The Little Communist Who Never Smiled by Lola Lafon and Nick Caistor (translator)

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The Little Communist Who Never Smiled by Lola Lafon and Nick Caistor (translator)

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Anna Hollingsworth
Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
Summary: Balancing her life on a gymnastics beam, balancing her life on a brutal training schedule, balancing her life under the Romanian communist regime: The Little Communist Who Never Smiled is a brilliant fiction of the gymnastics child superstar Nadia Comeneci's balancing act of a life, from being discovered by her future coach to her defection to the United States. Straddling themes of growing up, sexualisation of sport, totalitarian societies, and the divide between fact and fiction, Lola Lafon delivers a perfect ten with this harrowing novel.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: June 2016
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 978-1781255148

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The little girl's lips tighten with the effort; her shoulders scarcely tremble at the impact when, after letting go and rotating on herself in midair, she catches the other bar. She balances for a moment on her hands on the higher bar. A triangle, a moving rectangle that becomes an isosceles and then an i, a line of silence, breath held, the geometric exercise is coming to an end, Nadia signals her dismount, her back hunches, knees tucked up to her chin for a double somersault only boys can achieve. [--] Her arched back is a comma, rising the to the tips of her fingers when she tickles the sky, she salutes. At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, fourteen-year-old Nadia Comeneci rotates, spins, and lands into people's hearts, history, and at the centre of Romania’s communist regime's public image. Lola Lafon's The Little Communist Who Never Smiled offers one novelist's fiction of the real story before and after the Montreal miracle, from the discovery of Nadia's raw talent and determination to her defection to the United States in 1989.

The top score, the perfect ten, was thought to be unachievable in gymnastics until Nadia's shell-shock of a performance at Montreal, and Lafon paints a bleak picture of the hard work, even torture, that was demanded of the child gymnast to achieve the unthinkable. A handful of young girls, cherry-picked by gymnastics coach Belá Károlyi – something of a comic character in his overenthusiasm if it weren't for his brutal training regime – are subjected to grumbling stomachs, calorie-counted meals, endless repetitions of routines, daily cortisone injections to keep their injured joints functioning, and painkillers to allow their overtrained bodies to be pushed even further. At the same time, the brutal world of gymnastics is set against another harsh world, that of communist Romania. Parallel to the little girls being coached into being super-humans runs a story of how food is rationed, how people at night gather to listen to forbidden radio stations on near-mute, and how Nadia becomes not only an exceptionally talented individual gymnast but a national emblem, subject to public scrutiny and flying the communist flag.

The novel is constructed through excerpts of imaginary dialogue between the author and an adult Nadia supposedly looking back at her life, intertwined with the author's narrative, guided by what she has learned from interviewing the gymnast. The result is a clever, personal, and touching collage, in which the descriptions of the lives of the young gymnasts and ordinary Romanian citizens cut deep. The most harrowing scenes arise when Nadia, so far known as a skinny, fairy-like child, starts to grow into woman, desperately trying to hide her developing curves: her fear of gaining weight and her dubbing of puberty as 'The Illness' make brutally painful reading. As such, The Little Communist Who Never Smiled contributes to the ongoing dialogue about beauty ideals in sport and the overt sexualisation of gymnastics. Equally currently relevant is Nadia’s defection; again, the story of Nadia and her fellow Romanians giving up their lives for freedom but finding a different kind of oppression is nauseatingly real and harsh.

All this Lafon masters with impeccable skill. Her crude realism could not be cruder or realer, yet she manages to narrate everything with a poetic lightness. The novel is also intriguing in its postmodern questioning of the lines between fact and fiction, as Lafon gives real characters fictional existences that are all along based on actually verifiable facts. This becomes particularly concrete in the fake interviews with Nadia and her acquaintances puzzling: is this how Nadia would have spoken to the novelist? Is this how her contemporaries, still in Romania, would actually perceive her legacy?

The Little Communist Who Never Smiled delivers pure brilliance in its ragged, brutal, and crude depiction of lives at the crossroads of fact and fiction. It is a rare perfect ten, it is Nadia Comeneci performing her routine at Montreal.

If this book appeals to you, then you might also like to try The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson.

Buy The Little Communist Who Never Smiled by Lola Lafon and Nick Caistor (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Little Communist Who Never Smiled by Lola Lafon and Nick Caistor (translator) at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The Little Communist Who Never Smiled by Lola Lafon and Nick Caistor (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Little Communist Who Never Smiled by Lola Lafon and Nick Caistor (translator) at Amazon.com.

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