Saturday 28 April 2012

Making a Killing

 I suspect this is something that the majority of people would not like to talk about – including myself. But this time I have a perfectly good reason to do that: this particular killer is a Romanian, and his nasty career took place in 1970-1971, at a time when Romania was a so-called Socialist Republic, led with an increasingly heavier iron fist by Nicolae Ceausescu. I am writing about this because a new book called Rimaru - Butcher of Bucharest, a collaborative effort by a British author, Mike Phillips, and a Romanian historian, Stejarel Olaru, has just been launched. It is available for the time being as a Kindle electronic book, with the paperback edition coming along soon.

Like other Romanians of my age, I knew a little about the legend of Rimaru. The term “legend” is not used lightly, as with the passing of time this story had become a sort of urban legend in which it was difficult to separate fact from fiction, and clear historical details from quasi-folkloric contemporary or later additions.

So I knew from hear-say about Rimaru’s crimes. But it was only when I had the chance to translate from the Romanian archive files, during the thorough research conducted by the two authors, Mike Phillips and Stejarel Olaru, that I had a glimpse of the horror of it all.

Even so, I saw the full picture only in reading the finished – and now newly published – book, which sets the story in the proper historical context, and brings to light not only the full account of the murderer’s deeds, but also witness statements and objective analysis that convey not just a portrait of a disturbed individual, but a vivid image of a society in a particular historical timeframe, living under particular social and political conditions.

The book makes for a very good read, even if a chilling and rather unsettling one, because the authors have shunned sensationalism in favour of objectivity. In this, I think they acted like the good documentary film-maker: showing, not telling. The analysis of the facts is clear and level-headed, and the excellent editing by Ramona Mitrica ensures a smooth flow.

The paradox of communist countries was that the equitable society trumpeted by its leaders could never be accomplished (the reasons are too numerous to enumerate). In order to make everything look alright, some things were swept under the carpet, while others, like economic performance, could just be invented.

Rimaru’s case was not different. An unassuming vet school student started in 1970 a crime spree that included four murders, six attempted murders, five rapes, robberies and thefts, which made the police look powerless and kept the people of Bucharest under shock. The first reaction must have been to hush up everything – how can any New Man, forged by the Communist Party by purging all unhealthy, degenerate, bourgeois elements, behave in such an atrocious manner? But the crimes continued, and by the time the police realised the perpetrator could be the same man, Bucharest was awash with rumours and overshadowed by fear. People knew a killer was on the loose, but nothing transpired in the press or on any official channels – everything is in order, carry on with your lives, the Party is watching over you.

It is debatable if the events would have turned out differently had the people been made aware of what was going on. However, lessons have been learned, as the book assures us.

One lesson has not been learned, however. And that was that unexplained and unanalysed events lead to the birth of legends, and shunning open discussion leads to us building up, and believing, false images of ourselves.

What Rimaru – Butcher of Bucharest by Mike Phillips and Stejarel Olaru does is to hold up a mirror of a specific time in Romanian history, which shows events that could have taken place in any part of the world (as, indeed, they have), and allows facts and people speak for themselves.

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