15 March 2013

Library Limelights 25

Elena Gorokhova. A Mountain of Crumbs. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2009.
A memoir of growing up in Soviet Russia in the 1960s and 1970s, it wraps you into a spell: I intended merely to skim the book but I was sucked in swiftly. Who would believe life in the drab Cold War years could be so fascinating? ... only a writer of great skill and unpretentious charm makes it happen. We follow Elena through her student and working days in what was then Leningrad. Almost from childhood, Elena instinctively grasped the irony between communist promises and daily reality. Her "old school" mother—who never smiles—treads the party line of pretense that all are marching into a golden future. Daughter observes her surroundings with dry humour.

Religion is scarcely mentioned. Apparently "old babushkas" kept the faith, mainly in rural areas—it does not feature in Elena's family life and is not her concern as a university student (I'm just wondering about the alleged religious resurgence since the iron curtain fell). Hers is a peasant family "emancipated" by the 1917 Revolution into what we call professional careers. However, in the time period of the book, doctors live just as shabbily as truck drivers or street cleaners. Their enforced isolation from the rest of the world makes for many funny moments, but sweetly sad ones too. Vranyo is the acceptance of grim authority—"they lie to us, we know they're lying, they know we know they're lying but they keep lying anyway, and we keep pretending to believe them."

Her mother:
This is how it has been in our house for as long as I can remember: you finish the old food first, even if in the meantime the freshly made kotlety grow stale. This is the way it is. This is the way we are here, with our unquestioned rules and ancient inertia as thick as Leningrad's swamps.
I think of my mother, the one in the portrait her brother painted before he died, wondering if that person with the ironic smile, my young mother, would have complained about a bread plate or insisted on eating old macaroni first. Judging by her curled lips and the radiant eyes that give the portrait a strange incandescent glow, I don't think she would have. But what is it that wiped that smile off her face and dimmed the luster in her eyes? Was it the war, the wayward husbands, the two dead brothers? (213)

Learning English:
"What is privacy?" I ask as she scans over the page.
She looks at me and I point to the sentence I copied from the text, "Helen and her new husband lost their privacy when her mother moved across the street." After consulting my English-Russian dictionary I figured it had to do with the word "private," as in the "private property" that plagues all capitalist countries, according to our third-grade history book. Perhaps they lost some money, I thought, some essential part of their private property, but it was still unclear how it was caused by the mother's move. I tried a couple of other possibilities, but no matter how I turned and twisted it, the loss Helen and her new husband suffered refused to reveal itself.
... Standing on her toes, Irina Petrovna squeezes the Oxford dictionary back into its spot on the shelf. "Seclusion and isolation, yes," she confirms. "But no privacy."
How strange, I think, that an English word has no translation. Does that mean that the English people know something we don't? Is this mysterious "privacy" an invention of the capitalist West, something that we, the only people destined to inherit a bright future, lack? (86-87)

Ian McEwan. Sweet Tooth. Toronto: Albert A. Knopf Canada, 2012.
It's a shame, really, that this book presented itself immediately after the above. A matter of adjusting my own sensibility, not always successfully. I found the narrator's voice non-compelling and rather tedious at times, compared to the freshness of Gorokhova. But ultimately, it's all a trick anyway. The extra-long paragraphs don't help—a personal aversion—with relatively little dialogue throughout.

Nevertheless, not to disparage this popular author, it's an interesting story of love and betrayals as the Cold War winds down. And not without twists of its own wry humour. Our beautiful heroine becomes an MI5 agent entrusted with a convoluted propaganda mission. Serena is a natural math wizard whose true desires lie in the field of literature. Her example of mathematical probability sparks a new tale within the author's story; the relationship grows. We see how she has trouble managing the pretense and deceit all around her. Surprise conclusion ...!

On socializing with her girlfriend:
Not like me at all, to be standing in a sweaty crowd with a half pint in my hand, my ears buzzing with the din. It gave me some innocent pleasure to think how horrified the counter-culture crowd around us would be, to know that we were the ultimate enemy from the 'straight' grey world of MI5. Laurel and Hardy, the new shock troops of internal security. (47)

A character is confronted by a mugger:
But it is more than the kid's agitation that restrains Sebastian. There was a general view, strongly held in the staffroom, that crime, especially burglary and mugging, was caused by social injustice. Robbers are poor, they've never had the right chances in life and can hardly be blamed for taking what isn't theirs. This is Sebastian's view too, though he's never given the matter much thought. In fact, it isn't even a view, it's a general atmosphere of tolerance that surrounds decent educated people. Those who complain about crime are likely to complain also about graffiti and litter in the streets and hold a whole set of distasteful view on immigration and the unions, tax, war and hanging. It was important therefore, for the sake of one's self-respect, not to mind too much about being mugged. (150)

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