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A tender tribute to a childhood of terrible circumstances

The Twelve Little Cakes, By Dominika Dery, Riverhead, 349 pp., $24.95

Dominika Dery, a poet and playwright, grew up in Czechoslovakia in the long, dreary aftermath of the Prague spring and Russian invasion of 1968 -- or, as she puts it, during the era of sausages and cakes.

Born in 1975, the daughter of political dissidents, she lived with her family in the town of Cernosice, outside of Prague. Many Czechs, she recalls, resigned to the dangers and discomforts of life under communism, consoled themselves with the few pleasures the system had to offer -- "cheap booze, public holidays, and little sausages and cakes." "The Twelve Little Cakes," Dery's first book in English, recounts what it was like to be "a happy little girl in a time of great unhappiness."

Though Dery writes of the hardships and injustices imposed by communism, politics is not her focus. More tender than angry, her memoir is a tribute to the pleasures of childhood and family, even under terrible circumstances. Certainly her parents' situation was precarious: Her mother had been disowned by her parents, high-ranking party members; her father, once an engineer, moved furtively from job to job, his political record always a threat to his work prospects.

Most memorable are Dery's observations about the ironies inherent in a communist dictatorship, the unintended elevation of private over public life. Informers lurked everywhere; in public settings, people dutifully chanted party slogans, not daring to express what they really felt. Dery notes the irony of a regime that proclaimed its dedication to unity and brotherhood, and that effectively killed off any spirit of civic-mindedness: "We learned to abandon our nation and concentrate on ourselves. . . . Communism . . . taught the working class to look out for Number One." In these circumstances, home and family became everything -- refuge and salvation.

What is it like to be an eager child in this environment? Dery fondly portrays her love of games, holidays, and fairy tales, her thirst for fresh adventures. The narrative contains many anecdotes in which her youthful innocence and enterprise reap both triumphs and troubles. Cut off from her grandparents, she charms and befriends the old women in her neighborhood. After seeing "Swan Lake" with her parents, she is determined to become a ballerina; despite the favoritism shown to children of the party elite, she manages to take lessons and get accepted into the National Ballet Preparatory School.

Dery brings out the grimly comic side of growing up under communism: On a vacation, after she contracts dysentery, a doctor informs her parents that under the socialist health care system the disease no longer exists and that as a patient she will be "unclassifiable." Impressed by Dery's skill at reciting poetry, a teacher asks her to read communist poetry at public events; Dery is torn between her desire to try something new and her fear of incurring her parents' disapproval.

Most poignantly, she describes her efforts to reunite her mother and grandfather. At first, her grandfather, a cultured man and a respected surgeon, is touched by her offer of friendship but out of fear rejects Dery and her mother. Dery sums up the incident without sentimentality: "Communism . . . pushed good people to the brink of immorality and then required them to cross the threshold. Thousands of families would be torn apart at this brink, for the simple reason that some people are capable of sacrificing their ideals while others aren't."

The memoir is marred by an annoyingly chirpy tone at points where Dery emphasizes a child's point of view. It is far more affecting when her mood is pensive; describing the cathedrals of Prague, for example, she captures the desolation of life under communism: "Their cold, silent naves were filled with the smell of incense and mold. . . . My mother would lift me up and I'd dip my fingers in the font of holy water, but . . . the basin would be empty, because religion was discouraged. . . . Most of the city's wonderful cathedrals stood forgotten beneath a permanent coat of scaffolding."

The reader wants to hear more from the reflective adult, a little less from the happy-go-lucky child. We wonder how Dery's family life and the constraints she grew up with shaped her later outlook, ambitions, and sense of herself. Still, Dery offers a lively depiction of everyday life behind the Iron Curtain that is anything but textbook history.

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