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Talking Location With author Freya Berry – Eastern Europe

14th February 2022

Freya Barry#TalkingLocationWith … Freya Berry, author of The Dictator’s Wife, set in Eastern Europe.

Freya Barry

Tito’s Tomb (Wikimedia)

Yanussia is of course fictional, but it’s heavily rooted in fact. I wanted it to feel truthful, and the only way to do that was to spend as much time in eastern Europe as I could. So I found myself in Bucharest one snowy February night. I noticed a lot of police around – it turned out that the city had just begun the biggest anti-government protests since 1989! I asked my Airbnb host to take me along – we joined 300,000 people in the square, singing and passing round local tuica, or plum brandy. Then things turned nasty and we were teargassed. That became the protest scene in the book. It wasn’t the last demonstration I went to – I went to several more on ensuing nights and also attended one in Timisoara, where Romania’s revolution began. Bucharest is a beautiful gothic city, rather like Prague, with an underground bar scene in palaces abandoned due to the fallout of Communism’s property laws.

Freya BarryI spent several weeks in Romania before heading to Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, travelling on a shoestring budget, talking to people and writing every day. I visited kitschy Communist tribute museums; Tito’s sleek white tomb; Ceausescu’s gold-leafed Summer Palace; a museum of broken relationships in Zagreb. Particular highlights were the staggering Communist-era blocks of New Belgrade, and visiting the abandoned Winter Olympic infrastructure in the snow-covered hills above Sarajevo. I saw the vast Parliament that Ceausescu built, still not finished by the time he was toppled from power. It has more than 1000 rooms and is the second-largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon – on seeing it, my jaw literally dropped. Interestingly, it was voted both Romania’s most-loved and most-hated building…

I wanted to at least try and understand the region I was writing about – it felt important to lend the novel integrity. So, of course, I talked to people, all of whom were unfailingly kind and patient. I’d like Yanussia really to be a tribute to them: the woman who was on the last bus out of Sarajevo at the outbreak of the Balkans War; the taxi driver who told me of the escaped Romanians who were forced to work in the salt mines in punishment; the young people who were fans of Communism and older ones who suffered under it. Jan Morris once wrote that of Moscow that ‘you can never get to grips with the truth…it slithers away from you into the snow’. I often had that sense on my travels, and in Yanussia I wanted to create something similarly elusive and nebulous. I’m so grateful to the people I encountered, and hopefully my fictional creation contains some kind of truth.

Freya Berry

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