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Archive for the ‘Zdena Salivarová’ Category

A year or two ago, when sifting through family storage boxes, I came across Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down  by Zdena Salivarová, most notable for the terrifying alien girl on the cover.  (Note: there are no aliens in the actual text.  Sadly).  How this book came to be in our family, I have no idea.  It was with my grandmother’s books but I doubt she ever read it.  Presumably someone within the Czech community in Toronto gave it to her; 68 Publishers, the publishing house run by Salivarová and her husband Josef Škvorecký that focused on the works of exiled Czech and Slovak authors as well as dissidents still in Czechoslovakia (some of whom smuggled their works out via Canadian diplomats stationed in Prague), was based in Toronto and my grandmother ended up with quite a few of their books in her collection.  Some had pride of place on her bookshelves.  Not this one.  As far as I can tell, it spent three and a half decades languishing in a cardboard box.  Which is probably where it belongs.

Published in 1976, Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down is the story of Vera, a young Czech girl, who meets and falls in love with Janis, a Latvian student, while he is in Prague competing in a basketball tournament.  It seems to be set during the 1950s, as both teenage characters mention experiences as small children during the war, but the date is never definitely stated.  What is clear is the oppressive force of the communist governments in both their countries and the way it shapes their lives

The love story is very basic.  Two teenagers fall in love and go a little nutty, shirking responsibilities and desperately grabbing time together they can manage…the usual.  But what is unusual is the reason for their desperation: though both countries are communist, movement between the two is far from free.  From the start, Vera knows that Janis will never be allowed to stay in Czechoslovakia.  So she forms the plan to follow him home to Latvia.  Except even then she has to fight through the bureaucracy for permission to leave the relative freedom of Czechoslovakia for the brutally repressive USSR.  Given that the summary on the back cover describes this as “a tragic love story…a modern version of the Romeo and Juliet theme”, it is safe to say that it does not end happily.  On the plus side, there are no teen suicides so the Romeo and Juliet comparison was needlessly misleading.

Vera’s plight is contrasted by the adventures of her superficial cousin, Masha.  Masha’s mother, Vera’s Aunt Vilma, is a marvel who knows exactly how to work the system.  With the right connections (and enough money passed under the table), she gets Masha a place at university, finds her beautiful clothes, and always manages to get the most sought-after food.  And when the time comes, she is able to get Masha permission for her to marry her French boyfriend and immigrate to France.  Vera’s father is in prison and her mother has none of Vilma’s savvy so while Vera struggles fruitlessly to find a way East, she is constantly bombarded with updates about Masha’s glamourous life and unlimited freedom in the West, only further emphasizing the absurdity of the situation.

The writing was simple yet still somehow felt over-written, though perhaps over-dramatized is what I really mean.  It is written in short, staccato sentences with lots of bleak, unanswerable statements.  Not my style at all.  But, as a record of daily life at a certain period in history, it is fascinating.  The book is full of teenage couples sulking in the shadows, looking for the privacy they cannot find in their cramped family apartments where five or six people share two rooms.  Vera’s grandmother, an ardent Social Democrat, sulks about their home preaching the political ideology she still believes will triumph, despite the depressing reality that surrounds her.  And, of course, Aunt Vilma’s successes at massaging the system to work in her favour serve as a reminder of the power of a few well-placed connections and an ample bank account.

This is not a great book but it is still an interesting one.  I cared nothing for Vera or Janis but I did appreciate getting to see a new, more detailed and certainly more depressing perspective on daily life in 1950s Czechoslovakia than I had previously come across.  For me, the main value of the book was as a historical record, not as a memorable story.

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