Sunday, 7 June 2020

There was still love by Favel Parrett

This book is short and sharp about life for people living behind the Iron curtain and being a migrant in an Anglo-Saxon dominated Australia. It is largely the story of 2 families, one living in Prague and one in Melbourne. They are related by their grandmothers being not only sisters but also twins. The perspective is from the grandchildren’s point of view. Ludek is the little boy living in Prague with his Babi. Life is hard for Babi and her grandson but also for the population of Prague. Ludek’s Australian great aunt (Mana) and uncle (Vilem) visit from Melbourne and tell him about Mala Liska who recounts the Australian part of the story. Ludek is intrigued why Aunty Mana left Prague and travelled to Australia. 

It’s a story in dated sections beginning in Melbourne 1980, Prague 1980, Prague in March 1968, Melbourne 1980,  Prague 1942, Prague 1980, Melbourne 1980, Prague 1938, Prague 1980 and Prague 1978, Prague 1981 and Melbourne 1981 and then Prague 1921.  We learn a little of Czech history with the invasion in 1968 by the Russians and we hear of the racism experienced by migrants in Australia and the general difficulties of working and living in a country with a different culture and language.

First impressions:


  • Enjoyable, tender, good hearted, perspective from children’s point of view is painful and unusual, structure is good
  • Very little happens but there is a lot going on
  • Delightful, almost not there, such fleeting stories, tricky working it all out, the grandma connection is intriguing, thought it might come to more than it does, not totally satisfied and not totally successful
  • Loved it, poignant, intimate, first person dialogue and perspective
  • Similarities between the children although they live on opposite sides of the world
  • Beautifully written, just gorgeous, slow read which fits in with our current Covid-19 sate of lockdown, gentle
  • Tale of loss for the people and country and with such a light touch for the story and the characters 
  • Enjoyed children’s perspective, enjoyed the author interview with Richard Fidler (see Radio national— Conversations)
  • Poignant, deeply personal
  • Sad, quiet, tale of leaving people and places behind
  • Excited to read it as a 2nd generation migrant from Eastern Europe with knowledge of Prague and Czechoslovakia, a bit dissatisfied too as the story was a bit too spare, would have liked more. Could relate to gherkins (best in the world) and apricot dumplings (love them). Could have been a bit warmer.
  • Was I reading a whole book or just essays stretched out? I read the review published 2 years ago about a 6-year-old going up stairs. Also expected the people to be Jewish as people I knew in Melbourne who lived similar lives were Jewish. (Supposedly lives of migrants not able to re-establish themselves to the way they were in their home country. ) 
  • It also expanded my view of Melbourne from my memories of my childhood.

Ensuing discussion:

LOVE


Why is it called : There was still love ?
‘Still’ has 2 meanings – the stillness and the continuity ? The Magician says:

‘I put the broken in my suitcase and take them with me until they are ready to go home again.
There is still love’ (page 181).

It is an ambiguous phrase – so much loss. There is a sense that the two children are greatly loved although dislocated from their parents. Their grandparents are stepping up. This causes the lives of the grandparents to be constrained. The children look back fondly on their growing years with their grandparents and it makes it all so poignant.

For instance, near the end there is a scene where Ludek has left his grandmother and is living in the country with his Mother and his new family and he misses the dirty city and his Babi. 

‘But sometimes Ludek missed the flat on the third floor, just him and Babi, no one else. He missed his city, where he ran and ran the old streets and was invisible.’  (page 185-6)

We would have liked more detail about the girl’s background which is not explained or told to the reader. Maybe this is what Favel Parrett is trying to say that we cannot know everything or it is too hard to tell.

Ludek’s Mother almost defects from the theatre troupe in Australia but she cannot because she loves her little boy, Ludek still in Prague.  The scene is portrayed through the eyes of the little girl who meets Ludek’s Mother, Alena. 

‘I’m going to try to stay here’ Alena tells Mala Liska (page 84) but it proves too difficult.

Mala Liska’s grandpa says to her 

"...they only let her come on tour because her son stays there, her mother stays there, her brother….It’s very complicated.” (page 85)

This brings up the idea of choice in life – we take it for granted in the west but many people do not and cannot take it for granted, especially pre 1989 in Eastern Europe.

HOME


This is a common theme throughout – quest for home – poignantly in the scene of Eva (Babi) walking home during the invasion in August 1968 

‘The Soviet flags fly. The huge guns point ahead.
“you should get home”. A voice behind her – soft.  A man, bright eyes burning.

“Those bastards!” he says. He is young, maybe a student.  She is old. She cannot do this again. She cannot fight anymore… “You should get home” he says again. … she must get home. (page 133-4)

That links up with Eva in the supermarket in Melbourne when she gets overwhelmed by the choice of products. We can all relate to this feeling. It is alienating. 

Another angle on ‘home’ comes from Vilem in 1942 in Australia. Here he has to call himself Bill to not incur a racial slur.

‘The only way to live now is to keep moving forward and not look back. It is the only way his heart can keep on beating and not break. He must look forward and not behind.
He must never look behind.’ (page 103)

This is the refugees ‘lot’ according to one of our members. 

Another reader talked about the film Goodbye Lenin which was shown in 2003 and is set in communist East Germany in 1989.

There was much nostalgia for the old ways in Eastern Europe. But we were reminded by this same member that those regimes were not benign, but punished their people and the effects have been passed down the generations. There are also a couple of scenes of people being watched to convey the surveillance of authoritarian regimes. Spies in other words travelling and keeping watch on the theatre troupe, for instance.

The book also explores the history of Czechoslovakia. Mention is made of the Munich Agreement before the Second World War and the feeling that the West would not rescue the people of Eastern Europe including the callous drawing of borders done by the allies.  ‘This was a huge scar on the soul of the Czech nation’. This is a quote from our member who has considerable knowledge and love of this country.

Ludek loves his city and the people. He is very kind to Mrs Blaza, the old lady downstairs.  She is all crumpled in her chair. And he discovers that she has died and asks himself where is her family. 

‘The city was full of old women left behind, left to keep everything going – to carry the old goddam world by themselves.’ (page 167) (Atlas metaphor.)

The statue of Atlas is an important feature of the city that he loves. He has trouble finding it then one day he comes across it:

 (Ludek) ‘wanted to tell Atlas how he had tried so hard to find him….’ (page 121).  

This leads him to think about his Mother so far away from home in Australia. 

There is the fun scene of Ludek and his grandma riding the sled which was a bit fantastical. But she came alive for Ludek and they enjoyed each other’s company. (Pages 171-179) But it was an important scene too because they talked about missing those they loved and not living with them – Babi’s sister (Mana) and Ludek’s Mother. 

‘Ludek put his head against her strong frame and hugged her back. And he didn’t care who saw him. His babi.’ (page 179) 

 There is also the scene of him pulling out the old tape recorder and playing the Rolling Stones music so that his grandma could dance. 

The characters have a complicated vision of home and the changes which occur over time.

GRANDMOTHERS


There is the sense that the grandmothers kept the family secure and together which they do in many societies, (such as African and Indigenous ones). They also keep culture going and keep raising the next generation.  

The book is a tribute to grandmothers and their strength. The statue of Atlas is a good metaphor for the grandmothers. 

PRAGUE


1980 in Prague has been largely forgotten about ,including by us in Australia, and how traumatic life was for the population and this book reminds us. Life was very different for them from us in Australia and it was not so long ago. It forced people to look inward and not trust strangers. Czechs tried to feel free away from the city so many acquired summer cottages in the countryside. That was the only place they felt liberated. Our member who knows this part of the world visited Prague in 1981 and found it a grey place where people avoided looking at you and there were no greetings. She also told us you could be imprisoned for leaving flowers at the John Lennon wall and he was singing about peace. However, once the Berlin Wall came down colour was restored to the city and the sun shone and there were flowers.   

Bill was a good character – quite gorgeous. He missed the theatre. It is ‘home’. We talked about his meeting with Mana. We also talked about his feeling that you must keep moving and not look back. But he is sad about their lives in Australia. He wishes it was better than it proved to be. This is particularly so when they are new to Melbourne in 1942 and they have to work on integrating into the new society. Language is a big barrier but they both work hard at it. (pages 102-103)

The Black Light Theatre of Prague is largely unknown to this group of Australians sadly, except for our member who has connections with this part of the world. The Magician is still alive and was the manager of the troupe, someone noted..  

European men in Melbourne eating cake were part of the texture of life growing up there in the 1960s and 1970s. Migrants brought their habits and managed to find little enclaves where they could get together. There was nostalgia for home. Sometimes thought migrants went back to heir home country but found it had moved on. It is a complicated vision of home.

We also discussed the gymnastics that was so popular in the 1960s. Mass displays especially of ribbon gymnastics. Triumph of the gods! We all remember marching at school.

STYLE


A member said ‘I liked the use of the suitcase motif. I loved how tight it was. Not a wasted word and how Parrett made one scene convey the bigger picture, like the scene in the shop when Mana is called a “stupid wog” (to convey racism) and the couple of scenes where the characters are being watched by spies.

Lots of short sentences and sentences with punch or a plea. For example, on page 119 

‘Ludek put his head in his hands.
Please call.’   

We felt that this book is also wispy. We were all trying to understand the story – and the suitcase is the main link throughout the book from the opening page. A book about migration and home and love. 

‘You must close up tight, protect your most needed possessions … your heart, your mind, your soul. You must become a little suitcase and try not to think about home’.  (page vii)

One reader felt that Parrett is trying to craft the story out of the little she knows about the personal histories of her family.  

This was another book club meeting via zoom which seems to be getting easier for us but still not nearly as good as meeting in person.

Members present : 12

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