‘We had time for one another we spent doing things together’

Dominika Dery is 31 years old. Like millions of her peers who grew up at a time when the communist regimes of the Eastern bloc were all-powerful, she feels she has a more realistic picture of the West after the indiscriminate enthusiasm of the early years. A Czech and a now citizen of the world, Dery is very outgoing, keen on life, impassioned about creativity and dedicated to the present and future. She has written a book about the past, solely in order to talk about the power of love. One might describe her autobiographical book «Twelve Little Cakes» (out from Electra publishers in a Greek translation by Chryssa Tsalikidou) as a chronicle of a difficult period when freedom and money were lacking. And it is that, in one sense, a narrative that slowly builds up the life of the ’70s and ’80s in Prague, seen though the eyes of a clever, sensitive girl. But reading the entertaining stories in the chronicle, one gains the impression that the subject of the book is not the political context, but the context that allows love to bloom. Kathimerini asked her about her work and life. Though your book deals with a serious, somber subject, it is very entertaining and moving. Was that intentional or a matter of idiosyncrasy? When I was young, I trusted life and loved people. My father was optimistic, my mother was tender and I never doubted that there was a little deity looking after me. When I grew up, I felt a sense of failure when I discovered the bitter side of life. I saw bad people win, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I lost my faith in that little deity, as I lost my confidence in myself. Seeking happiness I sank into depression, but deep in my heart I longed to feel the happiness I had known when I was small. Since then I have traveled the world for many years, seeking happiness. On the way I met many scary monsters, until one day when my boat foundered and my sails were torn. I suddenly saw my little deity. He approached and winked at me: «There is always hope,» he said, «Why don’t you write a book about that?» Why did you want to describe your family life during the old regime? I was almost 15 when the Iron Curtain fell and, like many other people, I saw the doors opening onto what I thought was paradise. Four years later, I moved to New York and Sydney but, wherever I went, I was disappointed with real life. I was shattered when I realized that anti-communist propaganda had almost as much influence on people in the West as communist propaganda had on people in the East. The average Westerner’s opinion of the communist regime was as black-and-white as my view of the West was rose-colored. In writing the book, I decided to plan a different reality in many shades. I chose to speak about the good things we had in the days when we didn’t have freedom and money, cars and careers. What we did have was time for one another that we spent doing things together. We didn’t realize how precious that time was until the curtain rose on the sight of each of our solitary path. And we scrambled over the threshold, determined not to return, abandoning those who loved us. Unearthing memories The tale of your memories is full of events that you describe in great detail. Do you remember all that or have you reworked it with fictional material? None of the events described in the book is invented. I was surprised at how much I remembered when I was writing «Twelve Little Cakes.» It was as if I was digging up forgotten treasures. As I delved deeper, I compared the memories I unearthed with those of my parents and friends. Sometimes I have bridged certain events and taken them out of their time frame, just to help the narrative. Do you feel yourself to be part of a generation that is performing its own catharsis? I don’t have much contact with people of my generation. For some reason, I have made friends with people who are either much older or much younger than I am. Only one of my friends is around 30. She grew up in Slovakia and lives in New York with her two small children. When she read my manuscript, she said: «Thanks for writing this book. One day, when my children grow up and ask me what it was like to live in communist Czechoslovakia, I’ll give them your book to read so they can understand something I haven’t known how to explain to them.» Effective propaganda In your book there are many secondary characters. Did you want to portray part of social history? I hope I have. Post-communist propaganda after the fall [of the Eastern bloc] was extremely effective. It crushed 40 years of human experience and set it in stone, in fossilized images, ignoring the basic rule of life – evolution. Life under communism grew better or worse every year, depending on one’s viewpoint. We can’t hide from our ghosts. They run faster than our thoughts and keep changing their appearance. The best way to stop our ghosts from pursuing us is to go down into the cellar and light a candle in every dark corner. That is what I did. Anyone who lived in a communist regime was part of the system. Regardless of how bad or traumatic it was, it is important to recognize the reasons that made us compromise. How do you see the Westerners who supported communist parties in their own countries at that time? For those who were trapped behind the barbed wire, Western politicians who supported communism concealed an ugly truth. On the other hand, it is important to acknowledge their struggle for the rights of workers in the West, whatever the political motivation behind their stance was. Besides, nobody in the West would like to see unfettered capitalism again as it was after the industrial revolution, would they? I can’t imagine today’s middle class employees becoming members of the working class again. People want free weekends, guaranteed rights and social security. What we call capitalism today is not what it was. Or is it? ‘People haven’t changed’ As an adult, do you have more complex view of the communist period? The totalitarian regime my generation grew up in was called communism, but it bore little relation to the ideas of Karl Marx. Now, in a world dominated by advertising propaganda, many of us are beginning to realize that things are not quite what some people have decided to call them. When the new republic of Czechoslovakia was splitting, the «Coca-Cola Forever» slogan went up in place of the banners proclaiming eternal friendship with the USSR. Pro-communist families became pro-capitalist families. If they knew how to work the black market and weren’t afraid of cheating, they became millionaires overnight. And – as in the good old days – if they didn’t like the look of their neighbors they would nail them as «communists.» People haven’t changed, only the language has. ‘Life is like soda pop; it soon loses its fizz’ Those harsh years have inspired many books. Is there any nostalgia for the past? Nostalgia for my childhood has nothing to do with nostalgia for the political system I grew up in. I mourn the loss of my innocence. Reality itself is magic these days. By pressing a button, we can consume hot air and pop culture in bad taste. Life today is like soda pop. It looks colorful, has a predictable flavor and soon loses its fizz. Our planet is overpopulated but we are like spoiled children with toys that leave no room for the imagination. It’s not surprising that I miss the time when I had to use my imagination to invent what I didn’t have. Where do you live now and how do you see the future? I live in Sydney now. I traveled the world for 12 years, looking for a place to live, a place where people could enjoy small pleasures and had time for one another. Australia is very good in that respect. It is quite a multicultural and open-minded country and there is a enough space for everyone to do what they want. I’m working on the sequel to «Twelve Little Cakes,» which goes up to the Velvet Revolution and the years after the collapse of the communist regime. But my ultimate aim is to write plays and produce them myself. Has your book had a different reception in the East and the West? My book has come out in seven Western countries, including Australia and the US. None of the former communist countries has expressed any interest. Many people who lived under communism have read the book and loved it, but Czech publishers say the theme of communism is outdated and that Czech readers nowadays are interested in reading about serial murders in America and Hollywood stars.