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Albertine Prize Nominee: The Little Communist Who Never Smiled By Lola Lafon

The Little Communist Who Never Smiled has been nominated for the Albertine Prize, a reader's choice award for best contemporary French fiction in English translation. Lola Lafon's award-winning novel offers a fictionalized account of iconic gymnast Nadia Comaneci’s life, from her rural Romanian childhood to her unprecedented perfect score in the 1976 Olympics and to her 1989 defection to the U.S. The book re-imagines a childhood in the spotlight of history, a woman adored by young girls in the West and appropriated as a political emblem in Communist Romania. Translated by Nick Caistor (Seven Stories Press). Vote for the Albertine Prize through April 30th!

An Excerpt from The Little Communist Who Never Smiled

How old is she, the chair of judges asks the coach, unable to believe her eyes. The reply—fourteen—sends a shiver up her spine. What that young girl has achieved blasts away any progression of numbers, words, and images. It defies understanding. There’s no way of classifying what has just happened. She tosses gravity over her shoulder, her tiny frame carving itself a space in the air.

Why did no one tell them that was where they were meant to look, protest the spectators who miss the moment when, on the ten centimetres’ width of beam, Nadia C throws herself backwards and, arms outstretched, launches into a triple back flip. They turn to one another: has anyone understood? Did you understand?

The electronic scoreboard shows COMĂNECI NADIA, ROMANIA, followed by a 73, her competitor’s number, but where her score should be: nothing.

They wait. Pale-faced, the Russian gymnasts come and go in the rest area reserved for coaches and competitors after they have performed. They know. For their part, the little Romanian girl’s team-mates look on as if in despair. Dorina has her hands clasped in front of her, Mariana mutters the same few words over and over, another girl has collapsed, eyes tight shut. As for Nadia herself, standing slightly apart from the others, pony tail askew, she doesn’t even glance at the scoreboard. He is the one she sees first: Béla, her coach, arms raised skywards, head thrown back. She finally turns and sees the judgment: this terrible out of ten written in bright lights for cameras the world over to see. One point nought nought. In her mind, she goes over possible mistakes, perhaps the dismount after the somersault wasn’t steady enough, but what can she have done to deserve this? Béla hugs her, don’t worry my love, we’ll lodge a protest. Then one of the judges catches his eye. Look: the Swede is standing up. Look: he has tears in his eyes as he stares at her. And everyone will recount this moment over and over, so often that now she is no longer sure whether she actually lived it: perhaps she saw it on TV, perhaps the episode was written for a film.

The audience has risen to their feet, and eighteen thousand bodies unleash the storm. They stamp rhythmically on the floor, and in the midst of the din the Swedish judge’s mouth opens and closes. He is pronouncing inaudible words, thousands of flash bulbs generate a shower of intermittent lights, she catches sight of the Swede: what’s he doing? He’s holding up both hands; the whole world films the judge’s hands reaching out to her. So the girl stretches towards him, begging his confirmation… is it a ten? And here he comes, nodding gently, face hidden behind his raised fingers. Hundreds of cameras hide the child from him; the other young girls in the Romanian team are dancing round her, yes my love, yes, that one point nought nought is a ten.

 

 

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