The Typewriter as Weapon

Free­dom to Read Week: Feb­ru­ary 22–28, 2015.

Free­dom to Read, Entry #3: author Ian Col­ford on phi­los­o­phy, lit­er­a­ture, and author­i­tar­i­an regimes

My first book is a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries nar­rat­ed by a refugee from Com­mu­nist Alba­nia. While I was research­ing it I learned a lot about the author­i­tar­i­an regimes that dom­i­nat­ed the polit­i­cal land­scape in East­ern Europe from the end of World War II to the late 1980s.

Imag­ine liv­ing in a coun­try where the gov­ern­ment oper­ates under a shroud of secre­cy, where ques­tion­ing offi­cial pol­i­cy is a pun­ish­able offence, where your next-door neigh­bour or best friend or cousin or broth­er might be watch­ing and report­ing on your activ­i­ties, where a harm­less act or innocu­ous remark could land you in prison. That’s what life was like for peo­ple in East­ern Europe for much of the pre­vi­ous cen­tu­ry. The fear was real, the threats gen­uine.

The edicts of Com­mu­nism do not make oppres­sion inevitable. But because an essen­tial theme of Com­mu­nist phi­los­o­phy is that the pros­per­i­ty of the col­lec­tive comes before the pros­per­i­ty of the indi­vid­ual, it’s not sur­pris­ing that the idea that the state knows best in all mat­ters forms an ide­o­log­i­cal cor­ner­stone for many of the regimes from that peri­od. In coun­tries like Roma­nia, Alba­nia and Yugoslavia, the notion that the com­mon rab­ble is ruled by self-inter­est and doesn’t know what’s good for itself trans­lat­ed into decades-long dic­ta­tor­ships char­ac­ter­ized by one-par­ty rule, a lack of tol­er­ance for oppos­ing polit­i­cal views, pro­found mis­trust of for­eign influ­ences, and the bru­tal sup­pres­sion of dis­sent­ing ideas

Where books and writ­ing are con­cerned, peo­ple had few options. Only those works that praised the state and its rulers, or were deemed accept­able by a team of bureau­crats, were print­ed and dis­trib­uted. Any writer whose aspi­ra­tions includ­ed pub­li­ca­tion had to con­form to a pre­scribed set of ideas. Those who were unable or unwill­ing to com­pro­mise stopped writ­ing, worked in secret, left the coun­try, or were black­list­ed or jailed. Often, clas­sic works by icon­ic writ­ers from pre­vi­ous cen­turies were sup­pressed because gov­ern­ment cen­sors felt the ideas they pro­mot­ed did not con­form to the pre­vail­ing ide­ol­o­gy.

A com­mon absur­di­ty of the time was that some of a writer’s works would be well known and wide­ly avail­able, while oth­ers were treat­ed like they didn’t exist. Works by for­eign writ­ers were like­ly to be banned alto­geth­er and any­one caught with these in their pos­ses­sion would be arrest­ed. In Roma­nia a 1983 law declared the type­writer a “dan­ger­ous weapon,” and any­one who want­ed one had to obtain per­mis­sion from the police. If per­mis­sion was grant­ed, the new own­er had to sub­mit a type­face sam­ple so that unique char­ac­ter­is­tics of the machine could be reg­is­tered with the author­i­ties. The pri­vate per­son-to-per­son sale of type­writ­ers was for­bid­den. Type­writ­ers were only avail­able for pur­chase from state-run shops.

Cen­sor­ship was every­where, but many peo­ple were will­ing to take risks. Unsanc­tioned man­u­scripts were secret­ly copied and cir­cu­lat­ed through under­ground net­works. Some­times a work crit­i­cal of the regime would be smug­gled out of the coun­try and pub­lished else­where. If this hap­pened and the iden­ti­ty of the author was known, he or she had to go into hid­ing or find a way to leave the coun­try. More than even vio­lent resis­tance or out­right rebellion—which could be quashed with brute force—those in pow­er feared the uncon­trolled cir­cu­la­tion of sub­ver­sive ideas. Unlike type­writ­ers ideas are dan­ger­ous, and who bet­ter to know this than a rul­ing elite that was able to grab pow­er in the first place because of the spread of ideas?

All infor­ma­tion exchange and all forms of media—the press, tele­vi­sion, radio, printing—were con­trolled by the state. With absolute con­trol over the mes­sage that reached the pub­lic, the regime ensured that real­i­ty became what they want­ed it to be. Gov­ern­ment reports would gush about a boom­ing econ­o­my while peo­ple stood in line for hours to buy a loaf of bread and endured ser­vice short­ages and util­i­ty break­downs because the tools to fix things were hard to come by and because the infra­struc­ture had been falling apart for decades. The arrest of dis­si­dents was nev­er made known because that would be an admis­sion that

dis­si­dent activ­i­ty exist­ed. When the Berlin Wall fell in August 1989, the Roman­ian press did not report it. Peo­ple in Roma­nia only became aware of this momen­tous event through a trick­le of for­eign news reports that with­in a few weeks became a tor­rent. In the end, even the gov­ern­ment couldn’t stop the flow of infor­ma­tion.

It has been said, face­tious­ly, that Com­mu­nism failed because peo­ple didn’t want to wear Bul­gar­i­an shoes. But the col­lapse of the Sovi­et Union and the oth­er social­ist states in East­ern Europe is due, at least in part, to an unwieldy and pon­der­ous and, as it turned out, unsus­tain­able sys­tem of sur­veil­lance and con­trol that over many years bur­geoned in sup­port of an inef­fi­cient pow­er struc­ture. East Ger­many has been described as a coun­try where half the pop­u­la­tion was watch­ing the oth­er half. It couldn’t have been a sur­prise when the sys­tem even­tu­al­ly col­lapsed under its own weight.

In Cana­da our free­doms are enshrined in a con­sti­tu­tion. We can read (and write) what­ev­er we want. We take for grant­ed that a vibrant, clam­orous and vig­i­lant media stands ready to pounce on the small­est gaffe or mis­step com­mit­ted by our polit­i­cal lead­ers. Despite how some peo­ple feel about Harper’s con­ser­v­a­tives our free­doms have nev­er been seri­ous­ly threat­ened. But all you have to do is read a lit­tle his­to­ry and you’ll see that Cana­da is an excep­tion. We should cel­e­brate our free­doms from time to time, if only to remind our­selves how lucky we are.

Ian Col­ford is a fic­tion writer liv­ing in Hal­i­fax, Nova Sco­tia. His sto­ries, reviews, and com­men­tary have appeared in Cana­di­an lit­er­ary pub­li­ca­tions from coast to coast. He has com­plet­ed res­i­den­cies at the Hawthorn­den Cas­tle Inter­na­tion­al Retreat for Writ­ers and Yad­do, the artists’ colony in Sarato­ga Springs, New York. Evi­dence (2008, Porcupine’s Quill), his first col­lec­tion of short fic­tion, won the Mar­garet and John Sav­age First Book Award and was short­list­ed for the Danu­ta Gleed Lit­er­ary Award, The Thomas Head Rad­dall Atlantic Fic­tion Prize, and the ReLit Award. His nov­el The Crimes of Hec­tor Tomás (2012, Free­hand Books) won the Alber­ta Trade Fic­tion Book of the Year.