Klára Jarunková, Don’t Cry for Me, trans. George Theiner (New York: Four Winds, 1968).
If Judy Blume had been Slovak, this would be the result.
At first blush, it’s a pretty straightforward young adult novel. Told in the first person, the story is the stream-of-consciousness narration of fourteen-year-old Olga, who lives in Bratislava with her parents and Granny. She endures all the straightforward troubles of early adolescence: the romance that is desired but withheld or lost, set in contrast with the repulsive advances of the undesirable; parents who don’t understand and yet are desperately loved and needed all the same; friends who are sometimes devoted and sometimes unreliable; school stresses; emotional highs and lows that pass through the soul unannounced like a gale-force wind.
What makes the book worth the read, though, is that it is not, after all, Judy Blume, or even The Catcher in the Rye, with which it has certain affinities. The interest lies in the fact that the story takes place in communist Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s.
However, it is not about communist Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s. Whatever the powers-that-be engineered for the unsuspecting human race, girls and boys still had to grow up in the usual way and pass through all the necessary trials on the way to adulthood. Communism can not alter that! The average fourteen-year-old takes the world as it presents itself with no particular thought to how it might be otherwise. So it is with Olga: she offers no commentary on politics or society.
This seems to have been Jarunková’s intention. Indigenous children’s literature was still a rare thing in that place and time, and stories in the voice of a girl even rarer. Perhaps the most political act Jarunková could have engaged in was telling an ordinary life story in the voice of someone of no great importance. Olga may be an ordinary girl, but she’s not a “worker” or some other heroic but anonymous instance within the approved set of oppressed peoples "liberated" by socialism. The authorities were apparently unworried by any tacit commentary the novel may have contained—and it didn’t hurt that Jarunková’s works were popular enough to be translated into nearly forty languages.
What clues there are to time and place will not be evident to most English-language readers. For instance, Olga and all the other ninth graders are at the end of middle school and have to apply for “High School” or trade schools to further their education. In keeping with standard European practice, division into fields of study and academic vs. vocational tracks starts very young. Most of the students hope to get into the “High School” or academic track, but everyone is skeptical about a girl they call Babinska. She’s overconfident about her admission, despite her bad grades, because her father works at the Ministry of Education. Strings of this sort were pulled all the time. As it turns out, Babinska doesn’t get in after all (a little wishful thinking on Jarunková’s part, perhaps?), but Olga’s friend Evie does get in, despite a bad exam result, after her father and a Chief Judge pay a visit to the school’s administration. Hmm.
Another time, when the students are hearing from visiting representatives of local schools, a teacher tells them, “We at the agricultural training center even take children whose parents were members of fascist outfits during the war… children without a future.” Interpretation: those who sided with the Nazi puppet state during World War II, personae non gratae after the communist takeover in 1948, deliberately kept out of positions of prestige. After this announcement, none of the kids want to go to the agricultural center, lest folks infer it is because they couldn’t get in anywhere else due to Nazi sympathies!
There are other subtle hints around the edges of the setting. Olga’s cousin likes to wander over to the national border and chat with the security guards, right there at the place where the Iron Curtain comes crashing to the ground. There is much talk of pupils “helping” each other in school, which by any other name is “cheating”—tolerated and to an extent even encouraged in a system that urged homogeneity in all things. Granny still prays, a quaint habit to be tolerated in an old lady. Olga reports on reading one of Granny’s books called The Good Shepherd:
“All about this poor orphan who got all the miserable work to do because he hadn’t anyone to take his side, but how in the end the Good Lord helped him and took him up to Heaven. Amen. Once upon a time people used to believe it, too. I was very sorry for the little shepherd, he was so young and all alone. Lucky thing he had the Lord to help him. Nowadays there isn’t anyone to help unfortunate children, even if they’re about to fail in math or geography.”
Granny also cooks, complains, and frets about minor medical worries at an Olympic level of skill—an old Slovak babička for sure.
In the winter, Olga goes on a ski trip with family friends, which signals wealth to American readers but was thoroughly working class at the time. (I was amused that she went up Chopok, a notorious ski mountain with which I myself had a close encounter, once upon a time.) At the school dance, Olga and her friends prepare open-faced sandwiches for the refreshments, another very Slovak detail. One of the highlights of Olga’s year is oath-taking, the day she and others graduate out of the Pioneers organization into the Youth Union—both engines of training in communist ideology. The oath-taking itself was designed as a direct competitor to church confirmation. As in the rest of the book, Olga makes no political comments one way or another, but she does observe that every single kid is wearing a size forty blue shirt for their uniform—“because that was the only one that had been available in the shops.” A little nod to the failures of a centrally planned economy.
With the context filled in like this, it’s hard to finish Olga’s charming narrative without feeling a little depressed, despite the English title’s instruction Don’t Cry for Me (the Slovak title is Jediná, which means "the only one" in grammatically feminine form). She is so eager about her future, about possibilities, about love. She has no real idea how the system around her will grind her down, as it has already done to her parents, who flirt with the possibility of divorce. “High school” will not be a window into the vast stores of human knowledge but a thorough stamping into ideological conformity. It’s a terrible cliché of young people to say to one another “don’t ever change”—what a hideous punishment that would be—but at the end of the book, you wish Olga could go on as she is, blissfully unaware of the prison she’s living in.