had sat on looked familiar, so he lifted its lid. The rusty hinges creaked.

“You’re here, at last,” a weak voice said from the bottom of the coffer. “Had you been any longer, I would have died waiting for you.”

The prince’s Death rose from the coffer, thin and famished, and she slapped him, and he fell, dead, and turned to dust.


I took these pictures in my hometown of Galaţi, Romania in the summer of 2010, when, after almost a decade of living in America, I went back to visit. I had to. For the previous couple of years, random smells and colors and sounds triggered, again and again, flashbacks from my childhood. Images, no more than fleeting images: a corner of my street, the entrance of my high school building, the thickets on the shores of the Danube. My parents had visited me in Seattle a few times, once in a while I talked over the phone with uncles and aunts and cousins, and I had a busy life in Seattle, but I just had to go back. So I packed my one-year old daughter and got on a plane. The people I found in Galaţi were older and the streets were cleaner and the trees were thicker, with bigger branches that reached higher and wider than I remembered. My extended family welcomed me and I had a great time, but the images I had been searching for were gone, hidden, overgrown with new vegetation, new buildings, new faces. There was no place for me to sit down and feel at home.

1. GalatiWhen I was a kid, I disliked Ageless Youth and Deathless Life, with its unhappy, weird ending. A few years after I arrived in the US, I translated it in English for the first time, from a collection of Romanian folktales by Petre Ispirescu first published in Bucharest in 1882. Now that I’m older, this is my favorite fairytale and the one story I know that captures the essence of an immigrant’s sense of not belonging. Not really. Not anywhere.

Previous: The Fork in the Road (1980 CE)

Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.

Our Borders: The Fork in the Road (1980 CE)

“Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seatbelts!”

“To this day,” Radu Codrescu said in 2006, “I have a feeling of guilt every time I cross a border. Even when I go from the US to Canada – and I have Canadian citizenship – or come back here [to Redmond, Washington], I feel guilty of something. As if I were doing something wrong, something illegal. I have this feeling every time. It never changed, it never diminished. I have the same feeling of guilt as that first time when I left Romania behind. I was happy to leave [in 1990], but I felt like I was doing something illegal.”


“Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seatbelts!”

In September 1980, the Romanian rowing delegation to the Balkan Games in Ioannina, Greece was on board a plane flying from Athens back to Bucharest, Romania. Radu, 18, sat down in his seat and gaged by the tense faces of the State Security officers who had accompanied the forty-people rowing team on that trip that something was wrong. It wasn’t that Radu had helped the delegation earlier that day find their way to the airport buses using his unsanctioned knowledge of English, the language of the capitalist West, a language that Radu had learned mostly from watching American movies. As the plane began its taxing on the tarmac, Radu and everybody else noticed that the team doctor was missing. The doctor had fled.

Radu knew his parents would be disappointed to see him return home. His father had never openly encouraged him to leave, and neither did his mother – they never knew who was listening – but Radu’s mother had prepared a gift for a friend of hers who lived in Athens, and that was signal enough for Radu that she wanted him to reach out and not return home.

“I’d been thinking of leaving since ninth grade when the State Security contacted me, asking me to help defend the country against destabilizing elements. Their offer was to help me travel outside the country as an athlete, and in return, I was to help them spy on the people around me. (…) In those times, it was well-known that you couldn’t refuse such an offer because your life would’ve been made really hard if you did. So I said: “Yes, yes, no problem, I will contact you whenever I have any relevant information.” But I never had any relevant information for them and every time they contacted me, I told them that everything was great on my side of the front. For the first time, at fourteen, I realized with horror what type of system I was living in.”

By the time he arrived in Greece for the Balkan Games of 1980, Radu Codrescu had visited other countries, mostly socialist ones, and every one of them seemed to have a better flavor of communism than the one implemented in Romania. At home, Radu’s parents dreamed of a better life for their son and they were willing to face the repercussions of his fleeing: losing their jobs, endless hours of interrogations, invasive house searches, and even worse than that, since they had never been members of the Communist Party.

“My father would’ve been affected more than my mother, because of his heart disease. But, as long as he hadn’t told me to come back when I left, I knew that he would agree with my leaving the country. He was quiet when I left, he didn’t tell me that he couldn’t wait to see me again, and for me his silence was clear.”

Radu knew that his parents wanted him to flee. While he was in Greece, he struggled to make a decision. He could’ve contacted his mother’s friend, a Romanian-born Greek who had left the country during one of the windows of opportunity when Nicolae Ceauşescu’s regime allowed ancestry-related emigrations to neighboring countries in exchange for goods and services.

In the end, Radu didn’t contact his mother’s friend.

“I was afraid of one thing: that I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know what to do if I remained there. I knew English and a bit of French and even less German, not enough to get around with. I could have managed with the language, but I didn’t know anything else about life. First, I was still a child, I was barely eighteen, and I didn’t know what life was about, not that I now know better… Second, I had no job, I had no skills to make a living. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know what to do. I was completely disoriented. I knew I wanted to stay. I knew I didn’t want to go back to Romania, but I didn’t know what to do next, how to do it. I was lost. I had only finished high school. I had no money and no way of making money for a living or to put myself through school. I was not ready.”

There were going to be other chances, Radu assumed. He thought about his older brother who was hopeful that things would one day change for the better. Maybe his brother was right, maybe Radu was wrong to worry that they would both waste their lives waiting for change. But Radu wanted to be the change in his own life. He was restless. Ever since his encounter with the State Security four years before, Radu’s resolve to leave Romania had only grown stronger.

“Little by little, the information made sense, what you heard and what you saw had different meanings. Once you opened your eyes, there was no turning back.”

Radu had become aware that he lived in a rigged system that empowered a tiny elite, while everybody underneath scrambled for scraps and behaved cruelly to everybody outside their immediate tribe. It was a system designed to keep the masses busy with their survival needs and unable to protest their living conditions. People had no choice about what job to take or where to live. Shortages were manufactured so that once there was bread on the table, there was no toilet paper in the bathroom. People feared random arrests and didn’t know who to trust.

Our country’s borders were closed around us.

“There were so few, subjugating so many, with that system. And then, at lower levels, each person was his own or her own dictator. Even the woman selling you your bread ration treated you with disrespect, because she had something that you needed and you waited quietly in line for her to give it to you. Of course she was treated badly in return by her boss, or maybe they helped each other steal from the common good. The system was like a giant pyramid which grew thin very fast, as you climbed up.”

As the plane took off, it would be the last time for an entire decade that Radu crossed his country’s border without being shot at, drowning, beaten, betrayed or thrown in jail. Also, the last time he wavered.

Radu Codrescu, first on the left, rowing champion at 16

Radu Codrescu, first on the left, rowing champion at 16

Soon after Radu returned to Romania (to his parents’ disappointment), he received a letter asking him to make himself available for an interrogation at the State Security concerning the rowing team doctor who had fled in Athens.

“Being called to the State Security out of the blue is a terrible feeling. There were so many stories about that infamous State Security, stories about people going but never coming back, people being taken and returning years later, that I was very scared when I received that invitation.”

The investigators had determined that the rowing team doctor didn’t know English, and they suspected that Radu had helped him get around Athens since Radu was the only person on the team who could speak that foreign language. They kept asking Radu where the doctor went, what embassy he was planning to contact, whom he talked to. As they combed through Radu’s own file, they realized that he had never offered any relevant information on anybody until then, even though he had been an informant for years. Maybe that young man was not as dedicated to fighting destabilizing elements as he said he was.

That same year, Radu began his mandatory military service – a lighter version of it, since he was still an athlete training for international competitions. But he made the mistake of talking one day with a tourist girl from Duisburg, West Germany and not reporting it to the State Security. He fell in love with Renate Aneliese Naumann and forgot the protocol. He was taken in for questioning again. And when he had the bad luck of injuring his spine during training, Radu Codrescu was dismissed from the rowing team and was sent to do his military service for real.

“Greece had been a turning point in my life. I regretted so many times not taking the chance then, not grabbing what came to me on a plate, kicking that plate and everything on it, and choosing the worst possible life for myself for the next decade.”

Radu Codrescu spent two years in the army and almost froze to death one time, as punishment from his superior officer. He never lost his sense of humor and his determination to be in charge of his own life. In fact, the army only strengthened his resolve and toughened him up. As soon as he was discharged in 1982, Radu and a friend he knew from his rowing days decided to flee the country. They chose Orşova because they had heard that people who tried that spot never returned – and that was a good sign, they thought.


“Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seatbelts!”

Radu, his wife and sons

Radu, Alina and their two sons in 2013

On March 31, 2014, Radu Codrescu, 51, his wife, Alina, and their two young sons got on a plane and relocated to Bucharest, Romania. Radu’s ex-wife Laura and their 27-year old daughter still live in Washington State. During the last decade, Radu, together with a few of his friends, has built a successful Romanian-American business that now requires his full time and attention.

In November 2013, a couple of months after I started this blog series, I learned about Radu’s decision to move back to Romania and I wasn’t surprised. But I asked him, why leave everything he has built in America behind? What pulled him back: his business, his family, his comfort with the language and the customs back home?

“My business,” Radu said. “And the place itself. I always loved the Romanian countryside, the smell of hay and cow manure, sheep and cheese, the dew in the grass, all of it together. Nothing is better and cleaner than that – at least not for me.”

NextAgeless Youth and Deathless Life (An Epilogue)

Previous: The Last Voyage (1993 CE)

Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.

Our Borders: The Last Voyage (1993 CE)

“Let’s go look for them right now,” Radu said.

“No,” the officer said, “you stay here. We’ll look for them. We know how to look for people like you.”

OOCL Challenge, the transatlantic ship Radu Codrescu, 30, was on board of in January 1993, was heading into a storm, and Radu’s friends, Paul and Claudiu, might have also been on board, hiding inside a container and unaware that a storm could kill them.

The crew was busy securing everything that could move once the storm began: they folded tables and chairs and stowed them inside closets, locked closet doors, packed small items in boxes, taped boxes, shut windows and locked doors, but most of all, checked the wire ropes that kept the cargo in place. The containers were the first to experience the wrath of the storm, and their heft was going to work against them.

Now the crew had a couple of Romanians to worry about too.

A group of sailors went below the deck and called Paul and Claudiu by name. They checked around the containers, banged on them, called those names. They came back after a while.

“We didn’t find them. We didn’t find anybody.”

“I spent six more days on the ship,” Radu Codrescu said. “People would come to talk to me every day. We had beer, we watched TV while the storm was going on outside for three full days. We sailed in the North Atlantic at winter time. The water was furious and big blocks of ice banged into the ship, leaning it sideways, left and right. The shocks were heavy and a huge cargo ship, which usually sails undisturbed, like a city building, was being hit and thrown in all directions like a nut shell. The containers that broke loose were on top of the cargo.”

During the storm, OOCL Challenge lost six containers. The ropes snapped and the containers fell into the ocean. If people had been in those containers, they would have drowned inside in a matter of minutes.

“After three days of storm, all the sailors gathered together and stood in silence. They knew that the storm was approaching its end, but, before that, there was going to be one more inrush of waves and winds.”

“What’s going on?” Radu said.

“You’ll see,” they said.

“They weren’t doing anything, they weren’t making any noises, they weren’t eating or drinking. Then the ship started shaking, worse than in an earthquake, in an extraordinary energetic development. To see that huge ship, on six levels, with hundreds of containers, weighing tons and tons, shaking like a shell was really scary – a very scary experience. They knew, or at least hoped, that it will be over soon. I didn’t know anything and I was terrified. It all lasted for one minute. Such a ship would not sink, but it would break into pieces if the shock is too big.”

When the quake stopped, the sailors cheers and popped open their beers. Radu was still stunned by the experience, but a good beer and the men’s enthusiasm around him reassured him that everything would be ok.

“The news doesn’t cover such events in the same manner as they cover airplane crashes. Usually a big ship like ours just “disappears” and it is really hard to find it and investigate the causes. Not a lot to report on, nothing to see and get on the tape, and so, those type of accidents don’t spend a lot of time in the spotlight. But they do happen.”

Radu Codrescu arrived in the port of Montréal, Canada on January 27, 1993. He had no identification documents with him because he had forgotten them in his car, which was still parked in the port of Antwerp, in Belgium. The immigration officer in Montréal, working through a Romanian translator, took Radu’s statement and handed him his arrival documents, the interview transcript, and a pass for shelter at YMCA in the city. In the commotion of that busy place, with busy people speaking a version of French he could barely understand, Radu didn’t notice that the stated arrival date on his entry documents had been marked as January 25, instead of the 27th. He signed and went out into the white cold night.

The average January temperature for Montréal is 16ºF (-9ºC) and the weather forecast usually mentions the wind chill factor (what it feels like to the unprotected skin due to the cold wind) and how many minutes it is safe to be outside before unprotected skin starts freezing. Temperatures drop even more at night, as on that night when Radu left the port of Montréal and headed, on foot, to YMCA on Rue Stanley, four kilometers away.

“When I got off the ship I was dressed like a ninja. I had a black suit, no money and no papers. It was snowing and the frosty wind was cutting through my thin layer of clothes.”

Radu didn’t know that it was a matter of minutes before he would start to freeze. As he walked out of the port gates, a minivan caught up with him.

“You’re that guy who came with the ship?” the driver said.

“Yes,” Radu said.

“And where are you going now?”

“To YMCA,” Radu said.

“Oh, my, you have no idea… Get in the car. I’ll give you a ride before you freeze to death.”

The minivan driver was a chatty fellow who first stopped by a barn in the harbor at 1:00 am to show Radu his new Harley-Davidson. Radu admired his bike, and arrived safely at the YMCA in the early hours of January 28, 1993.

On February 4, 1993, during its voyage back from Montréal to UK and Europe, OOCL Challenge struck a growler (a small iceberg or a floating mass of ice large enough to cause damage to a ship) at a speed of 18.5 knots. The damage was extensive, including cracking in the ballast tanks and a 30-foot gash in the bow. The ship didn’t sink, but it was beyond repair, and was retired upon its arrival in Europe. Radu’s ride to Canada had been OOCL Challenge’s last transatlantic voyage.

It took two months to sort through Radu’s immigration case before it could proceed normally. The wrong entry date on his arrival papers made him a suspect to the authorities. His lack of proper documentation added to the problem (even though his wife sent his passport in the mail after Paul retrieved it from Radu’s Mercedes back in Antwerp). To make things worse, Radu’s application got lost in the immigration system and in March he received a departure order.

“When I got that notice in the mail I almost fainted. I risked everything to get there, my life and my family, and then some bureaucrat misplaced my papers and sealed my destiny. I couldn’t let that happen. That’s when I got a lawyer, and my lawyer went to the immigration office with me and argued my case. He showed them the appointment for an audience I had with the Office for Political Refugees.”

The Human Rights Organization in Germany had decided in 1992 that Radu Codrescu had not been politically persecuted and therefore not entitled to political asylum. The Canadian branch of the same organization decided in 1993 that Radu was a refugee under the terms stipulated by the Geneva Convention and granted him political asylum.

Everything else followed from there: Radu’s right to work in Canada, his welfare check, his first rented room, his first job as a wall painter, paying his immigration lawyer’s bills, a blackjack dealership course, a few days of work at a casino, and then the clothes ironing job, Radu’s first steady income.

While waiting for his family’s permanent residence status to be approved, Radu began studying Computer Science at the University of Montréal.

“I was working the iron from 5:30 in the morning until 9:30, I was going to university from 10:00 to 6:00, and afterward, I was going back to the ironing board until midnight. I did that for a year and a half and it was a very hard time for me.”

At the university, Radu met other Romanians, and, as things happen among immigrants from the same country, they became friends, carrying packages for each other whenever somebody went back to Romania for a visit. One of the Romanians Radu met there was Alexandru (name changed for privacy reasons), a handsome, affable and polite young man. They became good friends.

University of Montréal, Computer Science Class of 1997. Radu is the last on the right, on the top row

University of Montréal, Computer Science Class of 1997. Radu is the last on the right, on the top row

One day, Radu told Alexandru the story of how he and his friends got arrested at Deta in 1984.

“I did my military service at Deta,” Alexandru told Radu. “And I was on duty that night in June of 1984 when we caught three people, two from Bucharest and one from Timişoara.”

“I couldn’t remember him from back then, when I was all covered in blood and more dead than alive, but he did. He remembered me. Imagine, after twelve years, I met one of the people who might have beaten me to pieces back then. I don’t know if he did or not…”

Graduation, 1997

Graduation, 1997

The following year, Radu’s mother legally immigrated to Canada and moved in with him in his small apartment. She cooked for him, and brought back the tastes and flavors of childhood and, with them, a sense of comfort and normalcy. The next year, Radu was hired at the university as a Teaching Assistant, his family’s visas came through, and Laura and their daughter joined Radu in a bigger apartment that they could now afford from his salary. At the beginning of his last year of university, Radu was hired as a teacher in the Computer Science department. He graduated in 1997 and began his Master’s degree program at the University of Montréal while also teaching there.

In 1999, Radu Codrescu took a job at Microsoft and he and his family moved to the United States.

Next: The Fork in the Road (1980 CE)

Previous: A Lucky Break (1993 CE)

Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.

Our Borders: A Lucky Break (1993 CE)

Even though they now knew how to get on a ship to Canada, Radu Codrescu, 30, and his two Romanian buddies, Paul and Claudiu, still had one huge risk to consider: that the captain of a transatlantic would throw them overboard if he discovered them. Hubert, the port security officer who had showed them how to elude the guards and board a ship, told them that he knew of captains who threw the stowaways into the frozen ocean waters rather than pay the high fines that the Canadian authorities imposed on those who brought people into their country illegally.

Around 10:00 am on January 19, 1993, the three Romanians thanked Officer Hubert and left the coffee shop in Antwerp, Belgium where they had spent the morning learning from the officer. They drove Radu’s beat-up Mercedes back to a friend’s house in Liège for the final preparations before putting Hubert’s plan into action. They searched that day’s newspapers for information about which ships left and for what destination and they found the one: OOCL Challenge leaving for Montréal that very afternoon. The port’s work shift changed at 2:00 pm and that was when Radu and his friends were going to make their move.

OOCL Challenge - Loading

OOCL Challenge – Loading

In Liège, the three men bought denim overalls, the kind that harbor workers wore.

“We bought our overalls,” Radu Codrescu said, “and then we treated them really badly, stomped on them, poured oil and paint, trying to make them look used. We didn’t want to walk among port workers in shiny new overalls, that’s for sure.”

At 1:30 pm, they drove back into the port of Antwerp, but realized they couldn’t find the main entrance. Radu had been around that place for weeks, but he only got in through holes in the fences and only got out in police vans with tinted windows. They followed the signs and found a parking lot. On a whim, Radu picked up the toolbox he kept in his car’s trunk. He was going to carry it around, to look more like a worker. He also picked up his cigarettes and lighter and some cash, but forgot his wallet with his ID in it inside the glove compartment.

The three men walked around, looking for the entrance. After a while, they found themselves in front of the Harbormaster’s Office, still looking for the workers’ entrance or the guards’ quarters or any kind of gate into the port area. It was getting close to 2:00 pm, so they split, looking for a way to get in. Radu went around the Harbormaster’s building, while the other two went inside, one on the first floor, one on the top floor.

Radu found the entrance first, behind the building, and from there he saw the open area where the workers were waiting for their buses. Because the port’s heavy equipment is hazardous – cranes, trains, trucks – people were moved around with buses. Radu went back for the other two, but found only Claudiu and signaled to him to follow him to the bus loading zone. The buses were coming. They had to hurry. Radu passed by a port worker who asked him something in Flemish, but Radu gripped the handle of his toolbox and didn’t stop to chat.

“Soon Claudiu came and stood next to me. When I turned my head, I saw Paul up in the window of the cafeteria, looking down at us. “I’m not coming,” he mouthed the words from up there. He shook his head. Fine! We let him be. After a while, I see Claudiu sidling away from me, his back to the wall, slowly taking steps to get around the corner.”

Hubert’s words had scared Radu’s companions after all. There was a chance that they would get on a ship that day, only to drown in a frozen ocean, soon after. Radu struggled to make a decision while a bus pulled in at the curb. Maybe his family would never hear back from him. Maybe he would be in Montréal in ten days’ time and his family would too, soon after. Take the chance or go back, like his friends?

Workers got off the bus and Radu got on, among the people in the new work shift.

“The bus stopped right in front of my ship, OOCL Challenge. I knew that the ships going to Canada were very well guarded, exactly because of people like me. But I couldn’t go back.”

Radu stood in front of an orange cargo ship with containers stacked up on six levels. Up on the deck, at the end of the boarding plank, a crew member guarded the only way to get on board that ship. Around him, contractors with walkie-talkies coordinated the cranes that lifted and stacked the containers, while workers secured the cargo in place with wire rope. Everybody was busy preparing the ship for its transatlantic journey, so Radu had only one man to worry about, the one guarding the boarding plank.

“I walked up on deck. I walked right by that sailor. I didn’t flinch and I didn’t look at him and he didn’t stop me, although I was the cleanest worker in the entire harbor. I carried my Mercedes toolbox under my arm, and it looked almost like a business case.”

Radu headed toward the back of the ship, away from the busy workers and sailors. That was almost too easy, Radu thought, but now he had another problem: with all the bustling people and moving gear on deck, he couldn’t figure out where the hatch to the hull was.

“Just as I was getting worried, I saw a little metal door, the way they have it in the movies. I went straight there and I opened that door. That was the entrance to the belly of the ship.”

The many decks and compartments and passageways make any ship look like a labyrinth to the untrained eye.

“I knew I needed to do something fast. I needed to hide, but I didn’t know where. In the sailors’ berths? I went up the stairs, as fast as I could, until I reached the sixth level and the main deck. There was nobody in sight. Everybody was outside manning containers. I looked down from the deck and I figured there was no place to hide there. So I figured I had to go back and down, below the deck. There were no stairs for below the deck, just an elevator. I called it, but it didn’t come. I figured I couldn’t just sit around, so I started looking again for a hiding place. I went through the kitchen and a lot of other different rooms on the deck level. I found a small closet and I got in there. After a while, I figured I couldn’t stay in that closet for long and I got out again.”

Through a narrow passageway, Radu reached the ship’s recreation room. There were Ping-Pong tables and Nintendo game consoles hooked to TVs, and a reading room, but still no place to hide. Then Radu saw a door. Behind it was a small storage room.

“Exactly what I needed. There was no light in there, the light bulb didn’t work. I saw some electric engines scattered on the floor, and a case with three shelves against the wall. I got up on the third shelf, and I covered myself with some cardboard so that nobody could see me if he opened the door. I was very tired. I hadn’t slept the night before, and I fell asleep right then and there. It was after 3:00 pm, as far as I could tell. I woke up around 9:00 pm, with the ship well on its way. I was rested, and everything was perfect.”

OOCL Challenge - Leaving port with a pilot boat

OOCL Challenge – Leaving port with a pilot boat

Fresh sea air came in through an open air vent. In the dark, Radu listened to the humming of the engines and felt the vibrations in the floor. He could hear the engine of the pilot boat that guided the ship through the rocky fjords, into the open waters of the North Sea. He listened until he fell asleep again. When he woke up, it was the next day, around noon. Radu was hungry, but he had no food with him. He hadn’t planned that far ahead the day before. He had his toolbox and his cigarettes and nothing else. He fell asleep again. He woke up in the evening with a burning thirst in his throat from the briny air coming through the vent. He had to get some water at least.

Radu opened the door to the recreation room. He saw the wet bar and the refrigerator and the door to the restroom, and no one around.

“As though it were a ghost ship. I went to the refrigerator and I grabbed a whisky bottle, a can of beer, a bottle of mineral water and I hurried back to my place. But there was no food there. So I drank everything, the whisky, the can of beer and the bottle of water and I got drunk I guess and I fell asleep again.”

When Radu woke up, around noon the following day, he realized he didn’t hear the pilot boat’s engine through the air vent anymore. That meant that they were out sailing on the Atlantic Ocean now. From the recreation room, he heard the sound of a Ping-Pong ball against paddles, tables and the floor. Radu cracked the door open and took a peek. He was dizzy from going without food for so long, and had a bit of a hangover. He forgot all the scary things he had heard from Hubert.

“I saw two Philippine sailors. They didn’t see me when I came out. There were two couches there and I sat on one of them, grabbed a magazine and started to read it. They kept playing until one of them stopped and gaped at me.”

“Who are you?” the sailor asked in English.

“I’m Radu.”

“Ah! Radu? Ok! What’s up with you here? Are you a sailor on this ship?”

“No,” Radu said.

“Wait here,” the sailors said.

One of them went to the telephone and called the captain. The First Mate came down a few minutes later.

“Do you speak English?” he asked Radu.

“I do, I do,” Radu said.

“What are you doing here? Where are you going?”

“Canada,” Radu said.

“Where did you come from? Were you hidden in a container?”

“No. I came out of that storage room over there.”

“Nobody checked that closet?” the First Mate said, looking around at the men who had crowded the rec room by then.

Radu didn’t want to get anybody in trouble. “Oh, they did,” he said, “but they didn’t see me because I was very well hidden in a box.”

“Ok,” the First Mate said. “Do you have an ID?”

“I don’t have any papers,” Radu said.

“What nationality are you?”

“Romanian,” Radu said.

“So what are you doing in Belgium, if you’re Romanian?”

“That’s where I lived recently,” Radu said.

“So you live in Belgium?”

“Um, no. I live in Germany,” Radu said.

“Ok,” the First Mate said, “take a piece of paper and write down everything you’ve just told me.”

“How did he get on board?” someone asked.

“I know when you got on board,” another man said. “I saw you. You walked right in front of me on the deck. I saw you! I know when you got on the ship, but I thought you were the electrician.”

That explained Radu’s lucky break: the ship’s fans weren’t working that day and the electrician was supposed to come fix them before OOCL Challenge could set sail.

“I thought at the time that they didn’t stop me because they might’ve taken me for an inspector of sorts. They were waiting for an electrician and I showed up, dressed cleaner than the others, like an electrician, with a toolbox under my arm, like an electrician, heading for the back of the ship, where their fans were, like the electrician that they were expecting.”

“You can sleep on this couch,” the First Mate said. “Two days have gone already, you have six more and you’ll be in Canada. Make yourself at home.”

“A sailor came and gave me a toothbrush, another brought me a shaver, another gave me some sheets, another gave me a pillow, and so forth. One guy came to me and asked me if I was hungry. He was the cook. Of course I was hungry after two days with no food! He took me with him to the kitchen.”

OOCL Challenge - Sailing

OOCL Challenge – Sailing

The cook wanted to hear every detail of Radu’s story.

“You didn’t hide in a container?” the cook said.

“Uh-oh,” Radu said. “You know, it’s possible that there’re two more people like me on this ship, somewhere, in a container.”

The cook called the Transmissions Officer and told him that two other Romanians might be on board.

“Oh, my God,” the officer said. “Who knows where they could be in hundreds of containers? We’re preparing for a storm now!”

If Paul and Claudiu were on board, they were not likely to survive the storm locked inside a shipping container.

Next: The Last Voyage (1993 CE)

Previous: A Bright Christmas (1992 CE)

Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.

Our Borders: A Bright Christmas (1992 CE)

Early Christmas morning in 1992, the port of Antwerp (Anvers), Belgium was bright with blinking lights of all colors, with flashlights and spotlights and searchlights. At 5 a.m., police, firefighters, paramedics, TV crews, and curious people were all waiting on the main dock for the door of one particular cargo shipping container to open. And when it did, three men walked out into the blinding light: Radu Codrescu and his two companions, Paul and Doru. Their clothes were stained with oil, they all had week-old beards, and they looked weak and pale. One of the three men, Doru, was in pain with acute tonsillitis from living for a week inside a freezing freight container, but when he saw the commotion, he forgot all about his pain and tried to flee the scene.

Hubert (name changed for privacy reasons), one of the senior port security officers, handed the three men over to the police for interrogation. But the police was not very interested in their story, only in the container where they had been found. Once the cargo was checked and a few questions answered, the trespassers were released from custody.

At the time, Radu Codrescu, 30, lived in Stuttgart, Germany with his wife and young daughter. When Germany refused to grant them asylum back in November 1992, Radu came up with a new plan: get on a ship to Canada. He had applied for a Canadian immigration visa, but had been rejected because he didn’t have a college degree. (Radu’s brother, who had a college degree, had secured a visa after a couple of tries.)

“But that was not something to stop me,” Radu Codrescu said. “They didn’t know me.”

Radu picked Antwerp, Belgium, because it is a huge port in northern Europe with solid trade links with Canada. He applied and obtained a Belgian visitor visa.

“All I needed to do was go out in the hallway of the rundown building we lived in, and yell that I was going to Canada, who wanted to come with me, and I would always find a few clients for the trip.”

In December 1992, Radu, Paul and Doru began their attempts to board a cargo container headed for Canada. During the day, they hid in the swamps near the harbor, and at night, they came out of the cold water and tried to find an open container on the docks. They did that for two weeks and always got caught. Each time, the Belgian police took them over the border to Netherlands, and released them. Each time, the three men walked back to Antwerp, found their car – a beaten-up Mercedes – and rested and slept in it until it was time to head back for the swamps, the following night. As the days went by, they looked more and more tired and in bad shape. One night, a port guard took pity on them.

“Boys,” he said in Flemish, “I can help you get inside a container tonight. I’ll even seal the door once you’re inside.”

Container terminal, Port of Antwerp - Wikipedia

Container terminal, Port of Antwerp – Wikipedia

They followed the guard to a container that transported four bulletproof military vehicles, two on top of the other two, to Edmonton, Canada. After the guard locked the door and sealed it, the three Romanians settled into that big, cold steel room. They had everything they needed: sleeping bags, lamps, batteries, food, water, lots of plastic bags to go to the bathroom in, and even a hammer and a chisel. Now they had to wait to be loaded on a ship.

“We lived in there for a day, two, three. We heard the cranes outside moving the cargo. Sometimes they moved our container around, but never on a ship. It was very cold in December and we were pretty much living in a metal box, outside, for days. Our breath condensed on the walls and on the ceiling and after a while small drops started to fall on us. We were cold and wet. We had been there for a week and our container was still on the dock.”

The military vehicles were covered with dark oil to protect their paint until they reached their destination, and soon the three men’s clothes were stained with oil too, on top of being damp and cold. The cargo container had six little holes in each corner, but not big enough to get fresh air through. People in containers sometimes died asphyxiated during cross-ocean trips – as the news on TV sometimes mentioned. After a week in the container, the three men were running out of oxygen. Their lighters sparked but didn’t burn anymore.

“We could tell that we were running out of air by our constant panting. We didn’t feel dizzy yet, but we kept panting, as if we had been running for a long time.”

Meanwhile, Doru’s tonsils had turned red and painful and his throat swelled.

On Christmas Eve night, Radu and Paul decided to break out of the container, to save Doru’s life. They took turns with the hammer and the chisel, trying to make a hole in the metal wall of the container, close to the door handle on the other side.

“The noise was deafening for us inside, like being inside a big bell.”

They got in fresh air as the hole got bigger, but Doru still couldn’t breathe. He was overcome with pain and kept panting. When the hole was big enough, Radu put his hand through, looking for the door handle. His hand hit another container. He stuck his head out.

“While we were in there, they had moved us around and now we were in the middle of a sea of containers. They weren’t touching each other, but also, there was no way of getting out of our container. I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown when I saw that: containers everywhere, around ours, and on top of ours. And nobody had heard us banging on the metal wall. For two hours we screamed and banged with the hammer on the walls, but nobody heard us on that Christmas night.”

At three in the morning, a guard finally heard the noise and yelled something back at them in Flemish. In another half an hour they heard the cargo crane on its long legs moving forward and backward and sideways and lifting containers.

“But that cargo crane needed somebody to maneuver it and at three in the morning, a very happy crane operator was summoned from his warm bed on Christmas night to look for some lunatics in a sea of containers in the harbor. It took him two hours to find us and we kept screaming that we needed an ambulance.”

Their container was jolted up and, after a few maneuvers, lowered on a platform. The door opened and the three men emerged under the bright lights of the TV crews and news photographers.

“Police came to assess the damages. It turned out that we had damaged a very expensive container; we pretty much ruined the door with the hammer and the chisel. It was worth $50,000, we were told. They took our fingerprints because we were found in a military container and they wanted to make sure we didn’t damage the load as well. Those were serious military vehicles and they wanted to see why we were interested in them. We were not interested in them! We just lived next to them for a week. We couldn’t even get inside. Maybe we peed on them from time to time, but nothing else. We didn’t break them or anything – they were fucking cold!”

Once the police figured out that the three men were not a threat to the military cargo, they didn’t even ask them how they had got inside the container to begin with. They took the three men out to a field and set them free. That morning, the three Romanians walked back to the harbor’s parking lot, to their old Mercedes.

“We got to the car; the car had been broken into. They’d broken the windows, stolen the cassette player, and broken the steering wheel. We took our car and headed back to Germany. We were dirty and unshaved and exhausted and our car looked like it belonged in the scrapyard.”

Doru got well soon, but never again tried anything that dangerous. He returned to Romania where he now lives. Radu spent his New Year’s with his family and was ready to try again, come January. Radu and Paul found another man, Claudiu, a musician, to join their gang in Doru’s place.

They spent the first night in Liège, Belgium, in the house of a friend who offered a transit place for fellow Romanians in need. The second night, they went back to Antwerp and looked for the same guard who had helped them before. They let themselves get caught so they could talk to the man in private.

“I don’t have the guts to do it again, after last time,” the guard told them. “We had a lot of inquiry after you were rescued about how you got in the container in the first place.”

The guard put them in police custody, and the police took them over the border, to Netherlands, and released them there. Radu, Paul and Claudiu began their 20-kilometer walk back to Antwerp, as they were so used to.

Morning had come, and, as they were walking on the side of the road, a van drove by and they waved at it hoping to catch a ride. The van stopped, the window rolled down and Radu stared at Hubert, the security guard from the Port of Antwerp. They knew each other well, especially after that last Christmas.

“Let’s have a coffee,” Hubert said, and opened the van door for them.

It was January 19, 1993 around nine in the morning. Radu, Paul and Claudiu leaned in close to Hubert around a table in a coffee shop in Antwerp.

“What I don’t understand,” Hubert said, sipping his coffee,” is why you keep trying to flee during the night. Why don’t you try during the day? At night, we are all on duty, alerted, we expect people to try to sneak in. We have searchlights. We always catch you. Rarely does anyone sneak past us. Try during the day.”

“But,” Radu said, “how do we do that?”

NextA Lucky Break (1993 CE)

PreviousGone (1990-1992 CE)

Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.

A Killer Detail: The Art of War

The Art of War - CoverI don’t remember when I bought my copy of The Art of War, but whenever I did, that copy must have been the last one in the store because the front cover is scuffed, yet I bought it anyway. It’s a beautiful book, with dark hardcovers sewn together with red, glossy thread. The words – both in traditional Chinese and English – are printed on cream-colored sheets of paper folded in half with the writing on the outside. From the note on the second page I learned that the book is bound in traditional Chinese style. To turn a page, I slip my finger underneath the thick edge where the sheet is folded. This is the kind of detail that matters if I ever wrote a story about China before the  20th century CE.

I began reading this book because I’ve been working on two important battle scenes in my historical novel.  What I found between those beautiful dark covers was not only military knowledge for my battle scenes, but also psychological insights for the development of my characters and rhetorical artistry for my writing.  But that’s putting it in a fancy way. What I found inside this book was a rollercoaster of ah-ha! and wow! moments, which translated into dozens of notes on the side of my manuscript. And there was something else: excitement that I was getting some of that history stuff right whenever I found validation for my story decisions in Sun Tzu’s text, a text written maybe in the 6th century BCE, or possibly in the later Warring States period (475 – 221 BCE), yet present today on the reading list of the United States Marine Corps.

The Art of War, bamboo binding – Wikipedia

The Art of War

By Sun Tzu

Translation by James Trapp

Page 13: Where I learned how a rookie commander fails

Thus, although I have heard of reckless haste in war, I have never seen wise delay. Nor has any state benefitted from prolonging war. Only someone who understands the perils of waging war can also understand the best way of conducting it.

Page 17-19: Where I learned what the general in my story should know

Winning a hundred victories out of a hundred battles is not the ultimate achievement; the ultimate achievement is to defeat the enemy without even coming to battle.

Thus it follows that the highest form of warfare is to out-think the enemy; next is to break his alliances; then to defeat his armies in battle; the lowest form is to besiege his cities. Siege warfare should only be undertaken if it is unavoidable.

Page 33: Where I learned who should arrive first on my battlefield

It is a general principle that the army which arrives first at the site of battle and waits for the enemy will be fresh, and the army that arrives second to the field and has to rush into battle will be laboured and exhausted.

Page 39: Where I stopped and gaped

Military strategy is like water, which flows away from high ground towards low ground; so, in your tactics, avoid the enemy’s strengths and attack his weaknesses. Water adapts its course according to the terrain; in the same way you should shape your victory around the enemy’s dispositions. There are no constants in warfare, any more than water maintains a constant shape.

Page 43: Where I found validation for my story decisions

A ruler must understand the priorities of the local nobles before he can make profitable alliances; a general must acquaint himself thoroughly with the terrain – its mountains and forests, its halts and impasses, swamps and marshes – before he can march his army through it. He must use local knowledge to take best advantage of the natural features.

Page 45-47: Where I learned some of the mechanics of battle

In battle, the human voice is not strong enough to be heard which is why we use gongs and drums; our eyesight is not acute enough, which is why we use banners and flags. (…) In night warfare, make more use of signal fires and drums, and in daytime rely on banners and flags, thus adapting to the eyes and ears of your troops. (…)

In the morning a soldier is full of fight, in the afternoon he is slowing down, and in the evening he thinks only of returning to camp. (…)

Here are some of the basic principles of war: never attack uphill, nor defend downhill; do not be lured into attack by feigned flight, and do not attack an enemy who is rested and full of fight. Do not swallow the bait put out for you, and do not get in the way of an army that is homeward bound. When you surround an enemy, always leave them a way out, and do not press a cornered foe too hard.

(Translator’s note: These last three pieces of advice seem uncharacteristically soft on the enemy, but they should be understood not as letting the enemy get away, rather as denying them the savage courage that comes from desperation.)

Page 55: Where I learned about marching an army through different kinds of terrain

All armies love the high ground and hate the low, and prefer sunny places to dark and shade. If you look after the health of your men and camp on firm dry ground, your army will avoid all the usual diseases. (…)

When you come to hills or man-made banks, take up position on the sunny side with the high ground to your right and rear. (…)

If the army is passing through hilly ground where there may be ponds with reed beds or woods with thickets, these must be thoroughly searched for they are ideal cover for spies and traitors.

Page 57: Where I learned of hidden signs and other killer details

If trees and bushes seem to be moving, the enemy is advancing. If you see unusual clumps among the reeds and grasses, the enemy is laying some kind of trap. If birds suddenly rise in their flight, there is an ambush and startled animals mark a surprise attack.

(Translator’s note:  This does not mean birds rising from cover when disturbed by the enemy taking up position for an ambush. More subtly it means that birds in flight will deviate upwards from their course when flying over concealed men.)

Page 57: Where I learned to pay attention to dust patterns

If dust rises high and distinct in the air, it is a sign of chariots; if the dust stays low but spreads out, it has been caused by infantry. When the dust separates along several different paths, the enemy are out collecting firewood. Small clouds of dust moving to and fro mean the enemy is pitching camp.

Page 67: Where I had a sudden moment of recognition

If you treat your soldiers like your children, you can lead them into the deepest darkest places; if you see them as your beloved sons, they will stand by you to the death. If, however you are too soft and do not establish firm leadership, too kindly and do not enforce your orders, if you are lax in your organization and cannot keep control – then your troops will be as useless to you as spoilt children.

Page 75: Where I imagined what was like to be there

Soldiers of whatever rank lose their fear in dangerous circumstances; they stand firm when there is no retreat; deep in hostile territory, they show a unified front; when there is no alternative, they will fight to the last. (…)

Ban all omen-taking and superstitious practices so that death is all they have to worry about.

Page 81-83: Where I learned to add some deception

It serves no purpose to tell them if they are in danger.

You can lead them into the most desperate of situations confident that they will survive, for victory is to be plucked from defeat when they are in the greatest danger.

Page 89: Where I found a perfect line of dialogue

A ruler should not call his general to arms simply out of anger; a general should not attack because he has been insulted. Only advance if it is to your clear advantage, otherwise stay put. Anger may change to contentment and insult to pleasure, but a kingdom once destroyed cannot be recovered, and the dead cannot be brought back to life. Thus a wise ruler is cautious, and a good general alert. This is the way to keep a country at peace and its armies intact.

Page 91: Where I learned that war is no metaphor

For what enables a wise ruler and an able general to attack decisively and to succeed where ordinary men fail, is foreknowledge. And foreknowledge cannot be found by consulting the spirits, or by comparing similar situations. It is not to be found by measuring the movements of heaven and the earth; it is to be obtained from men who have accurate knowledge of the enemy’s situation.

 Page 95: Where I learned about using spies

When you find the enemy’s agents spying on you, offer them bribes, lavish care on them and lodge them handsomely. Thus they may become converted spies and be of use to you. It is through these converted spies that you will be able to recruit local spies and internal spies. It is through them that your expandable spies will feed false reports to the enemy. And it is also through them that your permanent spies will be able to act as occasion demands. A ruler must know how to employ all five kinds of spy, and this understanding comes necessarily from the converted spies.

And that’s just from a first reading. Now, turning back to the first page…

The Art of War - First Page

Our Borders: Gone (1990–1992 CE)

“After all the pain I went through to cross that border, I couldn’t believe that it was finally possible,” Radu Codrescu said in 2006. “For a long time I had this feeling of unreal. My biggest dream had finally come true, but it felt like a dream, not like real life. I had traveled before, with my rowing team, and I had seen other countries, so it wasn’t the surprise of a new country that I couldn’t digest. It was the mere fact that I could be there.”

On May 8, 1990, 28-year old Radu Codrescu landed in East Berlin, Germany with a bag on his shoulder and 50 Deutschmarks in his pocket. He was alone, his wife and little daughter still in Bucharest. Radu spoke some German, but couldn’t comprehend much of the native speakers’ fast words. The airport was huge and busy and noisy and Radu stood for a long time in the middle of that bustle, not sure what to do next. The Berlin Wall still divided the city, but there was free passage to West Berlin, so Radu boarded a bus heading there.

In the spring of 1990, Western Europe was full of goodwill for the other half of the continent. There was a flood of donations going east, and a flood of people going west. People welcomed relatives and friends from whom they had been separated for decades. West Germany’s Basic Law (the constitution) offered asylum rights to people fleeing from political persecution in their native countries, and even though only a small percentage of the requests were granted, the authorities allowed the applicants to remain in the country until their case was decided, and even during their appeals. The German state provided financial aid all throughout the process, a process that Radu didn’t know much about. All he knew on that May afternoon, with the city of Berlin bright with blooming flowers all around him, was that he was there, and he was overwhelmed and excited.

Old Romanian Passport - Wikipedia

Old Romanian Passport – Wikipedia

At the border checkpoint, an officer got on the bus and asked for the passengers’ passports. Radu handed his: mint green covers embossed with golden letters that spelled “The Socialist Republic of Romania.” On the third page, Radu’s solemn picture was glued on top of the old communist coat of arms. The expiration date was five years in the future. That passport was thing of beauty! The officer gave it back. No questions asked.

At the Zoo Station in West Berlin, Radu got off the bus.

“There I wondered again: what should I do next? Sleep under a bridge, in the railway station, somewhere inside the zoo? I saw a policeman in the middle of the street. I went straight to him and I told him that I wanted political asylum.”

Radu didn’t quite understand what the policeman answered, but he recognized the words “more policemen” and “down the street.” He followed the officer’s hand directions, found the nearest station, and walked in.

“I want political asylum,” Radu said in his tentative German to an officer at a desk.

“Your passport,” the policeman said.

Radu handed his passport, the policeman checked it, and kept it. He told Radu to go straight ahead, down the street for about ten minutes, until he saw the refugee camp. It was one of the many floating camps set up all across West Germany as needed. Another policeman welcomed Radu there and processed him with efficiency. Radu received bed sheets, a pillow, a blanket, and was assigned a bed in a dormitory.

“Tomorrow, come back for your allowance,” the officer said.

“Allowance?” Radu said. “I don’t pay here?”

“No,” the officer said. “You’ll get your DM 132 monthly allowance tomorrow.”

Radu was now among people who looked more like him, fellow Romanians, lots and lots of them, but also Albanians, Hungarians, Yugoslavians, and even people from places as far as India and Africa. The food was good, the place was clean, but Radu wasn’t allowed to work during the first stages of his application for political asylum, so he canvassed the city in search of daily jobs. Soon, he knew all the work points in Berlin, and he took any job he could find: construction, car repairs, street washing, sweeping, driving. His language skills improved and apart from missing his family, he was getting a hang of that new, exciting life.

“I was there [during the reunification of October 3, 1990], when everybody was celebrating, while hammers splintered the cement blocks. I was there and I watched.”

During the full medical checkup needed for the asylum application, Radu’s tests revealed a spot on his left lung. Probably cancer, the doctors said, and they checked him into a hospital, where they kept him in isolation.

“I didn’t like that, so I fled the hospital as soon as I had the chance.”

Just before he ran away from the cancer ward, Radu shaved with a bad razorblade and got a small cut. Back in the refugee camp, the infection got out of control. Radu’s neck swelled like his friend Eugen’s did, back at Popa Şapcă in 1984. Radu was in pain and had trouble breathing. The ambulance that took him from the refugee camp dropped him at a different hospital, where he was given antibiotics and where the doctors ran all the tests again, including the lungs X-rays. Something was definitely wrong with Radu’s left lung, so they sent him to a lung hospital.

Radu told the doctor there that he had already been locked in a cancer ward and that he had run away from that place, but the doctor calmed him down; no cancer looked like that on X-ray.

“You’ll love the hospital I’m sending you to,” Radu remembered the doctor telling him, “so much so that you won’t want to leave.”

“Really?” Radu said. “But if I don’t like it, I’ll run away again.”

Radu did love the sanatorium where the lung doctor had sent him. It was a beautiful building on Radeland Strasse. Sunlight bathed Radu’s large, clean room. Through the tall French doors he looked out at the trees and watched the ducks swimming on the lake. Radu lived there for three months while he received IV chemotherapy, free of charge, to make sure that the enclosed tuberculosis he actually had wouldn’t come back. How he got the disease in the first place, he didn’t know, but his body had fought it and contained it on its own.

Radu was well taken care of, but he missed his family. He wanted to bring them over, but by then, the German authorities had blacklisted Romanians from visiting in an effort to stem the immigration flood that had started after the Romanian Revolution of December 1989. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world were seeking refuge in the newly-unified Germany, and the cost of it all had strained the resources of the federal government and the local administrations, not to mention the goodwill of the German people. If Romanians wanted to visit, they now needed to a written invitation from a German citizen.

Radu became friends with the doctor who oversaw his treatment at the sanatorium. She had time to chat and Radu loved to tell stories. She agreed to write the invitation that Radu needed so that his family in Romania could come visit him in Germany. That was how Laura, Radu’s wife, their three year-old daughter, Radu’s mother and Radu’s brother all stood one day in the lobby of the sanatorium, just as out-of-place there as Radu had been in the East Berlin airport.

Three year-old Radu, his older brother, his mother and father, in a family portrait from 1965

Three year-old Radu, his older brother, his mother and father, in a family portrait from 1965

After Radu left the sanatorium, the authorities separated him and his family: Laura and her daughter in one refugee camp, Radu’s mother and brother in another, while Radu was sent to a third one, even though he explained to the officers in charge that they were all family and wanted to stick together. So Radu came up with a solution, Romanian-style: he took his papers and penciled in the name of Laura’s camp, Karlsruhe, over the name of the camp he had been assigned to. He wrote the new name on top of the official stamp, to make it look, well, official. Then he took his wife and daughter and checked in at their refugee camp – and nobody ever thought to doubt Radu’s papers.

The three of them were reunited with Radu’s mother and brother in another refugee camp in Stuttgart, and from there they all moved again to Besigheim. While living there, they received their work permits. Radu’s first legal job in Germany was plumbing, installing pipes and tiling roofs. His Math and computer skills helped him land a job at Siemens, programming microchips for automated tools.

Things were now looking up and the Codrescu family was not looking back.

“I don’t have fond memories of Romania,” Radu said in 2006, “maybe only from when I was a boy and I used to go to my grandmother’s and play with other kids my age. (…) I had fun in the rowing team, but that is too little to go back for. I wouldn’t go back only for that, and those things are gone anyway.”

Radu and Laura worked hard, building a good life for themselves and for their child in their adoptive country. Freedom was a word that had real meaning for them and they knew how to appreciate what others took for granted.

But by 1992, the German people had had enough with the immigrants and the asylum seekers. The whole country was dealing with a schism between the eastern and western regions that was deeper and harder to bridge than anybody had thought before. Tensions were high, scapegoating easy. The media and the politicians were talking about amendments to the Basic Law to tighten restrictions on granting asylum: not allowing third-country applicants to live in the country while being processed, and increasing funds for the immigration bureaucracy so that asylum-seekers would spend less time in Germany.

In November 1992, a letter arrived at Radu and Laura’s apartment. It was from their immigration lawyer and it read like this:

Dear Mr. Radu Codrescu,

Attached is the court decision concerning your case. Unfortunately, the court believes that you didn’t suffer political persecutions in your country. The decision becomes final two weeks after you receive this letter, on 11/23/1992. In order not to be deported from The Federal Republic of Germany, you will have to voluntarily leave the country by 12/7/1992, in case you don’t receive an extension. I will let you know as soon as I get an answer from R.P. Stuttgart.

Signed and dated.

Radu was crushed. He and Laura had built a life in Germany. They had friends, their daughter had friends. Radu had a job, a bank account, an apartment, a car.

“[The German authorities] were mean to us too. They would show up at your door in the middle of the night and take you out of your bed, in your pajamas, and send you back to Romania.”

The extension arrived in time. The Codrescus were allowed to stay in Germany until April 15, 1993, but no later. Laura and her daughter were going to return to Romania for the time being, but not Radu. No. If he ever went back, it was going to be by his own choice.

Next: A Bright Christmas (1992 CE)

PreviousWhen History First Changed (1990 CE)

Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.

Author Interview: Isla McKetta on Writing from History

Isla McKetta is a Seattle novelist, book reviewer and blogger at A Geography of Reading, and she also serves on the board of Richard Hugo House. Isla and I met during our Goddard MFA program six years ago and I have been reading her work ever since. I’m thrilled that she has two new books coming out almost at the same time, Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Turning Artifacts into Art, co-authored with Rebecca Bridge (in March 2014, from Write Bloody Publishing) and Polska, 1994 (in May 2014, from Editions Checkpointed).

Isla's School ID and Bus Pass, Poland, 1994

Isla’s School ID and Bus Pass, Poland, 1994 – Isla McKetta’s Photo Collection

Isla lived in Pinochet’s Chile and in post-Cold War Poland, she speaks several languages, and she studied political science and sociology in addition to creative writing. Talking to her is always fascinating and enlightening. Thank you, Isla, for taking the time to answer a few questions for Rewriting History.


Your two upcoming books: one is fiction, one nonfiction. How different is it to write in these two genres?

Clear Out the Static in Your AtticI’ve just released Clear Out the Static in Your Attic through Write Bloody Publishing, which is a book of writing prompts co-authored with Rebecca Bridge. We’re both content strategists at Portent, Inc. and I spend a lot of time writing for the Internet in that breezy, accessible tone that offers helpful advice and (ideally) leaves the reader feeling like they’ve learned something. This nonfiction book carries that tone. In it we share the best writing advice we’ve learned and offer some exercises to help writers find the inspiration within. It was a fast and fun book to write (we started writing it in January 2013 and advance copies arrived on my doorstep in February 2014).

Polska 1994In contrast, writing Polska, 1994, my novella, was the most delicious struggle. Both books required a process of taking information and distilling it, but with Polska, 1994, there was so much more for me to figure out along the way. I had to learn why I was writing the book and start to understand the questions I was asking. And then there’s the process of creating characters and the plot. I was so much more involved and I worked on the book in various forms for roundabout 10 years. The story started to take shape while I was in graduate school at Goddard from 2008-10 and I’ve been polishing and honing the prose ever since. Once the story became whole, I started keeping a tally of drafts and I think the very last pass with my editor at Editions Checkpointed brought me up to number 23.

But I want to stress how wonderful all that work has been. I often say that writing is the hardest thing I’ve ever loved doing, and this process of exploration and the quest for perfection has really opened me up as a human being. It’s helped me become more empathetic and to grow up a little. It’s helped me understand who I am and what are the fundamental questions I’m trying to answer in life.

What themes do you explore in your writing?

The easy answers are love and loss, but of course it’s more than that. I also struggle with silence and oppression. I was a shy, introverted kid from a family with Southern norms. Early on I got the message that if I smiled pleasantly and didn’t say a word I was the best company in the world. I’m not at all saying that my parents weren’t interested in me, but that quiet smile is still the first one I carry into any new encounter. What that means is that I often feel like people don’t know the real me – that I have to stifle that person in order to be who the world wants me to be. You can imagine that what’s resulted over the last thirtysome years is a feeling of being bottled up. This has made me interested in the ways we oppress each other and ourselves on a personal level. That shushing gesture from a parent to an older child or the way a wife looks at a husband to get him to change his behavior at a party.

I spent a year in Chile as a child while Pinochet was in power which was where I started to understand that oppression happens on a much larger scale. As Americans, we were protected, but I overheard enough to know about the protests and that people were rounded up in soccer stadiums and then disappeared. Some of the magic of being a kid is that I’m sure some of the information I heard is distorted or wrong in some way but it all seemed so vivid. I’m sure I didn’t really process it at the time, but I developed a profound sense of injustice that was only deepened during the year I lived in Poland after the Cold War. This interest led me to pursue degrees in Political Science and Sociology as an undergrad. I thought I would change the world through working at an NGO or something, but over time I realized the best way for me to speak out was through writing.

I am also interested in truth. I come from a long line of storytellers and embellishers, which is a wonderful resource if you are a fiction writer, but I also found that I always want to know what the real truth is in the story. Sometimes that’s getting the facts right and sometimes it’s understanding the human truth.

Polska, 1994 is an intense and lyrical coming-of-age story that draws from the recent history of Eastern Europe – from World War II to the resistance behind the Iron Curtain and the messiness of freedom once the borders imposed by the communist rule collapsed. Magda, the seventeen year-old protagonist, is strong and vulnerable, wise and naïve, loving and unable to see love – a complex hero who grabs the reader from the very first page and doesn’t let go until her story is told and her voice heard. The word “voice” carries a lot of meaning in your story. There’s a polarity that runs through every scene between “silence” and “voice.” How is this reflected in the structure of your book?

The use of “voice” is twofold. The weird answer is that I have a visceral reaction to certain voices. The timbre of them either makes me weak in the knees or want to run. I’ve been really interested in that reaction and whether there is some pheromonal secretion through speech or something. I haven’t taken the time to delve into the science, but I did bring that feeling into the book with Magda’s instant attraction to Jacek.

Skaters in Warsaw

Skaters in Warsaw, 1994 – Isla McKetta’s Photo Collection

Secondly of course, the dichotomy between voice and silence gets down to exploring the issues I’ve discussed above – to speaking out. Magda’s struggle is in many ways to break the silence of her family. I think she’d be almost as happy to find out what really happened as she would be if her mother stepped onto the doorstep. And silence can be one of the heaviest things. It’s almost worse than a lie because you can convince yourself that a lie is true, but an imposed silence carries this weight of acknowledgement of what happened but we choose not speak of it. So Magda looks to the river for answers. Of course it cannot really answer her, but talking to the river gives Magda a way to break her own silence and to start to understand what she needs to know about her family and herself.

Is the fascinating, almost subliminal appearance of the street musician tied into your silence/voice (be erased/be heard) story spine?

Olek's Sun-faded and Worn Blue Hoodie

Olek’s Sun-faded and Worn Blue Hoodie – Isla McKetta’s Photo Collection

I’m glad you asked about the musician. One of the things I loved most about writing this book (and I hope the next and every one thereafter) is the way that everything I’m reading, listening to, and experiencing converges at the right time. I’d been writing about how Magda was struggling with Jacek and with being a sexual being and there was this street musician that I encountered every day on my way to work. He started talking to me and at times made me profoundly uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to handle the whole thing so I put someone like him in the book, playing, of course, Murmures de la Seine. He also reminded me of those side characters that Kieslowski sometimes uses in his films that serve no greater purpose than atmosphere, so I kept him.

When I first read your book, it was called Murmurs of the River. How did you choose your final title, Polska, 1994?

I wanted so badly for the title Murmurs of the River to stick, but the title has always been a struggle for this book. For years I had no idea what to call it. I figured that a title would come to me, so I just called the book Polska. Then as I neared what I thought was the end (ha!) of revising the book, I felt pressure to call it something. I came up with pages of ideas and thoughts that helped pick out some of the themes. But none of them sounded like a title. I decided for a while to call it Murmurs of the River because the music I went back to time and time again as I revised the book was Chopin’s Murmures de la Seine. I listened to each of the three individual nocturnes on repeat in the background as I edited each of the three sections of my book. One day it hit me, in the way encountering foreign words sometimes does, that those pieces were about a river and my book was in many ways about a river, so…

Toruń Skyline on the Shores of the Vistula (Wisła)

Toruń Skyline on the Shores of the Vistula (Wisła), Poland, 1994 – Isla McKetta’s Photo Collection

But people hated the title. Or, worse, didn’t care about it at all. I’d always assumed that a publisher would want to put their stamp on the book anyway so I let it go. My editor and I went back through the title process and then she read on my blog (http://islamcketta.com) about how I’d originally called the book Polska and got excited about that line of thought. I’d worried way back when the working title was Polska that it wasn’t specific enough about the story or that it limited the audience too much. But the book really is a portrait of Poland as I found it in 1994, so Polska, 1994 it is.

You spent a year in Toruń, Poland as an exchange student in 1994-5, when you were about Magda’s age. How much did you remember about the life of a high school girl in Poland, and how much did you research anew when you put together your story? Did you find your memories of those times and places reliable? What made you excited to write the book in the first place?

Nineteen ninety-four was a fascinating time to be in Poland. The Berlin Wall had been down long enough that people were realizing capitalism was not the answer to all the world’s problems and yet the memory of the Soviet Union was still very fresh. I wanted to document what it felt like to live in that incredible time. But I also wrote the book because I loved the Polish people and I wanted to understand them better. Overall, and this is a wide generalization, but there was also this underlying sadness I was interested to explore. In Poland when someone asks how you are, it’s rude to say you are well and people don’t smile on the streets. There’s also this incredible history of being betrayed by neighboring countries and sometimes by neighbors. Still, when you get to know Poles, they are deeply sincere and generous. I wanted to dig deeper into that and to celebrate it a little. I hope I’ve both been honest and done the country justice.

I remembered some things and more came to me as I wrote. Luckily I’d kept a diary while I was there. And the Internet was a godsend. There were places I remembered or had written about in my diary, but memory is tricky. I’d do a Google Image search for a particular place that I did not have photos of and just seeing the pictures brought back even more memories. I also keep in contact with a few people. But I did a ton of research for this book, too, especially at the outset before I knew what kind of story I wanted to tell. I read Norman Davies in particular and everything I could get my hands on about the history of the Polish resistance at the UW library. When I realized the crux of the story lay in the period from 1977-1994, I set aside some books about the Warsaw Uprising that I’m still excited to get back to. And I haven’t been back to Poland since 1995 so the image of how it was then is the only image in my head. I think if I had visited again (which I do hope to do), writing this book set in one specific moment in time would have been harder.

There was a period of writing the book, too, where I had to let my story live on its own and I stopped reading about Poland then. But when I went back to re-edit the book after finding a publisher, the first thing I did was start reading Polish books and watching Polish films again. Now that the book is finished, the first thing I did was pick up more Polish books and movies. I am not Polish (although I am 1/4 Ukrainian) and I did not grow up there, but something about living among Poles stuck with me and shaped who I am. It’s a part of me that I love, so it’s been a pleasure to immerse myself in that again.

Your story is part detective story, with Magda trying to piece together the story of her mother and also to disentangle the history of Poland in ’81 (when there had been street riots and rubber bullets, and tear gas) from her family’s history. How much of that history you knew before you spent time in Poland, how much you learned there, how much you discovered afterwards? What was your story of laying down Magda’s story? Did you talk to many Polish people in preparation for this book? Did you study the history of the Solidarity and how it reached towns and cities outside Gdansk?

Getting Harassed on Polish Trains (1994) - Isla McKetta's Collection

Getting Harassed on Polish Trains (1994) – Isla McKetta’s Collection

I had some really great teachers when I was in Poland and people were very open about sharing their stories with me when I was there. They talked a lot to me about their experiences under the Soviet Union and some of the complexity of how things were changing with the Polish state. So when I started researching the book, I took the background of some of the stories that had stuck with me as the basis for my research. It helped to focus on Toruń because it’s someplace I knew well by the time I left, but almost all of the places in the book are places I’ve been to and photographed.

You once mentioned that writing this book was a way to appreciate and understand the Polish culture that you loved when you were there. Did you partake of the customs and traditions of Poland, such as Wigila or the Easter service?

I was lucky enough to be welcomed into two families officially while I was there and many more unofficially. One set of drafts of this book was actually the process of laying out all the Polish things I had experienced and wanted to include in the book. It’s interesting to me that what remains in the book of those traditions is more what I researched and less what I experienced. For example, we did a sort of Wigilia at the home where I was living, but I did not ever go to Mass on Christmas Eve or otherwise. And of Easter I experienced more of the big feast than the church service (although I have taken a basket to be blessed on the Saturday before Easter twice, once with a Polish family in Idaho and once in Poland). So most of the ceremonial aspect of the book is based on research I did. The lighted graveyard for All Soul’s Day was something I participated in and which left a huge impression on me. But traditions like Andrzejki are included based solely on research. And at one point I thought I’d include Smigus Dingus (a day when boys pour water on girls for some reason I don’t understand) or International Women’s Day, but neither fit the story.

Warsaw Uprising Monument, Krasinski Square, Warsaw, Poland – Isla McKetta’s Photo Collection

Warsaw Uprising Monument, Krasinski Square, Warsaw, Poland – Isla McKetta’s Photo Collection

I was very glad that pisanki (intricately painting Easter eggs with wax and dye) fit the story, though, because it’s a tradition my family kept from the Ukraine and it’s something I do almost every year although my family is not at all religious.

You mentioned once that you grew up without religion. How did the immersion in a culture that has such a long religious tradition shape or change your understanding of its history?

I am fascinated by religion, and by the Catholic religion in particular. I remember watching my best friend in Chile cross herself as she prayed and knowing that I had to learn more. So being in a very Catholic country wasn’t intimidating or anything. I wish, actually, that I’d participated in more ceremony while there. But I have enough reverence for religion that I never know where I fit in with a service, so I mostly avoid them. For example, I’ve never taken communion because I believe it’s sacred, even though my own beliefs are less theist and more spiritual. Still, that gesture of crossing oneself is one I borrowed from my Chilean friend and Polish friends and it’s something I use almost superstitiously (though shyly in the anti-religious Northwest).

What I loved about the Catholic Church in Poland was how much of a role it played in the political life as well as the religious one. By that I mean the stories of priests helping with the resistance or saving Jews in World War II (I know those stories go both ways). The US seems sometimes conflicted about how secular we want to be and in Poland it just wasn’t a question. So it was interesting to see what that was like.

Your novel develops like a musical piece. Can you talk a bit about the structure, the two voices used in the first part, the past and the present, and then the change of tense and pace as Magda completes her journey, in Part II?

I always wish I had a better musical education, because I feel like there is something about the way music is structured that I intuitively understand and bring to my writing, but I don’t have the language to talk about it in the way I would like.

The structure of the novel was a struggle for a long time, but finding Chopin’s Murmures de la Seine was a big help in giving me a consistent key that I could return to whenever I was editing the book, no matter what was happening in the real world. At first I wanted the reader to go on a linear journey with Magda as she was spurred on her quest, but the tone wasn’t right. It wasn’t until I realized that Part I of the book should be told in retrospect that the feeling was right. As the action of the book moves forward, the reader is then immersed in how Magda got to the river (as remembered in past tense) and also the present tense moments when Magda is speaking to the river that break through the narrative. Part II then is in present tense as the action moves forward.

When I found the bits of poetry from Miłosz that serve as titles for the various chapters, I knew in my heart that all the pieces were in the right place, but some of the later drafts were focused on honing some time markers and things to help readers follow the train of events.

You use cultural references that are both Polish and universal. Copernicus, Chopin, Polanski are Polish names that have universal recognition. By using them, and their boundary-breaking science or iconoclastic art you foreshadow Magda’s journey through a world where the old rules don’t apply anymore, but where there aren’t good new rules to follow either. Did you choose your cultural references to mirror and enforce the exploratory aspect of Madga’s journey?

Wow, that’s a fantastic question and I wish I had. I chose referents that meant something to me, which, in many cases were the ones who had reached prominence in western culture. I think it says something about the Polish culture, though, that there are all these amazing scientists and artists who emerge from there and then achieve that kind of acclaim in their respective fields. Maybe it’s true of all countries and I’m just more attuned to Poland. At various times I included some less recognizable names (like the bands Kult and Varius Manx), but not all of them survived the litany of drafts.

Because this is a book written in English, by an American, about Poland, I never assumed that the main audience was Polish. That changes the shape of the book. For example, passages that explain Polish history are just a way to get myself in trouble with a Polish audience because they have the depth of knowledge that I do not. But for an American audience, that history gives essential context.

What’s the greatest piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

The greatest writing advice I ever received, and there are so many I’ve passed along in Clear Out the Static, is from Micheline Aharonian Marcom. She talks about revising as a process of raking a garden. First you work out the boulders, the things that are obviously in the way, then you work on the pebbles and get them in the right place. Eventually you are working with the sand.

That advice helped me stay sane through the various drafts of this book, because at first I wanted all the language to be perfect so I’d clean it and make it beautiful. But then the scene had to move or be taken out or fundamentally changed. I was trying to rake the sand and there were all these boulders in the way. Micheline helped me trust that I would still remember to fix those things in a later draft.

What’s your next project?

I’m writing about love and the various ways we change ourselves to be loved. The book is in a very rough state and for a few months I thought it might turn into a book of poems, but now I think it will be a novel or novella. Honestly, at this point after months of editing two books and the months ahead of marketing them, I’m really just excited to get back to writing, period.

Thank you, Isla.