Gabrielle Gouch, Once, only the swallows were free (Review)

Gabrielle Gouch, Once, only swallows were free

Courtesy: Hybrid Publishers

Do you differentiate memoir from autobiography? I do. For me, a memoir, such as Gabrielle Gouch’s Once, only the swallows were free, deals with a specific aspect of a person’s life, such as a sportsman writing about his career when he retires from it or a person writing about her growing up, like, say, Alice Pung‘s Unpolished gem. An autobiography, on the other hand, I see as something more holistic, something written near the end of one’s life and summing up its entirety. What do you think?

Gabrielle Gouch was born in Transylvania, Romania to parents who’d both fled anti-Semitic Hungary. She moved elsewhere in Romania with her family before they emigrated to Israel, without her older half-brother, when she was around 20. A few years later, she emigrated on her own to Australia which has remained her home ever since. This is the basic chronology of her life, but Gouch is not really interested in telling us this story chronologically – and in fact, she’s not really interested in telling us the story of her life. What interests her is the brother, Tom, left behind. She wants to know about his life during and post communism in Romania. She also wants to know about the gaps in her knowledge of the family.

Gouch therefore doesn’t tell the story in a simple chronology. While she clearly signposts where you are as you read, I found it a little disconcerting to start with, until I felt familiar with the places and people she was writing about. This, however, could be due to other things going on in my life as I started this book. The memoir starts in 1990 with her first return to Transylvania after “the collapse of communism. The eternal and invincible communism”. A return that took place 25 years after she had left. As the book progresses, she visits Cluj several times, catching up with her brother, learning about her family. It’s a sad story – not surprisingly. Tom’s mother, the much beloved, vivacious Hella, died in childbirth. His – and eventually Gabrielle’s – father, Stefan, married the nanny, refugee Roza, hired in to look after the physically handicapped Tom. (As far as I can tell, his condition is hemiplegia, probably caused by the forceps birth). Roza and Stefan went on to have two children – Gabrielle and, somewhat later, Yossi – but country girl Roza was never accepted by Stefan’s well-to-do family.

The book proper starts in 1962 with the family expecting permission to migrate to Israel to arrive any minute. Of course, it doesn’t – and it is not until some 40 or so pages and three years later that they are finally able to leave. They leave without Tom, now well into his twenties, but exactly why this is so is not understood by Gouch. During the course of the book she finds out why – and she finds out what Tom’s life was like under the communist regime. It’s a very interesting story, and once you master the time shifts across the book’s seven parts, it’s a very readable one. The very short Part 2, for example, returns to the opening of the book, her return in 1990. Then Part 3 jumps to 2002 and another trip of hers “home”. From then on the focus is her time with Tom and the stories she gradually pieces together.

Gouch is a good writer. Her language is expressive, but not over-done. That is, she has some lovely turns of phrase that capture moments and people well. Here, for example, she describes her family’s reaction when her mother says something surprising:

We looked at her as if she had made her way into our home by the back door somehow, a woman we had never met before.

And I like this simple description of children:

Well, children are like shares, you never know how they will turn out.

There are two main threads in the book, one being life under communism, as experienced by Tom, and the other being the life of the emigrant, as experienced by her family. The book is enlightening for people interested in either of these topics, but I’m going to highlight the second, the emigrant’s life, because she explains it beautifully – from the tough life her parents experienced in Israel to her own experience of dislocation from culture. She writes, as she starts to reconnect with her brother:

Noone ever told me that you cannot turn physical distance into emotional one, you cannot forget your native country, you cannot give up your mother tongue. It deadens you inside.

She gives one of the best descriptions of the relationship of language to culture that I have read. She meets an old professor who had chosen to stay living under the repressive regime because, he said, “This is my native land, my language. I belong here.” She writes:

His words lingered. ‘My native land, my language.’ For most people, the sound of Hungarian is awkward; for me it is poetry and delight. When I say ‘flower’ in English I refer to a plant with petals and colours. But the word in Hungarian, virág, sounds to me melodious and joyful. Yes, you can learn to speak a language, you can even learn to think in a language but will you feel the same joy and sadness at the sound of those words? Feel the black desperation or be uplifted by hope? Will the word love evoke the same tenderness and ardour? I don’t think so.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeGouch also writes about “history”, about the impact on people of living through some of history’s trickiest times, as her family had. Her description of her father’s life – a loving father who had worked hard – is heart-rending:

A man who was a Jew but not Jewish enough, an Israeli but not quite, a Hungarian Jew among Romanians and a Jew among Hungarians. Finally he left this world with its divisive nationalisms, ideologies and religions which had marred most of his life. He was just another man on whom history had inflicted its painful and murderous pursuits: Nazism, the Second World War, the communist dictatorship, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israeli religiosity. History had match-made him, history had controlled his life. It was over. He joined the infinite Universe.

I’ve possibly quoted too much, but Gouch’s words are powerful and worth sharing.

“Knowledge”, Gouch’s father once told her, “is your only possession”. Once, only the swallows were free is a story of discovery for Gouch, but for us, it provides a window into a particular place, time and experience that most of us know little about. The knowledge, the understanding, we gain from reading it is a precious thing.

Gabrielle Gouch
Once, only the swallows were free: A memoir
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2013
279pp.
ISBN: 9781921665998

(Review copy supplied by Hybrid Publishers)