KJ Howe: Spies, history, intrigue—and a love story. The perfect elements in a novel set in historical Eastern Europe by a talented debut author with the ideal backstory for this book. Welcome to Rogue Women, William!
By William Maz
The Bucharest Dossier has been described as a love story inside a spy thriller inside a historical novel. Of course, many novels have those elements interwoven through them in various permutations. What should be noticed, however, is the order in which these elements are listed. The history forms the background: December 1989, the start of what will become the Romanian revolution. The spy thriller, layered over that background, is the official motivation for Bill Hefflin, a CIA analyst, to travel to Bucharest at the behest of his KGB asset, code-named Boris. At the pinnacle, however, lies his true motivation: finding his childhood love, Pusha, whom he hasn’t seen in twenty years and who has taken on mythical proportions.
In 1989, all of Eastern Europe was changing. By December, the Berlin Wall had fallen and all European Soviet satellite states had already undergone their own “velvet” revolutions from communism to capitalist democracy. Only one remained: Romania.
Led by the Stalinist tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania mired in the misery of a totalitarian state in which food was scarce, all media was controlled by the state, and the all-powerful Securitate, Ceausescu’s dreaded secret police, listened to every conversation. It was estimated that one out of seven civilians was either a paid Securitate agent or informant. All telephones came with a microphone installed at the factory, allowing the Securitate to monitor not only phone conversations but those in the room. Romanians routinely placed their phones inside closets or drawers. Typewriters were illegal, used only in official offices, and were all numbered. Copying machines were non-existent, except in select government departments. People spoke in hushed voices, and never mentioned any specific names or places. Instead, they said things like, “How is our friend doing?” or “How was that matter resolved?” Securitate informants were everywhere. It could be anyone: your friend, neighbor, classmate, lover, or cousin. The Securitate had a dossier on anyone of importance, which they could use for blackmail or arrest. Hence the title.
I was born in Bucharest of Greek parents. Because they were still Greek citizens, we were finally allowed to emigrate to Greece when I was a young boy. After living in a Greek refugee camp for two years, we emigrated to America. I have since visited Bucharest over a dozen times, both during Ceausescu’s period and after, including immediately before and after the revolution. I have relatives and friends still living there. My knowledge of those years comes from personal experience, relatives and friends, and considerable research.
Many items in the novel have autobiographical roots. I did have a childhood love named Pusha, but the rest of her story is fictional. I did attend Harvard as an undergraduate, but was never approached by the CIA. Some scenes I depict in the novel did occur, but most are fictional. The historical events depicted in the novel are based on solid research and media reports, but certain elements remain a mystery.
The question that Romanians still ask is: “Who started the revolution?” Was it really a popular revolution or a coup d’état? Over a thousand people died during those tumultuous weeks, which began in the city of Timisoara. Snipers on rooftops seemed to be shooting indiscriminately, both at civilians and military. Some snipers were caught and found to be from Arab countries, but they miraculously disappeared after the revolution.
At the end of it all, Ceausescu and his wife were caught, tried in a kangaroo court, and executed by firing squad. The people that came to power after them were all second tier communist apparatchiks who now swore off communism and pledged allegiance to capitalist democracy. What followed was not unlike what happened in other former Soviet countries, including Russia, itself. The previous Securitate operatives, as with the KGB in Russia, metamorphosed into businessmen who stole the newly-privatized industries and, overnight, became oligarchs who control the country to this day.
During this whole period, private life went on. People fell in love, married, had families, and tried to keep their heads down. Because one didn’t know whom to trust, close friends remained close for decades, even a lifetime. People moved inside closely-knit groups, rarely letting others in. Extramarital lovers often became unofficial members of the family, the affair remaining unspoken by all parties.
In this background, Bill Hefflin arrives in Bucharest to meet his asset, Boris, who has a message from Gorbachev to Bush: “Keep your hands off Romania. Mother Russia will clean up its own mess.”
So, was it a revolution or a coup? In the novel, I propose my own theory. But while Hefflin tries to sort out the forces at work, nothing is at it seems, including his own childhood love and family history.
WILLIAM MAZ was born in Bucharest, Romania, of Greek parents and emigrated to the U.S. as a child. He is a graduate of Harvard University, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and Yale residency. During his high school and undergraduate years, he developed a passion for writing fiction. He studied writing at Harvard, the New School, The Writer’s Studio in New York City, and with Gordon Lish, and is now writing full time. The Bucharest Dossier is his debut novel.