In A Mountain of Crumbs, Elena Gorokhova has written an engrossing memoir about growing up in Soviet Russia during the Cold War. What makes it most interesting, besides the details of life in such a different environment from our own, is how, while misunderstanding many things about Western culture and not being brought up with an accurate understanding of history, even of her own country, she still learns to doubt what she is taught.
Gorokhova’s upbringing is fairly ordinary, although she is both slightly privileged (her family has its own two-room apartment instead of sharing with other families) and disadvantaged (she has to earn her own way by merit since she is not the child of a peasant). However, from an early age her interest in learning English makes her fascinated with the world outside the Soviet Union. At the same time, her cynicism and disillusionment with her country grows.
Most of the book is about Gorokhova’s inability to live in lock-step, both with the state and with her own mother, so that she always feels like she is lying. As she says, “they (the state) lie to us, we know they’re lying, they know we know.”
The book is beautifully written in the first person as if Gorokhova is currently of that particular age rather than as if she were recalling her memories. (For example, when she is telling about when she is five, she narrates it as if she is five.) I can’t completely accept this style of narration for sections about her childhood, because the thoughts she claims to have are too sophisticated for a small child. In particular, I am struck by one comment she makes about thinking something is ironic. Five-year-old children don’t have thoughts about irony–it’s hard enough to get teenagers to understand what it is. However, the same narrative style works very well when she recalls her thoughts as an older child and young adult.
(As a side note, I have to contrast the chapters narrated by herself as a child with Jennifer Lauck’s wonderful memoir Blackbird, which at the beginning employs a narrative style that is absolutely convincing as the thoughts of a small child, allowing the reader to understand things that the child Jennifer doesn’t.)
I have one frustration with the book. Gorokhova describes so many misunderstandings about American life and so much anticipation and anxiety about going to live in the States that I would have liked a chapter about what it was like when she finally arrived. Instead, the book ends as she leaves Russia and contains a short epilogue about her life more than 20 years later.