The price of romance

Book:LOOKING FOR GHEORGHE by Helena Drysdale Sinclair-Stevenson £16.99
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"NO traveller can be a silent witness, leaving no trace," writes Helena Drysdale. "Their very presence, watching and listening, changes what they see and hear." This book is above all about the responsibility of the traveller and the need to recognise that power to effect change. In her case, she changed a life, quite possibly for the worse.

In 1979 she and two student friends travelled to Romania, where they befriended a young trainee priest and poet called Gheorghe Cupar. Handsome and brilliantly clever, he had a Byronic intensity and appeal. He fell in love with Drysdale and she encouraged him, unaware that his open association with foreigners would get him into serious trouble. At that time the activities of the Securitate were largely unknown outside Romania, and Ceausescu was perceived as a "good Communist", doughtily standing up to the bullying might of the USSR.

Gheorghe asked Helena to marry him but she took it as a joke, and returned to Cambridge with her friends. There she received long, passionate letters from him containing overt criticisms of the regime, as well as more cryptic references to "accidents" and "beatings". He repeated his proposal of marriage and asked her to help him leave. Then, at the end of 1980, he wrote telling her not to contact him again; he was going to join the police.

Ten years later, watching the Romanian revolution exploding on the television screen Drysdale, now married, wondered again about Gheorghe. What had happened to him in the intervening years? Did he really join the police? Was he dead or alive? She resolved to return, both to satisfy her curiosity and, as she puts it, "to make amends" in case he had suffered as a result of their friendship.

So Drysdale turned detective, and the book charts her search for her friend and her frustration with the "looking-glass" world of post-revolution Romania, where her contacts would rather compare Zen and Neo-Classicism than help her in her quest. She found a Byzantine, super-subtle society in which everyone suspected everyone else, where champagne was freely available but fresh vegetables were not. No wonder, she muses, that this is the country which produced the Dadaists and Ionesco: "Parody, sarcasm, nonsense, madness: Romania itself was a Theatre of the Absurd."

Attempts to find Gheorghe at first led nowhere - a vacant stare here, a vague memory there, a suggestion of craziness at his old monastery, a denial that he had ever joined the police. But the letters from Gheorghe she had brought with her, with their repeated emphasis on madness and death, now offered more and more insights into his fate. What she had thought was merely melodramatic turned out to be prophetic; the trail led her to Costina, a psychiatric hospital of Gormenghastian horror where dissident voices were silenced.

Looking for Gheorghe is an intriguing and unusual book, shot through with poignant mem-ories: at once detective story, travelogue, portrait of post-Communist Romania and tribute to a remarkable young man. Helena Drysdale is someone who travels thoughtfully, not just with an open mind but with an active conscience too.