The children of ‘1984’

Writers give voice to their fathers’ stories and rescue them from silence

Alex Nabaum for The Boston Globe

In “1984,” George Orwell’s prescient 1948 novel of a totalitarian state, one of the most haunting images is that of the memory hole. Within every room of the government’s Ministry of Truth is an orifice that sucks inconvenient documents into a furnace, where they are incinerated so that not even ash remains. Memory is destroyed. Written documents are the great enemy of politically repressive regimes, which have always sought to censor personal accounts of human suffering and to punish those who dare to write them.

In 1983, the Romanian secret police, the Securitate, arrested a protester named Ion Bugan for handing out leaflets and demonstrating against the Ceausescu regime. He was sentenced to prison; his family was subjected to continuous surveillance, harassment, starvation, and shunning; his wife was forced by the state to divorce him. After his release five years later, the round-the-clock surveillance continued, along with nightly death threats. Eventually the family left the country, finding asylum in the United States.

In 1987, in Medellín, Colombia, a doctor named Héctor Abad Gómez was gunned down by right-wing paramilitaries for criticizing the government’s denial of basic services and human rights to the poor. His name was on a list of enemies of the state; after his murder a copy of the bloodstained hit list was found in his pocket. Many of his friends and university colleagues were also killed; his son was warned of death threats and fled to Italy.


Both Bugan and Abad Gómez were punished — one with imprisonment and exile, the other with death — by regimes that wanted to silence them, to consign them and their words to memory holes. But as it turned out, both men had children who grew up to be writers. And both of these writers have recently published memoirs, giving voice to their fathers’ stories and rescuing them from the silence which the regimes had so brutally tried to impose.

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Carmen Bugan’s “Burying the Typewriter” begins with an idyllic childhood — beloved grandparents, Christmas baking, a summer holiday at the Black Sea, peaches from the garden. But times get worse. People are trampling one another in bread lines and denouncing neighbors suspected of hoarding food. Carmen’s father begins secretly typing leaflets advocating for basic human rights, on a typewriter that he buries in the yard at dawn. He is arrested. His wife loses her job. Carmen and her sister are taunted at school for being “social garbage.” Securitate men enter the house at all hours, listen on microphones to every conversation, poison the family dog. The family stays close, but Carmen writes honestly that while they love and miss her father, they are also furious that he has jeopardized his family for the sake of his political ideals.

In his stunning memoir “Oblivion,” Héctor Abad writes of his father’s murder, “Almost 20 years have passed . . . and every month, every week, I have felt the inescapable duty not to avenge his death, but, at least, to tell it.” This passage appears near the end of the book, as does the story of the murder. Most of the book is about life, a nuanced recollection of a beloved, complex father: unreservedly loving toward his children, good with roses, bad with money, skeptical of religion, enraged by violence and social injustice. Like Carmen Bugan, Abad acknowledges that the family was sometimes angry at the father for risking his life and their happiness; but also like Bugan, he blames the high cost of heroism not on the hero but on the regime and its terrors.

The word “memoir” comes from the Latin “memoria”: memory. “A book,” writes Abad, “is a simulacrum of remembering . . . a desperate attempt to make more lasting what is irremediably finite.”

In a sense, both Bugan and Abad are the children of “1984.” Orwell wrote about a society that silences the truth. But the children of those who are silenced grow up determined to speak, to tell stories that will endure. Abad writes, “I learned something from my father that the murderers don’t know how to do: to use words to express a truth: a truth that will last longer than their lie.” These memoirists are striking powerful blows against repression, silence, and oblivion. In telling their fathers’ stories they remind us that words have power, and that memory itself has the last word.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’