Slavenka Drakulic Introduction - Essay

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.”