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Anne Garvey is transfixed by a linguistic journey.


What Language Do I Dream In?By Elena Lappin
Virago, £14.99
Reviewed by Anne Garvey

This intriguing memoir throws a unique light on the fortunes of a young woman - her travels, her cultural inheritance and, most of all, her languages. Elena Lappin's tale is an archetype of post-war political upheaval, her travels and migrations a reflection of world events. But it is also an extraordinarily personal account of a modern life that is uniquely Jewish.

Lappin was born in Prague to Russian parents who had left the Soviet Union, disillusioned by its repression. She grew up in a golden era of Czech cultural life and recalls her childhood in their new home and her sense of honeyed warmth and excitement from Prague's summers and winters, times spent with her inquisitive young compatriots discussing philosophy in the open air and the magazines she set up at school.

Her younger brother Maxim, now a German novelist of note, is an eccentric but loving presence in a genial, if guarded, intellectual family where the parents, talented and adaptable, create a happy life for their children.

In this idyll, Elena is a fluent Czech speaker but she absorbs Russian at home, hearing it used as a language of humour and debate when her parents' friends congregate in their spacious Prague flat. The joy was not to last.

In 1968, following the euphoria of the Prague Spring, the outpouring of literature and culture admired world-wide, "Socialism with a human face" came crashing down. Soviet tanks rolled into the elegant, ancient streets of Prague. The Russians were back as invaders with an iron fist. After struggling to adapt to a new repression, Elena's parents - mother and stepfather -fled to Hamburg and began for her, a new linguistic chapter, this time in German.

Clearly, Elena Lappin is a brilliant linguist. She acquires Hebrew after visiting Israel and temporarily settling there. But she asserts that her acquisition of English was the most important asset in her life:

"English is not my mother tongue, not even remotely. It is something far more valuable, a language I was lucky enough to be able to choose, after not finding a home in any other of my linguistic shelters. Had it not come my way at just the right moment in my life, I would have lived truly bereft."

Though exotic locations, from New York to Tel Aviv, Prague to Berlin, crowd her comings and goings, the unlikely place responsible for Elena Lappin's life-affirming acquisition of English was Bridgend in Wales. At the age of 16, Elena went to work as an au pair to a Mr and Mrs Matthews at a farm there.

She recalls that "the Matthews family --- all of them, including the grandparents --- were waiting for me in Bridgend. As I stepped off the train, they surrounded me with hugs and smiles and melodic chatter I did not understand.

"They were kind, lively people, their children talked non-stop and I listened. I immediately fell in love with the voices and started to imitate." After three weeks, "English was suddenly a language I understood and spoke and read as if I had been studying for years" - with a Welsh accent of course.

As the book delves into the psychology of belonging, expression and identity, language plays a central role. It is bound up with being an émigré.

"Émigrés," Lappin writes, "all have the same basic story to tell, there is that small death when they leave their home country, a short-lived euphoria, then comes the life-long sadness once they realise they have made the choice to cut themselves off from their roots . . And that huge void inside will never ever be filled."

Yet, now, happy in her north London home, she does appear somehow to fill it as she walks through a nearby medieval wood and steps over the mythical bludny koren, the tree roots of memory remembered from childhood and captured here in her remarkable memoir.

Anne Garvey is a freelance writer

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