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Dreams and Shadows
« on: November 11, 2008, 04:10:55 AM »
Here is a great opening paragraph: "At the end of the eighties, a world that was supposed to last forever came crashing down, leaving people stunned by its sudden and complete disintegration. Its rotten foundation had finally faltered." That world was the author's childhood Bulgaria under the Communist regime. While some of us may remember the historic occasion (Nov 10, 1989) from a distant perspective, this incredible autobiography lets us live the oppression that preceded it. And who better to be our guide?—"Perhaps it is because I left, everything stopped and remained frozen in time. During the few years after leaving the country, when I was neither here nor there, I often dwelled on my past."

But this is more than a trip back to the old neighborhood. It is incredibly sad and at the same time beautiful. Here Radka Yakimov describes the Russians entering Bulgaria toward the end of World War II: "Laughter and male voices penetrated our barn-house walls. A series of loud bangs shook the door. Father jumped on his feet; Mother grabbed the windowsill as though to go over to it. Somebody was shouting persistently in Russian: 'Open the door!' Father threw himself against the wall and started shouting like a mad man; 'Woman, give me the gun! Where is my gun? Give it to me, woman.' Suddenly all went quiet outside. A short conversation in subdued voices followed, and shortly the only sound heard outside was a shuffling feet… In the morning, all was quiet in the yard. The neighbors were moving about their business, as usual, though women kept throwing surreptitious glances toward the shack where the retarded girl lived. She had been heard screaming throughout the night. Finally, someone went to check on her. The door was ajar; the place was empty. She was nowhere to be seen."

The title, however appropriate, is weak and the cover, grainy black and white. As a girl Radka kept a diary and some entries are included. As a source this must have been invaluable, but the actual entries are a mixed blessing. They give us a feeling for the time and some reveal the importance of little things that would ordinarily be forgotten, but they lack the focus and polish of her adult style and the intensity, poignancy and drama Radka Yakimov delivers in the rest of her narrative. These are minor quibbles in light of an incredible story. If this author had not written this book the human cost of the Communist system might never be known to us today. How much all of us have at stake, how easily it can be lost. Any readers would welcome this depth of detail about members of their families who have since died. Think of the richness the author's daughter must feel to have this history. Short of our receiving a gift like that, "Dreams and Shadows" almost feels like a substitute for our own missing genealogy. When the black and white gallery of her family pictures appear, we look through them to put faces with the now familiar names as if they were our own distant relatives.

Toward the end of the book the author describes leaving her homeland for the West: "They were getting smaller and smaller, receding into the city's background like a pantomime frozen in time; heads turned in the direction of the vanishing train that was taking me away, from them, from everything I had ever know." Can you imagine what that must have felt like?

At one point, in the seventies, I was turned away from the Bulgarian border (by then open to Americans) by a guard pointing a machine gun at me, my wife and our baby because my passport had been issued when I was in the army. That kind of political paranoia didn't make sense at the time. After reading this book, I understand.

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