Recently, during a time when I was much haunted by the faces of today's children of war, I re-read Ann Charney's novel Dobryd. Like those under-nourished living ghosts of Bosnia, Tadzhikistan, and Rwanda, she spent the first part of her life in peril. Dobryd in fact begins: "By the time I was five years old I had spent half my life hidden away in a barn loft."
Those words took my breath away when I first read them some twenty years ago. This time her novel again gave me pleasure not only because of its unsentimental, clear-eyed vision but also because of the hope it offers that, with luck, the human spirit can blossom under the most dreadful circumstances.
Dobryd was published in Canada nearly twenty-five years ago to a few, very good reviews. "One of the truly significant insights into the effects of war," said Books in Canada, but despite such praise, it wasn't a commercial success. In the last two years, however, it has been re-issued in English (in Canada by Douglas & McIntyre and in the U.S. by Permanent Press), and translated into French and German. Perhaps now, against the background of continued violence against civilian populations all over the world, it will receive the wide audience it deserves.
Dobryd is a simple story simply told. After two and a half years hiding outside a small town in Poland, a five-year-old girl, her mother, her aunt, and her cousin along with four other adults, all Jews, are rescued by Russian soldiers as World War II draws to a close. The child is at first terrified by the reaction of the people in her little world: "Weeping and laughing at the same time, they hugged me and embraced one another. I felt smothered in their arms. These embraces were not the ones I was used to; too tight, too close. I was frightened." And, looking outside the barn for the first time, she says: "A large orange circle covered the sky and coloured the world below. The fields, the animals, the farmhouse, all were illuminated in this strange, intense, blood-like colour.I heard myself scream, again and again."
The scream is the one that she has been prevented from letting out during their long period of hiding. Finally Yuri, the Russian soldier who has been carrying her, calms her. "My new friend.carried me outside. All the while his soft voice reassured me, and the sound of those words made me feel safe.. The fresh air of the summer evening felt soothing against my skin. I looked around me. I was no longer afraid."
The girl's mother finds work as a translator for the Russians, while her aunt, older and less dynamic, takes the girl to the market which has sprung up as part of the barter economy. The two of them become extremely close, and the aunt recounts how the family arrived at the barn where they hid, and what it had lost. Her stories have a fairy-tale quality: the family was rich, educated, and refined, with cupboards full of linens and rooms full of books.
The little girl's world seems a universe away. She is delighted to help clear the rubble from their first lodgings in Dobryd. She gets her first taste of ice cream when her mother and Yuri decide after much discussion to trade a can of meat for it. Her treasures are a piece of white tulle and an empty perfume bottle that she and her friends use for their games of make-believe.
But these privations do not make an occasion for sorrow and regret. Charney says her book is an attempt to distance herself from the work of other survivors of Nazi oppression like Elie Wiesel and André Schwarz-Bart. "I didn't find my experience in their books, and I didn't want to spend my life following the narrow lane of lamentations," she says now. She is a handsome, quiet woman whom I got to know last year when we worked on the organizing committee for an evening of Quebec writers reading the work of other Quebec writers in translation. She brought to that project the same calm self-possession that one sees in her writing.
"I wanted to show that one can live through all that and still go on to be a whole human being. I wanted to have the world as my oyster the way it is for other people, and I wanted to feel free to go on to explore other things." She adds with emphasis: "One should really exalt life." That's why the book begins as it does with the liberation, and why there is so much about pleasure: the ice cream, the feel of air on skin, the joy of being able to see further than four walls.
She says she began to write the book in an attempt to capture the emotions she remembered from that time. At first she remembered very few details, which is the reason she chose to call this work fiction. The conversations are invented, and the background is fairly standard for educated, well-off Jews in Poland.
But as she wrote, she found more and more coming back to her. "Indeed some of the things I thought I was inventing are things people have written to me to say that they remember from their own lives," she says. "Which means, I guess, that the inventions are in some larger way true. Because the book is fiction, it grabs people and appears to speak to their experiences also. In a way it is a generic book, rather than a specific book, about childhood and war."
Dobryd is also remarkable for the clarity and simplicity of its language. Charney says she wanted to avoid sentimentality. "I tried to write as sparingly as possible. I went over the manuscript several times to review adjectives and other words that would tell the reader what to think." She adds that she is perhaps more conscious of language than writers who have spoken English from their earliest years. It wasn't until she, her mother, aunt, and stepfather arrived in Montreal, when she was eleven, that she learned English and then French: she'd read Anne of Green Gables, but in Polish.
Charney got a Master's in French literature from McGill, and a licence ès lettres from the Sorbonne. She has been writing short stories and feature articles since the 1970s. Six of her profiles of people were published as Defiance in Their Eyes: True Stories from the Margins (Véhicule Press), which was short listed for the 1996 QSPELL Prize for Non-fiction.
There is a question why Dobryd, despite its excellent reviews, made such little impact when it was first published. One reason may be that it was issued just as the Canadian literature industry was revving up. Books in Canada only began in 1971, remember, and its first novel prize was established a few years later, too late for Dobryd to qualify. In addition, there is the warm portrayal of Yuri, the Russian soldier who rescues the heroine's family and becomes its protector. Young, cheerful, and enthusiastic, he urges them to be hopeful even though their home village has been destroyed. "You'll see-we know how to build in Russia. We'll build a new town for a new kind of life. Yes, today is a sad day for you. But in six months, I promise you, we'll all be working so hard rebuilding this town that no one will have time to grieve."
No matter that Yuri's faith does not overcome the suspicions of the heroine's much more sophisticated and better-educated mother. No matter that the family ultimately chooses life in Canada. When Dobryd was first published the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire, and this kind of portrayal was definitely out of fashion. Given the vagaries of the publishing world, that might have been enough to keep it from being more widely reviewed.
There's a certain irony in the fact that the ghosts which a re-reading of the book abated for me were born in the brush-fire ethnic wars that have replaced the Cold War. During the Soviet hegemony, rivalries and strivings for independence among the Tadzhiks and Bosnians-and many other peoples-were buried under the weight of the Communist Bloc. Its removal is a mixed blessing, with repercussions as far away as Africa. There, weapons manufacturers have found new markets in such conflicts as the tribal wars of Rwanda, Burundi, and Zaire.
Are there children of these wars who will bear as eloquent witness to the strength of the human spirit thirty years from now? One hopes that some of them will have the same sort of luck that Charney has had.
Luck? Yes, Charney benefitted de la chance dans la malchance, as they say around here. She was lucky enough to be born to a mother who was strong and clever and had enough resources to pay for help. Then once they were in hiding, the adults around her doted on her, teaching her to read and write, to knit, to sing. Afterwards Yuri became her special friend, and the champion of the family. It is from these repeated experiences of love and attention that Charney has built a sensibility that allows her to say that she had a "happy childhood".
If there is a moral to her story it is this: Love your children. Love all children. Love life. To which might be added: Read this book.
Oberon will publish Mary Soderstrom's collection of short stories Finding the Enemy in June. It starts with the first atomic bomb and ends with the Gulf War.