Franco-Romanian Author Lola Lafon Re-imagines Nadia Comaneci's Life in "The Little Communist Who Never Smiled"
This article is part of a series of profiles of ten Francophone authors who have been long-listed for the Albertine Prize, a reader’s choice award launched this year by the Albertine bookshop in New York. Albertine booksellers selected ten of the best French novels translated into English in the past year; US-based readers can vote between March 16 and April 30th on the Albertine site here.
In 1976 a pale, solemn-faced child from Romania with astonishing gymnastic skills burst into millions of homes across the globe via the television screen during the Olympic Games in Montreal. Scoring perfect 10s over the next four years, Nadia Comaneci remained in our collective consciousness as a symbol of the perfection an athlete could attain, also feeding the fantasy of what life might be like behind the Iron Curtain.
Now, the Paris-based author and musician, Lola Lafon, has brought Comaneci's childhood back to life in her award-winning book, The Little Communist Who Never Smiled. Published in France in 2014, The Little Communist was translated into English by Nick Caistor and published in 2016.
Lafon lived as a child in Bucharest under the Ceausescu regime with her French father and Romanian mother. She grew up dancing classic ballet and looking at an ever-present postcard of Comaneci. When she arrived in Paris at age 12, she was struck, she said in an interview, by the sexism she encountered in the West: "I had lived in a world without advertising, without glossy paper, where it was the norm to see women as train conductors, doctors, and construction workers. All of a sudden I arrived in a world where women were locked in from all sides."
Lafon has obviously thought a lot about the clichés that existed between East and West during the Cold War, but also about women, and their hyper sexualization, particularly in the West. "It touched me deeply," she said, referring to Comaneci, "each time, to look at the little face of this teenager without make-up, almost androgynous, still close to childhood. The anti-Britney Spears! I believe that this is the last example of the idolization of a young girl without transforming her into a sexual object."
These themes, along with the desire to dispel clichés about Comaneci being a "Communist robot", made Lafon want to re-examine the gymnast's childhood. Using her own childhood memories, recollections from family members, and photographs shown to her by a former gymnast with the national team, Lafon placed Comaneci's life into the socio-historical and political context of the time, taking the reader from a small town in the Carpathian mountains, to the little girl's encounter with her mythical coach, Béla Károlyi at age 6, her sudden world fame in 1976, and subsequent defection to the US in 1989, just several weeks before the Romanian Revolution. As much as it focuses on Comaneci's life, The Little Communist Who Never Smiled is also a powerful contemplation on the female body and the fantasy, scrutiny, adulation and criticism around it; whether in the communist East bloc, where a woman's body belonged to the State, or in the West, where it is beholden to the world of luxury and fashion advertising.