Part I: Czechoslovakia
An almost biographical but definitely riotous tale of adolescence begun behind the Iron Curtain, continued in a West German refugee camp and coming to a glorious end in the land Down Under.
Cabbage, Strudel & Trams tells the story of a young girl’s turbulent journey from childhood to adulthood, of adolescence begun behind the Iron Curtain, continued in a West German refugee camp and coming to a glorious end in the land Down Under. Narrated by Franta, an imaginary friend inhabiting the inner world of our young heroine Vendula, this satirical coming-of-age tale depicts the trials and tribulations of an ordinary Czech family living in a small mining town in communist Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s, their escape to West Germany and their resettlement in Australia.
The story begins when the combined household of Zhvuk & Dribbler is thrown into chaos by the untimely defection of Uncle Stan to West Germany. With nothing but their damaged political profile to lose, the family decides to eventually follow in Uncle Stan’s footsteps but not before puberty, free enterprise, unrequited love and things that only happen to other people shred our young heroine’s heart. With charm, poise and a little grace, Franta navigates Vendula through the pitfalls of her teenage years, guiding her to discover her own identity. As shenanigans gather momentum, Franta’s humorous insights into Vendula’s loopy family: the assertive mother, the henpecked father, the enterprising granddad, the blissful grandma, the dissenting uncle and his circle of ‘freedom fighting’ friends build a picture of the life of ordinary folk surviving the oppressive communist regime.
Well, even straw will eventually break the camel’s back. Following a trip to the almighty Soviet Onion where rows of empty shop windows reveal the future all too clearly, the family escapes to West Germany. Unexpectedly, the refugee camp, a colourless shapeless blur on the edge of a dark, dark forest where only goblins live, is a happy kind of place in which tobacco chewing, nose picking, throat clearing, the occasional riot, and plentiful and uninhibited sexual exploits are the order of the day. Of course, life is not all beer and crackers for our heroes; having carved out some sort of an existence in the camp, new challenges arise when the family arrives in Australia.
What grabbed me, kept me reading Cabbage, Strudel and Trams is the use of language. It’s the language, the descriptions, the play with words, and that Ivana Hrubá not only tells a story in a unique way, but also has fun with what could otherwise be a morose tale in the reading. Hrubá still shares difficult times, doesn’t make less of them, but she makes them lighter to read. After I finished it I took a moment to let the story set in, to absorb it, and I really feel her writing style is the winning factor. I found the story entertaining and humorous, the characters uniquely portrayed and fleshed out enough to be planted in one’s memory, and just enough depth in description of surroundings to paint a picture. I also really enjoyed the use of narration with the story not being told via first person in the sense of Vendula (the person we are following), but instead told by Franta who appears to be an imaginary friend. There are illustrations all through the book to show and emphasize the characters and the story itself. Some of them are quite comical, setting off the wonderful sense of humour, and some are just plain cute. Cabbage, Strudel, and Trams is something I’d recommend to those who have an interest in biography, Communist communities, and what it’s like to immigrate to a new culture, but only if those people appreciate a sense of humour and don’t want something that dwells on the downside.
Dutchie, Bookish Ardour, February 2011