by Irina Costache
I first came across Nina Cassian in her volumes Memory as Dowry. From her diary notes spread across half a century, I built an image of her as a sort of feminist-poetic ideal. Nina Cassian seemed to be a free woman, open to experimenting (either poetically, politically or amorously), a woman dedicated to her work (maybe the only woman who was known to spend her entire time on the reading-writing rollercoaster so present in the lives of male intellectuals) and not least of all, a woman honest with herself. Critics would say Nina Cassian was spoiled, including by the political regime. She had lovers, got involved in politics and even allowed herself to believe in the Communist ideals without repenting afterwards. She went to the nudist beaches, drank, had fun and, at the peak of chauvinist Ceausescu-style nationalism, even immigrated to the US. After this first encounter, I had the distinct feeling that Nina Cassian was a woman who lived for herself and without any remorse.
My second encounter with her came many years later, when, by accident, I came across her Securitate file. In all the chaos of the reading room at the Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives, I didn’t browse only the usual files, but also over 100 pages of wiretapping from the evenings in 2 Mai. For over 10 years, Nina Cassian (“objective Mira”) was under the surveillance of the Securitate, her manuscripts were photocopied, her phones bugged and her letters intercepted. I have no idea if the writer suspected anything or if she even cared. I know from a subsequent encounter that she had no interest whatsoever in who her informants were. After all, how could she have judged others who probably believed in the Communist ideals as well? Not to mention the fact that the label of anti-Communist dissident would not have suited her.
Reading the file is a fun endeavor not only because one can easily imagine the fascination the investigating officer had with the poet – an officer extremely careful with the details regarding her private life – but also because the informants were prepared to go to any lengths to please their boss or even shared his fascination. This combination resulted in the poet being associated not only with flirting that actually took place, but also with lesbian affairs, flings with fishermen or hanky-panky with complete strangers. Nothing spectacular about the summers in 2 Mai, either. The intelligentsia carried on with its usual get-togethers, complaining about Party connections, low supply of paper, scarce finances and shortages of food / drinks. There are several reports containing more substantial discussions, one referring to the emancipation of women under Ceausescu, nothing less than “a patriarchy imposed through the Family Code” and another referring to the anti-Semite tilt of the regime: “I’m a true Communist and I believe in a better world, without any such antagonism and hatred; Ceausescu’s regime is neo-Fascist”. The officer even writes down one of the reasons Nina Cassian decides to embark on her American adventure during her retirement. She wants to fall in love again (at 60) and even remarry.
My last encounter was with Nina Cassian herself. Several years ago I visited her on Roosevelt Island in New York, where the elderly retire in a condo with permanent medical assistance. We spent about 45 minutes talking about the mistakes of youth, about the fate of the artist in relation to politics and about the American escape. It was mostly a “dialogue of the deaf” wherein I was asking for politics and she was directing me towards poetry. Was Communism a naïveté? Possibly, just like nudism was a naïveté, just like poetry is a utopia, just like love promises salvation or just like 2 Mai was an attempt to be more authentic and more human. But how can one not react to the sublime idea of turning the world into a better, friendlier place?