Slavenka Drakulic Essay - Critical Essays

Drakulic, Slavenka

Introduction

Slavenka Drakulic 1949-

(Also rendered as Slavenka Drakulić or Drakulič) Croatian novelist and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Drakulic's career through 2001.

Drakulic is an internationally known novelist, essayist, and journalist who has explored the effects of communism and war on Eastern European women in both her fiction and nonfiction. Her work typically focuses on the domestic sphere and the individual rather that geo-political issues and traditional images of modern warfare. Although some have labeled Drakulic as a regional writer, her audiences have been primarily Western, partially due to the negative reactions of some Croatians to Drakulic's unflinching portrayal of her native region's cultural and political turmoil.

Biographical Information

Drakulic was born on July 4, 1949, in Rijeka, Yugoslavia—now Croatia—to Ivan and Antonija Drakulic. Her father was an officer in the communist Federal Army and her mother worked for the communist government. Despite her parents' political affiliation, Drakulic became an outspoken critic of communism as well as an ardent feminist. She began working as a journalist, acting as the Eastern European correspondent for Ms. magazine and as a contributor to Danas, a major Croatian political journal. Drakulic has also written articles and reviews for publications such as New Republic, The Nation, and Time magazine as well as European newspapers such as La Stampa, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Dagens Nyheter, and Politiken. In 1987 she participated in the International Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. Drakulic published her first novel, Hologrami straha (Holograms of Fear) in 1988, but her essay collection How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (1991) was her first book to be written and published in English. Drakulic has one daughter, Rujana, from her first marriage. Rujana's father was Serbian and her mixed heritage would later cause both her and her mother difficulties when the Serbian-Croatian War broke out in June 1991. Rujana left the country to avoid persecution while Drakulic spent time in Slovenia as a refugee. During this period, Drakulic began focusing her writing on the effects of war on families and individuals. She was awarded a Fulbright award in 1990, the 1992 Independent Foreign Fiction Award for Holograms of Fear, and an award from the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna in 1994.

Major Works

Holograms of Fear is Drakulic's most autobiographical and realistic novel, recounting the story of a Croatian woman suffering from kidney disease who must travel to New York to undergo a transplant. The dramatic thrust of the narrative is related during the woman's recovery, as she reminiscences about her past life in post-war Yugoslavia, her family, and a close friend who committed suicide. Drakulic explores mother-daughter relationships in the novel Mramorna koza (1989; Marble Skin) in which the protagonist carves an erotic statue of her mother entitled “My Mother's Body.” When her mother sees the sculpture, she attempts suicide. As the daughter attempts to care for her mother, they are both forced to confront the painful events that have marred their relationship, particularly the daughter's abuse at the hands of her stepfather. In The Taste of a Man (1997), Tereza, a Polish literature student in New York, meets José, a visiting Brazilian professor of anthropology who is studying cannibalism. José and Tereza begin a passionate affair, despite the fact that José has a wife and child in Brazil. After José returns to Brazil to visit his family, Tereza becomes obsessed with their relationship and comes to a realization that she must possess José completely. Upon his return, Tereza murders José and consumes his flesh in an attempt to unite with him forever. S: A Novel about the Balkans (2000) opens in a Stockholm hospital where the protagonist, a woman named S., has just given birth to a son. Through flashbacks, Drakulic reveals that the baby was conceived as a result of S.'s rape by Serbian soldiers during the Serbian-Croatian War in 1991. The novel traces S.'s life as a half-Muslim teacher in a small Bosnian town, through her capture and torture by Serbian soldiers. Her confusion and sense of betrayal are heightened by the fact that she is also half-Serbian.

In addition to her fiction, Drakulic's nonfiction works show a firm focus on the ramifications of the social and political conflicts in Eastern Europe. In How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, Drakulic traces communism's failure to meet the needs of women in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, and East Germany, using her own personal recollections and interviews with other Eastern European women. The essays focus on a wide range of subject material, from the oppression of women by communist governments to the domestic impact of shortages of material goods, such as the lack of toilet paper and tampons. Sterben in Kroatian: Vom Krieg mitten in Europa (1993; The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War) collects essays that illuminate the gradual changes caused by the onset of war in the Balkan region from the spring of 1991 through May 1992. One of the most significant themes of the collection arises in the essay “Overcome by Nationhood” when Drakulic describes what it felt like to be stripped of all of her identification—including education, profession, and personality—and to be defined solely by her nationality. Drakulic argues that treachery becomes part of everyday life during wartime and that the label of nationalism can destroy individuality. In Café Europa: Life after Communism (1997), Drakulic examines the plight of Eastern Europe since the fall of communism in 1989, asserting that Eastern Europeans are viewed as second-class citizens by the rest of the world. She discusses why the region has refrained from embracing democracy and laments the cycle of recycling and rewriting history that occurs so frequently in Eastern Europe.

Critical Reception

Most critics have noted that Drakulic's work as a journalist exerts a definite influence on her fiction, though some have disagreed on whether or not the effect is positive. While several reviewers have commented that her journalistic background provides Drakulic with an eye for detail and a succinct prose style, others have argued that these qualities leave her novels flat, lacking full characterizations and well-developed plots. Drakulic's nonfiction has received more critical attention in the West than her fiction, attracting largely favorable reviews. However, much of Drakulic's nonfiction has not been published in her home country because of its frank and controversial look at the ethnic conflicts in the region. Some commentators have accused Drakulic of pandering to a Western feminist audience in her essays, claiming that her work routinely patronizes her fellow countrymen. Ivo Banac has asserted, “[t]he interest in Drakulic is the interest in East European ingenues—in the sort of deprived provincial girls who do laundry without household appliances and delight in soft, pink rolls of toilet paper as badges of civilized living.” Nevertheless, many reviewers have found Drakulic's domestic focus on the effects of war and communism to be insightful and engaging. While discussing The Balkan Express, Anthony Borden has stated that, “Drakulic focuses on individual lives (often her own or those of her family), using the perversions that war forces onto everyday life to reveal the true complexity of the crisis and the enormity of the task of reconciliation.”

Principal Works

Hologrami straha [Holograms of Fear] (novel) 1988

Mramorna koza [Marble Skin] (novel) 1989

How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (essays) 1991

Sterben in Kroatian: Vom Krieg mitten in Europa [The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War] (essays) 1993

Café Europa: Life after Communism (essays) 1997

The Taste of a Man (novel) 1997

S: A Novel about the Balkans (novel) 2000; also published as As If I Am Not There: A Novel about the Balkans

Criticism

Melissa Benn (review date 24 January 1992)

SOURCE: Benn, Melissa. “Vogue Desire.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 186 (24 January 1992): 39.

[In the following review, Benn discusses the domestic frame of reference of How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed.]

I warn you. There is not much laughing in [How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed.] Originally commissioned as an essay in the US feminist magazine Ms., Slavenka Drakulic, one of Yugoslavia's founding feminists, has written one of the first insider accounts of what it was like to be a woman under eastern European Communism. It is neither a comprehensive nor an academic study; more, a set of connected allusions, observations and...

(The entire section is 607 words.)

Lindsey Hughes (review date 31 January 1992)

SOURCE: Hughes, Lindsey. “Out of Grandmother's Store Cupboard.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4635 (31 January 1992): 23.

[In the following review, Hughes discusses Holograms of Fear in context of Drakulic's essays in How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed.]

Images of death and decay haunt Holograms of Fear, a novel which focuses on a woman's thoughts before and after a kidney transplant operation in a hospital outside New York. The operation goes well, so why is she afraid? Why does the word “recovery” always appear in inverted commas? The answer emerges through flashbacks to the patient's home in Zagreb, to memories, tender and...

(The entire section is 797 words.)

Jenny Turner (review date 23 April 1992)

SOURCE: Turner, Jenny. “Self-Disclosing Days.” London Review of Books 14, no. 8 (23 April 1992): 17-18.

[In the following review, Turner analyzes the relationship between Drakulic's work and Western feminism, focusing on Holograms of Fear and How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed as well as Gloria Steinem's Revolution from Within.]

‘Courageous, poignant, superbly written in blood’; ‘brave, funny, wise’; ‘sensitivity, intelligence, grace … belies the huge internal struggle that leads to its poise’. Holograms of Fear, Slavenka Drakulic's first and largely autobiographical novel, is one of those tight, solipsistic, well-written...

(The entire section is 2613 words.)

Amanda Mitchison (review date 29 January 1993)

SOURCE: Mitchison, Amanda. “Into the Dark.” New Statesman and Society 6, no. 237 (29 January 1993): 47.

[In the following review, Mitchison lauds The Balkan Express for vividly delineating a war's effects on everyday life.]

Slavenka Drakulic's collection of autobiographical essays about the effect of the Yugoslavian war on everyday life [Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side,] is named after an excruciating train trip the author took from Vienna to Zagreb. She shares a compartment with two Yugoslavs. No one will speak for fear that their accent will disclose their ethnic origin, no one can take a newspaper out of their bag without revealing...

(The entire section is 749 words.)

Bettina Drew (review date 2 May 1993)

SOURCE: Drew, Bettina. “Broken Lives, Deadened Souls: Inside the Disintegrating Balkans.” Chicago Tribune Books (2 May 1993): 6.

[In the following review, Drew praises Drakulic's portrayal of the effects of war on the individual in The Balkan Express.]

These powerful essays [in The Balkan Express which are] about the war in the former Yugoslavia … should be required reading for … anyone concerned about the barbarity being practiced in the Balkans. Pictures of life amid “the most horrible thing a human being can experience,” they go beyond the numbing photographs and the political complexities that allow those distant from the conflict to turn the...

(The entire section is 900 words.)

Michael Ignatieff (review date 13 May 1993)

SOURCE: Ignatieff, Michael. “The Balkan Tragedy.” New York Review of Books 90, no. 9 (13 May 1993): 3-5.

[In the following review, Ignatieff traces the history of the current conflict in the Balkans using several recent works, including Misha Glenny's The Fall of Yugoslavia, Branka Magas's The Destruction of Yugoslavia, and Drakulic's The Balkan Express.]

Since the summer of 1991, at least 50,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in the former Yugoslavia and at least a million more have been turned into refugees. After two-and-a-half years of fighting, a comprehensible explanation for the carnage still eludes most observers. The outside...

(The entire section is 3553 words.)

Anthony Borden (review date 17 May 1993)

SOURCE: Borden, Anthony. “‘We are the War.’” Nation 256, no. 19 (17 May 1993): 672-74.

[In the following review, Borden asserts that Drakulic's focus on the individual in The Balkan Express is important to understanding the war in that region.]

A month into the shelling of Sarajevo, I interviewed a law professor at the university there. In retrospect it was a relatively hopeful period, before the worst atrocities occurred and the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina was divided. It seemed terribly urgent then to talk about measures the international community could undertake, and the professor had several important proposals. Speaking by telephone from a...

(The entire section is 1158 words.)

Jerry Kisslinger (review date 14 June 1993)

SOURCE: Kisslinger, Jerry. “Portraits of Europe's Powder Keg.” New Leader 76, no. 8 (14 June 1993): 17-19.

[In the following review, Kisslinger compares and contrasts The Balkan Express to Robert D. Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts.]

“Violence was, indeed, all I knew of the Balkans,” Rebecca West wrote in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, describing the stereotypes she held before ever visiting Yugoslavia. A half century later not much has changed. Western images of blood feuds, bombs and pistols in the waist find new confirmation in Croatia and Bosnia. We connect besieged Sarajevo with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, not the Olympics of 1984;...

(The entire section is 1861 words.)

Andrea Ashworth (review date 30 July 1993)

SOURCE: Ashworth, Andrea. “Realm of the Senses.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4713 (30 July 1993): 20.

[In the following review, Ashworth examines the themes, content, and style of Marble Skin.]

Slavenka Drakulič is a mapper of fraught and forbidden territories. Having chronicled the recent Eastern European crises in her essay collections, Balkan Express and How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, the Croatian writer has turned to fiction to explore the more intimate terrain of the female body. Her second novel, Marble Skin, marks her courageous foray into the literary no-man's-land of the sexual mother, a compelling figure of desire...

(The entire section is 677 words.)

Susan P. Willens (review date fall 1993)

SOURCE: Willens, Susan P. Review of The Balkan Express, by Slavenka Drakulic. Belles Lettres 9, no. 1 (fall 1993): 59-60.

[In the following review, Willens praises Drakulic's combination of narrative and journalism to describe the war in The Balkan Express.]

Croat and Serb, Zagreb and Belgrade, Milosovic and Tudjman—newspapers and TV bombard us with new names as the former Yugoslavia collapses in gunfire and blood. The Balkan Express, by Slavenka Drakulic explains how this latest war in Europe feels from the inside, how it eats away the inner life: “The war is like a monster … it grabs you by the throat … overtakes the inner self until one can...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Slavenka Drakulic, William Phillips, and others (interview date winter 1994)

SOURCE: Drakulic, Slavenka, William Phillips, and others. “Bosnia: Guilt by Dissociation? A Discussion with Slavenka Drakulic.” Partisan Review 61, no. 1 (winter 1994): 60-79.

[In the following interview, Drakulic discusses the political situation in the former Yugoslavia and possible solutions to the conflicts in the region.]

[Phillips]: I'm William Phillips, Editor of Partisan Review. We're glad to have with us tonight Slavenka Drakulic, one of the famous “five witches,” the group of Croatian women writers recently denounced in a nationalist Croatian weekly for their dissident views. I want to introduce Edith Kurzweil, Executive Editor of...

(The entire section is 9524 words.)

Helena Cobban (essay date spring 1994)

SOURCE: Cobban, Helena. “Jean, Slavenka, and the Tea Party for Sanity.” Antioch Review 52, no. 2 (spring 1994): 270-85.

[In the following essay, Cobban discusses the effects of war on women portrayed in works by Drakulic and Jean Said Makdisi.]

An accident of history, really, that brought this nice young man, untested in foreign affairs, to the presidency of the republic at a time when the United States is in a position of unequaled supremacy in world politics. Decisions that he makes—on Bosnia, Somalia, Cambodia, wherever—can rip apart the fabric of whole nations.

What does Bill Clinton know of war?

Forests of print have...

(The entire section is 7257 words.)

Elinor Murray Despalatović (review date fall 1994)

SOURCE: Despalatović, Elinor Murray. Review of Sterben in Kroatien: Vom Krieg mitten in Europa, by Slavenka Drakulic. Slavic Review 53, no. 3 (fall 1994): 927-28.

[In the following review, Despalatović contends that Drakulic is at her best when describing the “underside” of the war in Croatia in The Balkan Express.]

[Sterben in Kroatien: Vom Krieg mitten in Europa] is the German edition of the collection of essays known in this country as The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of the War (1993). The essays were originally written in Croatian and English. The English version contains two additional essays (“My Father's Pistol”...

(The entire section is 629 words.)

Liliana Brisby (review date 19 October 1996)

SOURCE: Brisby, Liliana. “Another False Dawn.” Spectator 277, no. 879 (19 October 1996): 52-3.

[In the following review, Brisby points out inconsistencies in Drakulic's Café Europa: Life after Communism, but argues that “her critique is well worth listening to.”]

In How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, a collection of essays published a decade ago, Slavenka Drakulic had a marvellous title which unfortunately she failed to live up to. The book was rather humourless and survival was irritatingly viewed mainly from a consumerist perspective: there was more about the miseries of not having proper lavatory paper than about the humiliations of...

(The entire section is 806 words.)

Christopher Merrill (review date 16 February 1997)

SOURCE: Merrill, Christopher. “Breaking Away.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 February 1997): 11.

[In the following review, Merrill offers a positive assessment of Café Europa, praising the collection as insightful and engaging.]

“Life, for the most part, is trivial,” Slavenka Drakulic announced in How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, her first collection of essays published in English. “But trivia is political.” The wit and candor with which she explored in those pages the relationship between political authority and the trivia of daily life in the former Yugoslavia earned her a spirited readership in the West. Here was a fresh...

(The entire section is 1064 words.)

Kate Bingham (review date 11 April 1997)

SOURCE: Bingham, Kate. “Strangers in a City.” New Statesman 126, no. 4329 (11 April 1997): 49.

[In the following review, Bingham lauds Drakulic's narrative skill in The Taste of a Man and discusses the novel's major themes.]

There is much to admire in [The Taste of a Man] Slavenka Drakulic's chilling tale of all-consuming passion, not least the skill with which she measures out the desperate paradox that lies at its very heart. Remorseless in their detail, her descriptions are simultaneously erotic and objective. Celebratory in tone, The Taste of a Man is also a heartfelt, if unrepentant confession. Its themes are exile, social taboos and...

(The entire section is 372 words.)

Liesl Schillinger (review date 10 August 1997)

SOURCE: Schillinger, Liesl. “Hungry for His Love.” Washington Post Book World (10 August 1997): 5.

[In the following review, Schillinger asserts that the theme of Drakulic's The Taste of a Man is the loss of identity that occurs when a person is consumed by love.]

In her book The Balkan Express, a collection of sensitive and subversive reflections on the war in her native Yugoslavia, Slavenka Drakulic wrote that the worst aspect of war was not its carnage, or its chaos, but its relentless way of alienating people from who they used to be before the war, of estranging them from themselves. Just before Christmas in 1991, in the aftermath of the...

(The entire section is 941 words.)

Cynthia Simmons (review date summer 1998)

SOURCE: Simmons, Cynthia. Review of Café Europa: Life after Communism, by Slavenka Drakulic. Slavic and East European Journal 42, no. 2 (summer 1998): 343-45.

[In the following review, Simmons compares Drakulic's oeuvre to the works of Dubravka Ugresic and asserts that Café Europa is both informative and entertaining.]

Café Europa is the Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić's third book of essays on life in post-Communist (now ex-) Yugoslavia. How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (New York, 1992) brought the author to the attention of American readers. Lecturing on the first book in this “series,” she amused audiences by...

(The entire section is 1309 words.)

Dina Iordanova (review date fall 1998)

SOURCE: Iordanova, Dina. Review of The Taste of a Man, by Slavenka Drakulic. Slavic and East European Journal 42, no. 3 (fall 1998): 568-88.

[In the following review, Iordanova notes flaws in The Taste of a Man, but asserts that Drakulic's concurrent interests in writing essays on civil causes and erotic novels makes her career interesting.]

[In The Taste of a Man,] Teresa—a Polish post-doc in literature and a poet, and Jose—a Brazilian visiting scholar, meet by accident at the New York Public Library where Jose is doing research for a book on a 1980s incident of cannibalism in the Peruvian Andes. They engage in a passionate love affair, soon...

(The entire section is 932 words.)

Valerie Jablow (review date March 2000)

SOURCE: Jablow, Valerie. “No Place Like Home.” Women's Review of Books 17, no. 6 (March 2000): 1-3.

[In the following review, Jablow discusses Drakulic's S: A Novel about the Balkans and Dubravka Ugresic's The Museum of Unconditional Surrender.]

If truth, as the saying goes, is the first casualty of war, the second surely is the idea of home. In their native Croatia, Slavenka Drakulić and Dubravka Ugrešić have paid an enormous price for their literary survival. Both were born in 1949, when Yugoslavia and its republics were just picking themselves up after the Nazi occupation during World War Two. Both grew up under Tito's brand of communism. Both became...

(The entire section is 2331 words.)

Radmila J. Gorup (review date summer 2000)

SOURCE: Gorup, Radmila J. Review of As If I Am Not There: A Novel about the Balkans, by Slavenka Drakulic. World Literature Today 74, no. 3 (summer 2000): 669-70.

[In the following review, Gorup complains that As If I Am Not There is overly concerned with ideology and lacks sufficient plot and characterization.]

Now the tumor is beside her, as if transformed by some miracle into a child. It is difficult for S. to accept. She has never thought of it as a child, only as a disease, a burden she wished to get rid of, a parasite she wanted removed from her organism.” So ruminates S., the protagonist of [As If I Am Not There,] the newest novel by...

(The entire section is 681 words.)

Noemi Marin (essay date fall 2001)

SOURCE: Marin, Noemi. “Slavenka Drakulic: Dissidence and Rhetorical Voice in Postcommunist Eastern Europe.” East European Politics and Societies 15, no. 3 (fall 2001): 678-97.

[In the following essay, Marin examines Drakulic's role as a marginalized Balkan critic, commending her “rich narratives of postcommunist and communist times.”]

What the communist regimes in Eastern and Central European countries left for posterity are scars of oppression. In spite of communist appeals and propaganda, for decades people fought to reinforce democratic values, freedom, and human rights, within and beyond these countries' borders. Moreover, due to communism's oppressive...

(The entire section is 7752 words.)