TC ATHE HOLE IN THE FLAG.
249 pages. $21. At the time it seemed as if Romania was being the last of the Soviet Eastern European dominoes to fall into revolution. Some differences were noted -- notably that this time there was a death toll, and an appalling one at that -- but these were mere details in the joy of the moment.
Caught up in that joy was Andrei Codrescu, America's most famous Romanian (quick, can you name another?) who rushed off to the land he had left as a youth almost 25 years earlier. Mr. Codrescu thinks of himself as a poet, but he is more renowned as a commentator on National Public Radio and in various newspapers, including The Sun (until recently he taught and lived in Baltimore).
"The Hole in the Flag" tells what he saw and what he learned -- which were two different things -- about what was happening in Romania. The hole, incidentally, is where the Communist emblem was before the uprisers ripped it out.
To Mr. Codrescu's credit, he does not modify his early observations to indicate prescience about what was learned later, when people began to pay attention to those troubling questions and to realize that the Romanian revolution was both more and less than it at first seemed.
Two events in 1990 clarified the focus, and Mr. Codrescu comes to them in their chronological place. The first was when Romania became the only Eastern European country to elect voluntarily the former Communists as its new leaders, with a comfortable 83 percent of the vote. The second was when "miners" came to Bucharest to squash students and others protesting the policies of the new government.
Returning to the events of December 1989, facts slowly began to emerge. It was learned that instead of those tens of thousands killed in Timisoara alone, the death toll for the entire country was only 682. But hadn't pictures of the dead been seen all over the world? Hadn't the newly unleashed Soviet press been on the scene reporting what was going on? Indeed. In fact, Mr. Codrescu ran across a Tass correspondent who confided that the Soviets had been in Timisoara, waiting, for five days before the spontaneous demonstrations broke out.
One question led to another and then, without an answer, to yet another. Serious questions even surrounded the attempted flight and death of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his dictatorial helpmate, Elena.
Mr. Codrescu pondered all this after he returned to the United States and then made a second trip to Romania. He concludes that the revolution was a staged event.
As to the deaths, "The best guess is . . . that a struggle for power between two rival Army or Securitate [security police] gangs claimed many innocent lives. And the awful truth is that the winning faction is in power in Romania today."
And why, if there had been a revolution to throw out the Communists, did the Romanians immediately vote them back into office? "A good case can be made that the Romanian people did not know that they were electing a Communist government. After all, Iliescu said that he wasn't a Communist. But that is hard to believe. Most likely, the subtle and not-so-subtle hints with the lead pipe and the stick had kept alive the fear instilled by forty-five years of police terror that three months could not erase."
He also raises a disturbing question about the U.S. government's knowledge of or role in what was going on. Secretary of State Jim Baker, he says, publicly said it would be OK for Soviet troops to enter the country to stop the violence.
This is the grand part of Mr. Codrescu's book. It has a more intimate side too, the personal story of his return to his roots, to meeting old friends whom he never thought he would see again, getting both personal satisfaction and insights a non-native couldn't possibly get.
But where Romania's revolution remains confusing in big details, Mr. Codrescu's personal trip is slightly nicked by small details. His friend Ion and his friend Vidrighin turn out to be the same person, though he forgot to mention it. (At least, double-checking via the selective index indicates he forgot.) And didn't his parents have names? Some of his supplemental facts also sometimes seem less than accurate -- 21 Olympic gold medals for Nadia Comaneci? (She won five.)
The book, as might be expected, is loaded with Codrescuisms. And you can almost hear his distinctive accent and sardonic emphasis as you read some of the sentences: "Amazing. A week ago I'd been a traitor. Now I was a patriot." "Ah, paranoia, the familiar taste of which still clung to these walls like ectoplasm. I had definitely returned to a world whose rules I had forgotten." "I hated armies more than bad poetry."
The Romanian revolution is one of the great shams of recent times. That most people around the world still don't realize that is a reflection both on how successful the perpetrators were and on how fleeting our attention span is. For those who want to know more about this dark chapter from a dark corner of our
conscious, we luckily have Andrei Codrescu to shed some light.
Mr. Beckenstein is assistant foreign editor of The Sun.