György Dragomán was 3 when his father taught him to protect the family's privacy by lying to neighbors and teachers who were often informants for the Hungarian regime. "From then on I lived a double life," says the 36-year-old author, "telling one thing to one set of people and something else to another." For millions of Eastern Europeans, that was the basic survival strategy under communist regimes whose tentacles—and secret-police informants—reached deep into every facet of life. Today, Dragomán makes that past come alive again in his novels. The White King, based loosely on his family's experience, depicts totalitarianism though the eyes of a young boy as his family is terrorized by the secret police. The work recreates the struggle for freedom and decency amid gripping fear and oppression. Yet at readings in Poland, Romania, and eastern Germany, Dragomán says, he has drawn people nostalgic for the communist era who were disappointed when he confronted them with an account of the era's crimes instead.
Twenty years after the death of communism in Europe, writers like Dragomán are still working to come to terms with a past they say defines and disfigures their societies to this day. In many countries, that past remains a painful memory, half or fully buried. Romania is still ruled by its old communist-era elite, which has made reckoning with past crimes difficult at best. In Hungary, where post-communists have been in power for seven years, key secret-police archives remain closed. Russia, after a brief flowering of atonement and confrontation in the 1990s, has reverted to something between historical amnesia and glorification of Stalinism.
But many of Eastern Europe's leading writers refuse to ease up on the subject. They include members of the older generation, who experienced the repression firsthand, and younger ones like Dragomán, who were children when the Berlin Wall fell. They got some crucial moral support in October, when the Nobel committee awarded this year's literature prize to Germany's Herta Müller, whose works include Everything I Possess I Carry With Me, a lucid account of deportation, death, and survival in a Soviet labor camp. It is based on the experiences of her mother, who was taken away for five years for the sole crime of belonging to the German ethnic minority in Romania, where Müller grew up. Müller, who will pick up the award in Stockholm on Dec. 10, says she hopes the prize will "empower those who continue to uncover the crimes of these regimes and to name those responsible." At last month's Frankfurt Book Fair, she used her new fame to make a show of support by meeting with Chinese dissident writers.
Like psychologists stoking repressed memories, these authors can meet stubborn resistance at home. Müller has been attacked in the Romanian press for sullying the country's image. In the formerly communist eastern half of Germany, she says, some bookstores have been reluctant to invite her for readings because the issue of dictatorship—and the compromises East Germans had to make to get by—can still be a touchy subject. When the author and Nobel laureate Imre Kertész last month accused his fellow Hungarians of historical amnesia toward both fascist and communist-era crimes, he was attacked as "un-Hungarian" in the country's right-wing press.
Even younger authors more interested in their own generation's struggles than past traumas inevitably bump into the moral detritus of communism. In Hymn to Democratic Youth, Serhij Zhadan, 35, describes the absurdities of making a living in semi-lawless Ukraine. His protagonists, a jobless wrestler and a Chechnya war veteran, navigate a shady and often hilarious world of organ traders, sex rings, and EU visa scams. In Little Fingers, by Romania's Filip Florian, the discovery of a mass grave triggers a reevaluation of the social order in a small town, where many of the old perpetrators still run things.
Writers can help change the way history is told. For all his own country's difficulties in confronting its past, Kertész was instrumental in changing Hungary's image in the West, using his moral authority as a Holocaust survivor to expose the vicious repression behind the façade of an allegedly benign "goulash communism." More recently, the novelist Uwe Tellkamp has written of the difficulty of achieving both dignity and professional success under conditions of dictatorship. In his bestselling The Tower, his hero, a young student in Dresden aspiring to a medical career, is told by his uncle that "the wise man walks with his head down, almost invisible, like dust." The advice doesn't prevent his destruction by the regime, as he is forced to make painful decisions between his career and his loved ones.
In these rougher economic times, there is a danger that nostalgia for an idealized past breeds a willingness to abandon freedoms for false security. After 1989, says Dragomán, "we fought for our freedom and thought, 'Now we have it, so let's enjoy it and not look back.' " Today, he says, he realizes that was wrong. "If we want to keep our freedom, we have to look at the past." He's doing his part to make sure it happens.