Friday, January 07, 2011

Cabbage, Strudel and Trams by Ivana Hrubá

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback, 181 pages

ISBN: 978-0-646-54521-9

Hurts so much that all you can do is laugh, it seems. The Soviet Union, or Soviet Onion, as Ivana Hrubá writes, encompasses the occupation of many European countries, marked by human rights abuses and atrocities. Laughing yet? With clever wit and satire, Hrubá finds a way to make it all tickle until you do.

In this something like an autobiography, but not quite, the author writes about a Czech family living under communism—the girl Vendula, who is the novel’s heroine, her brother Pavel, her parents, and grandparents babka Zlatka and Deda Anton. The story is told in the narrative voice of invisible Franta, a kind of wise, imaginary friend who lives in Vendula’s head. The family escapes to West Germany and later resettles in Australia.

Opening on a scene of the family discussing the unexpected defection of Uncle Stan from communist Czechoslovakia to West Germany, the reader comes to understand what it was like to live in a world based on a daily diet of propoganda. Standing in long queues outside empty shops in hopes of buying something, anything, cutting newspapers into squares to use as toilet paper, navigating adolescence through poverty and depravity, falling in love with the boy who dares to be an individual—it is all great fodder for the author to create a side-splitting circus of oppressed humanity coping in whatever way they can to live as normal lives as possible.

Between laughs, Hruba manages to insert pointedly serious scenarios without ever slipping into soapbox mode. Vendula’s adolescent friends include Marcela, the pretty Czech girl that is seduced into performing for pornography. The venture seems to start as something exciting and rewarding—all that money in a world of poverty—but ends with the young girl’s drowned and naked corpse floating up in a river, hands tied behind her back.

The point seems to be that human beings are ever so human, regardless of where we live and under what government, all of us trying to get ahead, chase a dream, find love, live in a world where we can feel some pride in achievement and hope for a little more. Wrapped in comedy, the author manages to expose human frailty and weakness while maintaining a compassionate sympathy for every character. We may all respond a little differently when pushed to the wall, but our common dreams are not so dissimilar.

When Deda calls out in a family discussion comparing communists to capitalists, black humor blooms while Babka Zlatka, cutting squares of newspaper for toilet paper, finds it easier to try to defend the madness of the world in which she lives:

“Do you have any idea what impact we’ve had on the Americans?” he called to Dad just as Vendula opened the door.

“None,” Dad answered without looking up from his pile.

“Precisely!” deda thundered. “None! No impact whatsoever.”

“And why? Why, I ask you?” he cried theatrically, pushing his deerstalker off of his forehead with his crooked finger. He looked pointedly at babka, expecting a response.

... She didn’t need it, didn’t want it and was happy to go with the official propoganda which stated that all capitalists were losers, regardless of their gross national income.

Deda Anton was not discouraged.

“We’ve had no impact on them because they don’t care! They got that much wheat they don’t know what to do with it! You think the Americans worry about our f—king five-year agricultural plan? …”

… Babka took. “Buy low, sell high,” she retorted contemptuously, waving a hand in deda’s face. “Any old fool can do that. That’s nothing to be proud of.”

Deda, delighted with the direction the conversation was taking, laid his crooked paw over babka’s scissors in a gesture of bravado. “Isn’t it? I beg to differ. The Americans know how to do business. They’ve got no housing crisis over there, darling, they don’t live eight to a room like your Soviet friends.”

… “Who walked on the moon first, Anton?” she fired at deda, confident she had him by the short and curlies… “I tell you who walked on the Moon, you silly man! The Soviets did! They landed there first!”

… To this deda eventually replied with a resigned sigh… “Who knows?” he sarcastically intoned. “This might be just the thing to end the housing crisis.” (page 72-73)

Right or wrong, good or bad, we all get attached to the places and people where we spend most of our time, and this point comes through, too, as we escape across the border with Vendula’s family. Suddenly, they enter a world of plenty. And still, they must struggle, and young Vendula longs for the friends she left behind, even if that was in a mad, mad world. Only gradually does the family readjust, and comic moments abound as Vendula learns a new language and the family finally moves into a house of their own in the land down under, Australia.

It is a story of many poignant Moments:

Things happen.

Things you would never have dreamed of.

Things you might have thought about just maybe happening on the other side of the galaxy but you’d never imagine them happening in your own life.

But they do.

There is always the Moment. (Page 92)

Hruba’s novel teaches important lessons without being obvious, subtle pointers to what matters and doesn’t matter in life. This is a window on Soviet life few Americans understand (deda Anton is right—Americans weren’t even paying attention) because it was a life nearly incomprehensible to those in the west. With quaint pencil drawings that appear to be the scribblings of a bored adolescent, the novel is rich with, as Vendula would say, Moments.

The format of the book can be off-putting, as the novel is printed on 8" x 11" pages in a fine type that fills the page from margin to margin. It can be difficult to read and uncomfortable to hold. Typos and errors are too frequent, calling out for another proofing. Yet with all that, I found myself so enjoying a good story wrapped in a good laugh, that I read the novel more quickly than I had anticipated. It is the second work I’ve read by this author, and her vivid imagination and wit come through as well in this as in her first adult novel, A Decent Ransom: A Story of a Kidnapping Gone Right.

As did her character Vendula, Ivana Hrubá was born in the Czech Republic, lived under communist rule, and then walked across the Alps with her family to escape to the free world in 1983. After living in West German refugee camps, her family resettled in Australia, where she lives now with her own family.


Arjit Srivastava said...

Now, this is one "bang" review. =)I read "a decent ransom", sometime back, and it is an absolute book, too.

Zinta Aistars said...

Thank you, Arjit. I enjoyed A Decent Ransom by Hruba, too. She has a delicious, dark sense of humor.