The Girl on the Fence
Posted September 9, 2013
I'm looking at some old photographs in search for valuable arguments for any future life-writing that I may intend to do. They have a story of their own since they came to me across the ocean in a box, together with other photographs rescued from my former life in Romania.
I'm "reading" them today with Walter Benjamin's caveat in mind, according to which, a unique, irreplaceable image of the past disappears if it is not recognized by the present moment.
My photos are also about self and history together. They open up under the shock of history and make manifest forgotten fragments of childhood, thus saving the photos from their disappearance. Undoubtedly, "family frames" are overpowered by "history frames".
In one of them, the photographed subject is myself at about 4 years old. There is no information on the back of the photo and there are no other members of the family who could answer my questions. The photo was taken in 1950 but I don't remember who took it, - just a snapshot taken probably by the owner of the apartment we lived in, who came monthly to collect the rent.
The little girl sits on the fence in front of the yard that encloses the house where we lived for more than 20 years on a quiet street in the center of Bucharest. She is dressed in a jump suit with some sort of ribbons on the hat or in the hair.
What touches me, to use Roland Barthes' words, what pierces my mind's eyes are not the big ribbons or the modest jumpsuit, not even the loneliness of the girl, sitting there in front of the house, looking at an empty street. I am touched by her pose, different from that of other photos taken at the same age. Knowing that she is being photographed, the girl makes a bravado pose, with her hand on the hip, as if ready to embark in the competition of her life. Today I know that her competition is caught in the history's tracks that will decide her future life, without any possibility of appeal.
The iron fence where the child sit is such a history "track" that separates the home from the street and the country, and further, the country and the Eastern Bloc from Europe. After the end of the war, the occupation of the country by the Soviet army and the rapid elevation of the Communist party to power in Romania define a period of transition when the country turned to the East and away from Europe - an opposite trajectory from its evolution since the middle of the 19th century when the country started the process of nation building, a European phenomenon. The postwar internal transformations happened in parallel with the weakening of the Western Allies, and the strengthening of the Soviet influence over Eastern Europe's territories. The process was clearly spelled out by Churchill in his famous Iron Curtain speech:
"From Stetin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow."
I will learn much later that this speech was delivered on the very day and year of my birth.
The Iron Curtain and the iron fence must equally frame the reading of my childhood photos as well as any future life writing I may pursue.
Roxana Verona is professor of French and Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College. She published several articles on nineteenth and twentieth-century French literature, cultural studies, and East-Central European literary history. She is the author of Sainte-Beuve’s Salons: The Critic and His Muses (Champion, 1999), and Francophone Journeys: Anna de Noailles and her cultural family (Champion 2011). She is now working on a project about photography and life-writing.