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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Censor's Notebook

Liliana Corobca

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To purchase The Censor's Notebook

Title: The Censor's Notebook
Author: Liliana Corobca
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 481 pages
Original in: Romanian
Availability: The Censor's Notebook - US
The Censor's Notebook - UK
The Censor's Notebook - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Romanian title: Caiet de cenzor
  • Translated and with a Note by Monica Cure

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Our Assessment:

B : cleverly and effectively done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 17/11/2022 Matthew Janney
TLS . 18/11/2022 Costica Bradatan

  From the Reviews:
  • "The contemporary resonance of The Censor’s Notebook needs little elucidation: the threat of ignorance, the attempts to quash dissent, the control of information (and disinformation) by opaque, all-powerful institutions remain urgent issues today far beyond eastern Europe. (...) (T)he censor’s reflections are full of acerbic wit and humour. (...) At times, Filofteia sounds like a weary book editor, at others, communism’s chief copywriter, a testament to translator Monica Cure’s fluid transitions between register and style. (...) The more Filofteia reveals of her own life, the more her notebook becomes a rebuttal of the very thing it set out to document: personal and political censorship." - Matthew Janney, Financial Times

  • "(T)his is a seriously amusing book. (...) Below the humorous surface The Censor’s Notebook is a complex, multilayered and multidimensional novel in which fact and fiction are cleverly entwined. (...) All this makes for a highly demanding translator’s job, a task that Monica Cure capably fulfils. With ease and grace she shuttles between strikingly different stylistic and lexical registers, from officialese and propaganda to the more intimate and even lyrical. Out of this varied material a lucid narrative slowly emerges." - Costica Bradatan, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Liliana Corobca's The Censor's Notebook is built around the conceit that in Communist Romania government censors of literary works kept notebooks in which they recorded whatever they wanted while doing their work -- a running commentary, as it were, on their thoughts and their lives and the books they worked on. The bulk of the novel then is one such 'Reader Notebook', presented in full. First, however, there is introductory material that describes how it came to be published in this form, 'Liliana Corobca' having been contacted by an Emilia Codrescu-Humml in 2016, who explained that when she had fled Romania in 1974 she had been able to smuggle one of these notebook out of the country.
       Codrescu-Humml had been employed by the General Directorate of Press and Publications (GDPP), and one of her duties had been the shredding and destroying of secret documents -- which included the censors' reader notebooks, which were never meant to be kept for posterity. Curious about the notebooks, she eventually decided to steal one from the Literature Department when they were turned in for destruction, winding up with that kept by Filofteia Moldovean, one of three readers in Office Two. (She had hoped to get one of the notebooks kept by one of the others in the office, who seemed more interesting than Filofteia, but that didn't work out.) In the time since, she had been uncertain what to do with the notebook -- trying even, in 1994, to return it to Filofteia herself, but the former censor wasn't interested. Corobca, however, is very interested, and thrilled to be able to get her hands on such a notebook -- noting that, while she had heard of the existence of such records: "I was not able to find a single document of this type, and I concluded they were all destroyed"
       Filofteia's notebook from 1974 is then presented in full (save the fourteen illegible pages written in pencil that are part of the notebook). While her two colleagues often deal with works of poetry -- and are often moved by it --, Filofteia (whom everyone calls Dina or Diana) presents herself as largely able to take a much more dispassionate approach. She does enjoy part of what the work involves:

     I can't say I prefer a literary genre, I like the act of reading, the reading itself of a manuscript, which fills my life with meaning. And what I cut out, my interventions, the more important they are, the more they motivate me. I adore the responsibility, having the fate of a book in my hands, having its final form depend on me.
       But the artistic vision behind a creative work isn't of interest to her:
I'm a block of ice, there's not a line that can thaw me, not one novel impresses me. I don't like poetry, I don't care much for prose, I don't ask myself, in general, whether I like literature. Literature must be censored, and that's it. That's where my mission ends.
       She knows her place and role (though she does occasionally complain about being just: "a tiny gear, an insignificant piece in a sophisticated mechanism") -- while:
     In general, all the poetry being written nowadays annoys me, all the novels annoy me too, and the plays make me want to pull my hair out !
       She has little respect for writers, not least their yammering for and about freedom while in fact they can: "write whatever you want, shamelessly, knowing that I can't censor everything I want". Indeed, the way she sees it:
Censors have never been as insignificant as they are under the communist regime ! At most, censors can censor themselves !
       Nevertheless, she does see that she and writers, and all of society are, in part, in the same boat:
     Interestingly, whose love life isn't a mess ? No one loves each other in this country anymore. That's why literature's so constipated too. Everyone's terrified that they might get their concepts wrong.
       Indeed, The Censor's Notebook is very much about the Romanian experience, in particular -- with Filofteia noting, for example, the curious phenomenon that there was very little samizdat writing to worry about: almost everyone stayed within the system. So too, when exposed to foreign writing when she is transferred to the Import and Export Publications department, dealing with the books that are to be translated from and into Romanian, she is exposed to whole new (shocking) worlds -- while she even still has to ask and wonder: "Who is this Solzhenitsyn ?" Exposure to foreign literature -- barely any of which she deems appropriate to be translated and published in Romania -- leads her to wonder, given what she reads of this literature: "How has their society not collapsed ?" Not only that, she is confused by the fact that, with all the wealth and material advances in these Western countries:
Other than literature, everything seems to be going very well over there. Something in this world isn't logical. Something's not adding up.
       She sees the world practically only and entirely through the eyes of a censor. She acknowledges that she can't read a book any longer: "in any other way than as a censor", but it goes beyond that as well.
       The period covered in Filofteia's notebook is only a relatively short period, but there are significant changes in her work-life during this time, as she moves not only from one department to another but then is also drawn into 'the Lodge' -- a whole new level, promising: "A new Censorship". Among its goals is also: "to assure the perpetuation of its own species" -- censorship having to survive any possible political or societal changes. Filofteia describes a whole 'World Association of Censors' -- though in her Preamble Corobca: notes that, despite her years of studying censorship: "I have never heard of this organization".
       Completely committed to the concept of censorship, in its fullest meaning, Filofteia is often disappointed by its practice -- including finding that censorship is: "just a façade, for show, [...] in our communist regime". In the later parts of the notebook, Filofteia also expresses doubts about the institution(s) she is part of being able to keep up:
Communism will fall because of reading, they're all becoming smarter than the smart ones, they ask too many questions, they have more and more desires and requests, constitutional rights, written and unwritten rights. We can barely keep writers under control. No censorship exists that can resolve the problems of the entire world, all the readers.
       From practically the beginning, readers are aware that Filofteia has a son, and from early on it is made clear that she has long had no contact with him. She even admits, with regret: "I don't have a single photo of my son !" While some background about the separation is revealed -- she left the two-year-old behind in her home village when she went to college -- the full details of this part of her personal life, and her relationship with the father of the child, are only fully presented deep in the novel. As censor -- the way she practices it --, she has long had practically no personal life, living an otherwise fairly solitary and isolated life; the revelations about her past give her something of a more human side (and suggest also at least some of the reasons she has so embraced her profession).
       The Censor's Notebook is a neatly constructed work, with Filofteia's Reader Notebook not simply a journal or diary but itself a more complex personal record -- with Corobca's introductory material preparing the reader as to how to consider aspects of it, as in noting that: "The final two chapters were probably written at the same time as the first two, with the notebook turned over, thus offering us an alternative reading". The novel as a whole is a wide-ranging consideration of censorship -- of literary works specifically, but also much more generally; of the Romanian example in particular, but also far beyond it. It's also, in the form of Filofteia's annoyance and frustrations with the actual work she does as well as her colleagues and the expectations of higher-ups, an often amusing look at censorship in practice.
       The power of literature, and writing in general, is nicely made clear -- complete with Filofteia warning:
Books are weapons and, if you don't know how to handle them, they can turn against you and hurt or kill you. Reading transforms a person, that's already clear.
       The scale of the work works somewhat against it: there's a lot packed in here, not least then also the late turn to the more personal, and the sheer amount here ultimately somewhat blunts the overall impact of the work. Still, The Censor's Notebook is an engagingly digressive novel that deals in thought-provoking fashion with interesting subject-matter -- and successfully conveys its relevance even long after the collapse of the particular system presented here, as issues of censorship, in its various forms, continue to be no less relevant today.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 December 2022

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The Censor's Notebook: Reviews: Liliana Corobca: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Moldovan-born Romanian author Liliana Corobca was born in 1975.

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© 2022 the complete review

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