It isn’t until nearly the end of Liliana Corobca’s semi-experimental novel, The Censor’s Notebook, that we find out what lead to Filofteia Moldovean becoming (as she calls herself) the best and most perfect censor in Romania. Before Filofteia reveals her past to anyone who might be reading her notebook, we are taken on an extended tour inside the mind of a woman who has trained herself to see every phrase, every allusion, every word, as a potential attack against the Socialist Republic of Romania. It’s curious (but perhaps not surprising) that Filofteia is either unwilling or unable to turn that fierce eye on her own shortcomings. The Censor’s Notebook is painstakingly translated by Monica Cure, even down to Filofteia’s invented words.
The bulk of The Censor’s Notebook takes place over half of 1974 in Bucharest. Before we get to Filofteia’s musings, however, two introductory sections explain how Filofteia’s notebook came to be in the hands of a researcher working on the history of censorship in Romania under communism. These notebooks were supposed to be destroyed when they were turned in by their owners because they represented proof that extensive censorship took place in what was supposed to be a worker’s paradise. No one ever seems to have read them, which is a good thing considering the things Filofteia says and admits to. She would have had a lot of explaining to do to the Securitate, Romania’s version of the KGB.
Because Filofteia is reasonably sure that no one will read her notebook, she feels free to gossip about her co-workers. (Her colleague Roza’s cleavage and its hypnotic powers on men and her crush on a man a bit higher up the food chain appear frequently.) She also fulminates over the terrible novels she has to read. She loathes writers (especially the pretentious ones who speak so abstractly that it’s hard to know what they’re actually saying and the ones who mine the dictionary for obscure words to try and get around the censors). Only once, late in this book, is Filofteia moved to tears by a passage of literature. We also learn about the endless directives that arrive from somewhere in the government that either ban new words and ideas or, more rarely, allow writers to use them in their works. (Apparently, “love” was only allowed in the early 1960s.)
As much as Filofteia complains, we know from her thoughts about her brief transfer to another department (where she is horrified to see the full brunt of highly sexual French novels instead of the sedate, coded Romanian fare she’s used to), there is nowhere she would rather be than in her office in the Literature department of the censorship bureau. She doesn’t trust anyone else to make mistakes but, more importantly, it appears that she wants to stay safely under the radar. All of her energy is devoted to staying right where she is.
After some sections in which Filofteia seems to have some kind of censor’s apotheosis (a section that I admit I skimmed because it was really hard to get through), I finally landed on chapters that revealed why Filofteia is such an ardent censor. For most of the book, I was repelled and fascinated by her philosophy of censorship. I could intellectually understand it. A censor was a necessary job, according to the repressive Ceaușescu regime. What I wrestled with was the way that Filofteia turned it into a calling. She’s a true believer in a practice that I consider abhorrent. In the last chapters of The Censor’s Notebook, we finally see the events in Filofteia’s past that she has sublimated into her drive to erase romantic love and liberty and every little scrap of free expression as dictated by the bureau’s directives. I don’t want to give any of this away except to say that all is satisfactorily explained in the end. I had more sympathy for the creature Filofteia had become, even if I can never excuse her censorial zeal.
It’s ironic that I want to take my own red pen to some sections of The Censor’s Notebook to trim some of the repetitive sections. My desire to take a little off the top echoed Filofteia’s argument that her censorship actually improves the texts that come across her desk. But in my defense, my thoughts about cutting a few pages come purely from a motive to tighten up the storytelling and not to ensure that the words conform to official regulations. And really, my annoyance at some of Filofteia’s maundering about the high art of censorship honestly came from my own struggles to get through the text. I quite enjoyed parts of The Censor’s Notebook, particularly the scenes in which Filofteia slips and shows her human side. So although I have some qualms about recommending this book generally, I think it would be a fascinating read for a reader who doesn’t mind a challenging read that pushes them to think about the purpose of literature and the necessity of free expression (and also one who isn’t afraid to skim with things get too heavy).
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.