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New in French: “La petite communiste qui ne souriait jamais” by Lola Lafon

By Mathilde Billaud-Walker

At the 1974 Montreal Olympic Games, the fourteen-year-old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci scored a perfect “10” on the beam and dazzled the entire world. It was the first time an athlete had ever done this in an Olympic gymnastic competition. Even the electronic scoring board wasn’t ready: It couldn’t register the right score, and displayed a “1.00” instead. Nadia Comaneci went on to repeat the feat seven times that year and become a legend.

Even if you haven't seen the performance, you've most likely heard about this robotic athlete who broke the score system, this child who conquered the heart of TV spectators, and embodied the dreams of millions of people. After the games, young girls everywhere imagined themselves as gymnasts.

This stunning moment is recalled by Lola Lafon in her book La petite communiste qui ne souriait jamais (The little Communist who never smiled). The first pages describe the scene from the point of view of the protagonists; the young Nadia Comaneci, both focused and anxious, the other competitors who felt overwhelmed by her impressive talent, the jury who were taken completely by surprise, and of course the media that followed the event in a stupor of excitement. But Nadia Comaneci’s debut, her first appearance under the eye of the world, her baptism in the waters of celebrity were just the starting point.

Lola Lafon doesn’t set out to write a biography of the gymnast. Instead, she offers a personal, dreamlike narrative about the myth that surrounded and defined Nadia Comaneci in the years between 1974 and 1989. In following the experiences of this genius child, Lafon also portrays the last years of the Communist regime in Romania and the cultural conflicts between the West and the East that were unfolding at the time.

In Lola Lafon’s descriptions, the figure of Nadia Comaneci presents a stark contrast to the creations of the Western media machine of the time. In the book, her pale, serious, boyish face had little in common with Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver or Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby pictured as concupiscent Lolitas. When Time Magazine asked Nadia Comaneci to smile, she replied, “I know how to smile, I know how to laugh, I know how to play.  But I know how to do these things only after I have fulfilled my mission.” It is fascinating to see the Western world adoring a child who was a pure product of the Communist system, who refused to be considered a poor, sad girl forced to follow the strict discipline of her coach Béla Károlyi.

This is Lola Lafon’s third book and it is a continuation of her literary exploration of gender issues. Discussions of the political control of bodies are as omnipresent here as they have been in her previous works (her novel Nous sommes les oiseaux de la tempête qui s’annonce deals with domestic violence). There is a telling resonance for the reader between the rigorous discipline and diet that Bela Károlyi imposed on his little girls and the constant surveillance and control imposed by Ceaușescu’s regime. But Lola Lafon is not tender with the West either. Her chronological narration includes media headlines obsessed with Nadia Comaneci’s physical changes after 1974. The book talks about how, in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, her increased height and weight as well as her more adult form became the center of attention in the Western media, and her fans seemed unable to accept her as a woman—this becomes particularly obvious on her arrival in the United States after her defection from Romania in 1989. She was depicted as an opportunistic refugee who had an affair with her manager, the married Constantin Panait. Her grown-up female body seemed to be proof enough for many of her loss of innocence.

Lola Lafon’s complex portrait of an athlete paints, without glorification or sensationalism, the grim mechanics behind the cult of celebrity and media adoration. It stands as a critique of the destructive power of the media, highlighting the spectral and fantastical power that iconic images can exercise. Despite the potency of this message, though, the book leaves the reader with an impression of deep ambiguity, like a recollection of happy memories mixed with feelings of manipulation, disenchantment, and irreversible loss.

Published Jan 15, 2015   Copyright 2015 Mathilde Billaud-Walker

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