You may or may not recognise the name Nadia Comaneci. Even if the name isn’t ringing any bells, though, it’s extremely likely that you’ve seen pictures or video footage of her back when she was just fourteen. Nadia was that history making Romanian gymnast who took the 1976 Olympics by storm. After just 20 seconds on the uneven bars, she was awarded the first ever perfect score by the judges. She inspired girls across the world. She made her communist country proud. And she set her life on a path that would include fame, controversy, confusion, and a whole host of mystery.
Lola Lafon has tried to unravel that enigma a little in her latest novel The Little Communist Who Never Smiled. Blending fact and fiction, she truthfully represents all of the public appearances that appear in the novel while also trying to fill in the gaps with her own interpretations. What we get is a book that looks beyond the innocent girl that was such a shining light for the communist regime she represented, and asks how that young girl became the woman that would defect to the United States in 1989.
The novel shows a multifaceted and multi-layered Nadia that would never have been able to show her true personality at the height of her fame. While she was clearly a dedicated athlete who wanted to succeed and bring renown to her country, Lafon questions what is was that made her this way. She looks at the good and bad sides of growing up in this particular communist regime. She doesn’t judge and she makes sure to show the pitfalls of capitalism at the same time as she questions the communist system. She sometimes leaves us with more questions than answers.
Lafon also uses Nadia’s experiences to ask questions about the treatment of females by the media and in society in general. As Nadia becomes less ‘adorable’ in the world’s eyes, putting on weight in all the normal places, the reaction to her exploits becomes increasingly less ecstatic. No matter how well she performs, she is never seen in the same light as when she was a pure and innocent young girl. And she faces her fair share of abuse because of her body’s natural development. As if she shouldn’t have changed in the way that normal women do. The way Lafon poses these questions makes them as relevant and important to today as they were at the time.
Any Cop?: Despite this review painting The Little Communist Who Never Smiled as a very serious work, it is also damn enjoyable. While obviously starting from a point of pure admiration for Comaneci, the book doesn’t shy away from important matters. But it deals with them in a playful and witty tone and through the use of characters that you can’t help but connect to. It’s a lovely little book that deserves a wide readership.