Poet/playwright Dery makes her English-language debut with a disarmingly sweet and savvy memoir of growing up in Czechoslovakia during the late 1970s and early ’80s.
She was born in 1975, during the years after the Prague Spring, when life was unpleasant for dissenters like her father. The Dery family (Dominika had one sister) lived in a small town outside Prague. Her mother wrote books for the Economic Ministry, for which others took credit; her father, an economist, took jobs where he could find them, working as a taxi driver for many of the seven years covered here. “Together they had a rare combination: incorruptibility and willingness to fight,” writes their daughter. “While life may have been a lot harder than it needed to be, it was the life they had chosen, and they had few regrets.” Dery inherited her father’s optimism, conveyed in the lovely, childlike pitch and enthusiasm of her prose, and the writing is blessedly free of political moralizing. The family may have been shunned by the community, surrounded by informers, and teetering on the edge of insolvency, but, hey, they owned a St. Bernard that was a film star—beloved by the nation, but unfortunately underpaid. They lived by their wits, making all manner of under-the-table deals that enabled them, for example, to get sole ownership of their house away from the mother’s parents (party hardliners who had disowned them) and to send Dery through the ranks of ballet school (a bastion for the party elite). The author’s sly humor is evident throughout: she comments on her older sister’s developing figure, making witty use of the word in Czech that means both “goat” and “breast”; and she skewers a local busybody who “spoke too fast, running his words into each other. It often sounded like he was speaking Hungarian.”
Life is hard, and then you laugh—if, like this author, you are wily enough, self-possessed enough, and love the ones you’re with as they love you back.