Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 607
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 recorded conversations.
For anyone used to those fictional and journalistic accounts of eastern Europe that concentrate on the shadowy state censor, the samizdat press, the professor-forcibly-turned-window-cleaner, Drakulic's resolutely domestic frame of reference is both shocking and exhilarating. Most of her action takes place not in the street or the office but in the post office queue, and, of course, the kitchen. Her first bold chapter heading says it all: “The Trivial is Political”.
Above all, this is a book about things: about nylon stockings and soap, telephones and fur coats, tumble driers and toilet paper. (There is a whole chapter on the changing quality of toilet paper under communism.) It is also about food; people's dreams and glimpsed memories of proper pizzas, creamy chocolate, strawberries, that American bubble gum with the comic wrapping paper.
Drakulic is militant about the meaning of such items for those who have been deprived of them. She must be the first and only person to have begun a speech at a US Socialist Scholars' Conference by holding a tampon and sanitary towel aloft. “I have just come from Bulgaria where you cannot get these. Nor are they available in Poland or Czechoslovakia. Just think about it,” she said. The audience was startled into applause, but, being mostly men, were more puzzled than roused.
It is implicit in her account that women are, literally, the guardians of longing. When her grandmother died, her wardrobe was crammed with white tulle and rancid oil, shampoo and outdated insulin, each of them a reminder of a shortage endured. Hers is a story reproduced a hundred thousand times.
Yet, in both east and west, a desire for the good things of life is too commonly called envy and emptied of political content. There is a wonderful description of how it feels, in this world of shortages, to hold a copy of Vogue in your hands. It is not just the images that wound—the impossibly beautiful women with their wondrous clothes—but the paper itself, the thick silkiness of it. “I hate it,” says her Hungarian friend, Agnes. “It makes me so miserable I could almost cry.”
Traditional socialists will find this book very difficult indeed, precisely because it explores the problem of shortages, the material world, in experiential terms. This was always feminism's fraught gift to “wider” politics; so be it. Where Drakulic fails to make the experiential leap herself is in a certain inability to imagine that western women might have a Vogue problem; that they, too, might have lived long lives of barely suppressed individualised rage and envy.
More than once, Drakulic's argument reminded me of the work of British feminist Carolyn Steedman, in particular a passage in her Landscape for a Good Woman. Steedman, writing of her mother's longing for the good things of life, says that there is in Britain, as yet, “no language of desire that presents what my mother wanted as anything but supremely trivial … and yet the borders of her exclusion were immense; her loss resolutely material.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797
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 guilt-ridden, of her grandmother, mother and daughter, and of her own younger self growing up in post-war Yugoslavia, of fellow dialysis patients, including her father, and a woman friend who commits suicide, her indecisiveness embodied in a bowl of underwear left to soak overnight. The narrative shifts between countries and decades, and between the narrator's “two realities”, her “two living halves multiplying like amoeba”, as blood pulsates through veins or the tubes of a dialysis machine, drips from wounds and gushes from slashed wrists. Before the operation there is her sick self and her well self, which she tries unsuccessfully to keep apart; after it, there is a waking self and a “nightmare Me”. She shuns mirrors in order to avoid the “terror of not recognising myself”. The divisions are healed only in the closing pages. This is assured writing, even in translation, which works on many levels, not least that of political metaphor: the security of the hospital that no one can leave, but where the patients “never have to be responsible for anything”; the difficulty of freely drinking water, once strictly rationed under the regime of dialysis.
Slavenka Drakulić, a best-selling Croatian author and journalist, published her novel in 1987, too soon, it seems, to reflect today's fast-changing realities, but reading it in conjunction with her essays in How We Survived Communism—which covers the period from the 1950s to the present and includes a chapter on the anticipated outbreak of civil war in Yugoslavia—gives immediacy to the metaphors and reveals that much of the material in Holograms is autobiographical. I suspect that for many Western women who have travelled frequently in Eastern Europe one of the most hateful aspects of communist regimes is their neglect of the needs of women. Drakulić pulls few punches on this topic. In front of a scholarly audience in New York she holds up a Tampax and a sanitary towel (unavailable even today to many East European women) as symbols of communist failure: A smart American feminist who requests a “critical theory” of women's influence on “public discourse” in Yugoslavia is rebuked for asking the wrong questions. Drakulić warns against applying a First World ecological philosophy to Third World (ie, East European) women, to whom self-denial for the sake of “higher goals” is all too familiar. She seems to hint that, for now, feminism is as inappropriate as ecology in countries where it is hard simply to blame men, “because we all live in the same mess”.
Men feature only incidentally, both in the essays and the novel, as does politics, which is likened to “a disease, a plague, an epidemic”. Instead of political or sociological analysis, Drakulić deploys the “small everyday things” to create a powerful picture of what it felt and feels like to be a woman in Eastern Europe: a new washing machine decorated with an embroidered towel, shown off to guests but not used; hard, brownish “Golub” toilet paper; the peasant woman who fainted at the sight of twenty different kinds of sausage; a first banana consumed complete with skin; babies poisoned by imported milk powder sold past its sell-by date: “hundred-ways potato parties”. Women talk about their lives, sitting amidst the steam from homemade soup (itself a symbol of “security”) in tiny kitchen havens in Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Bucharest and Zagreb, the streetlights outside shedding a “scant yellowish light” in cities killed by decades of indifference to public space. The former USSR was not included in the author's itinerary, but Moscow and Petersburg could be added to her list of cities.
From these images emerges a powerful composite portrait, alternately harrowing and humorous, of East European women, which is enriched by constant cultural cross-references. Foreign sweet papers are like “messages from another world”, a copy of Vogue is a “pebble from Mars”, a fur coat in a New York junkshop—“an illusory ticket to your dreams”. The collection ends with a description of grandmother's store cupboard, “a museum of communist shortages”, the contents of which express distrust of the system more eloquently than any tapped phone conversation or dissident leaflet, and probably say more about communism than a dozen books by sociologists or political scientists.
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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 memory-rambles about which there is nothing much to say. Ostensibly the story of the author's kidney transplant, it is in fact, as is sadly the convention with all too many ‘literary’ novels these days, a self-regarding show-tour of the fascinatingly sensitive inside of its author's own head. But women in general, and feminists in particular, are meant not only to love this sort of stuff, but to find it personally and politically useful. And this presumably is why North American feminist figureheads of the stature of Barbara Ehrenreich, Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan have given it their impeccably feminist imprimatur.
As North American feminist figureheads of great stature, Barbara Ehrenreich, Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan are all closely associated with New York's Ms. magazine, the flagship journal of international sisterhood; Slavenka Drakulic is Ms. magazine's East European correspondent. But to say that the Ms. pantheon puffs Drakulic because she is one of them is in itself not interesting: everybody knows that the one indisputable achievement of the contemporary women's movement is that it offers professional women the sort of networking and back-scratching opportunities their male cohorts get from clubbability and the Masons. What is interesting, however, is the impression one gets that the Ms. pantheon isn't puffing Drakulic's books just because she is one of them, or even because they feel sorry for her that she has had a hard time of it what with living in Yugoslavia and having had a serious kidney disease. These women actually seem to believe, in line with the great feminist ‘the personal is political’ trope, that because Drakulic's novel is deeply personal it must in some way be deeply politically useful as well.
Used slackly and sentimentally, the trope becomes a big, baggy repository for all sorts of slovenly thinking and self-deceiving bad faiths. It allows, for example, for the tiresome assumption that to engage in personal disclosure in a book, no matter how boring or silly your self-disclosures turn out to be, is somehow ‘braver’ and more ‘honest’ than writing a book which is interesting and clever. Gloria Steinem's own recently-published Revolution from Within, for example, was, as most reviewers pointed out, a boring and silly ragbag of personal revelation, friends-of-friends-type anecdote and casual bedtime reading in the literature of self-help—12-point programmes somehow taken to prove that sexism and racism, Emily Brontë and Auschwitz and Steinem's own romantic dalliance with a politically incorrect millionaire all have to do with lack of ‘self-esteem’. But Gloria is so kind to everybody, smiles so sweetly on the cover, has exposed herself as such a well-meaning and vulnerable little thing that it is hard not to be kind to her in return.
What Steinem's writing persona seems just too nice and sweet to understand, however, is that all this be-nice-to-me-I've-had-a-real-self-disclosing-day stuff only works within the context of an unspoken feminist etiquette, and as such is as potentially dishonest, exploitative and even cruel as any other form of discourse. Like the British House of Commons with its Mr Speaker through whom all insulting remarks must be addressed, Ms.-type feminist etiquette demands that aggression, irritation, dislike, any feeling that seems a bit unsisterly, be mediated, sublimated, and signalled by diverse highly conventionalised means. The best that can come out of such an overmediated forum is a sentimental wall of sisterliness that uses many words to express very little of much interest or originality. At worst, it is an etiquette open to manipulation, abuse and filibuster in the hands of skilled operators pursuing their own hidden agendas. Women who go to feminist meetings will know exactly what I mean: newcomers ignorant of the etiquette generally spend a long time saying nothing, for fear of exposing themselves as incompetent in the conventions, and so feministically unsound. And by the time they've learned the lingo, they've generally learned how piss-easy it is to use kind and sisterly words to manipulate people, to guilt-trip them, to show them up and put them down.
Which leads us, by circuitous but, as I hope we will see, necessarily so routes, right back to Slavenka Drakulic. Drakulic's novel may be just a mediocre first novel, slightly interesting on what it is like to recover from a life-threatening illness, mostly uninteresting on everything else. But the essays she has collected in How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed are a different matter: an almost too rich and fascinating document of what can happen to international-feminist etiquette in the hands of a writer with secret agendas of her own, agendas which, in many cases, the writer herself doesn't appear to recognise.
As Barbara Ehrenreich dutifully points out, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed is both ‘the first ever grassroots feminist critique of Communism’, and ‘one of our [sic] first glimpses into real people's lives in pre-revolutionary Eastern Europe’. Both good reasons to take the book very seriously indeed. But Drakulic's book is also, as its British reviewers remarked, easy to dismiss as the outpourings of a sentimental, self-pitying, sanctimonious and self-deceiving woman who thinks that being a feminist allows her carte blanche to write and think as sloppily as she likes. In itself this is probably a fair comment, though one which could just as easily be applied to Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan or anybody else, including you and me. But what makes Drakulic interesting is that she's a foreigner talking in the language of Western feminism, and so using Western feminist rhetoric with less sleight-of-hand than do Western writers to the manner born. As such, her book is not only about Eastern Europe, but also about how inadequate feminist language is in getting to grips with the awkward realities of our changing world.
How We Survived Communism … opens with a manifesto of feminist intent, promising an interest in ‘trivia’, because ‘trivia’ is what ordinary women's lives are all about. ‘The trivial aspects, the small everyday things, were precisely what I wanted to see: how people ate and dressed and talked, where they lived. Could they buy detergent? Why was there so much rubbish all over the streets?’ In theory this all sounds perfectly straightforward, but in practice it isn't. As an East European writing about Eastern Europe for an English-speaking (i.e. primarily US) general interest audience (i.e. one that may not be au fait with the Granta school of ex-dissident writing), Drakulic is involved in a delicate intercultural bridging operation. This perhaps explains the bogus air that hangs around her book's very title, with its unconvincing invocation of ‘we’, its soggy emotive use of ‘survived’ and the upbeat bit about laughter. Drakulic is gamely trying to knee-jerk in time with Ms. magazine-type feministical correctness, because this seems to her to be what her readership wants and expects a woman writer to do.
‘I wanted to take all these fragments of recent reality, as well as my own memories of life in a Communist country, and sew them back together.’ Drakulic makes it easy for herself to sew together whatever she likes, as everything is already part of the same thing anyway. She locates herself and her writing within a strange and slippery historical framework: ‘The end of Communism is still remote because Communism, more than a political ideology or method of government, is a state of mind.’ Bulgaria, Russia or Slovenia, Catholic, Muslim or Orthodox, state journalist or state rubbish-collector, 1961, 1971, 1991: all cats are just as grey when languishing under a mysterious poison-cloud Communist ‘state of mind’. East fuses with West, time fuses with place, subject fuses with object. Though few general-interest Western readers know or care enough about Eastern Europe to want to be bothered with such things as diversity, complexity or change, a neat little package with a handful of simple, grabbing truths in it is the sort of book everybody can buy and linger over. Timothy Garton-Ash has done it several times already, so why shouldn't she?
Warsaw, Sofia, Budapest, Prague, all cities in which women make soup and grumble about their menfolk in their overcrowded apartments, blur into a single East European patchwork of crumbling tower blocks, milkless cafeterias, overdarned stockings and miserable mustn't-grumble stoicism. The acquaintances to whom Drakulic is ostensibly giving voice and to whom she dedicates her book similarly blur into a sort of all-purpose Rentaslavenka figure, darning her thrice darned stockings, dyeing her hair bright red, spending her evenings in hopeless pipe-dreams of how pretty and feminine she could be if only she lived in the West. Presumably Drakulic writes so boringly and depressingly because she herself is bored and depressed by the everyday lifeworld of Eastern Europe. Not that she admits to it. ‘For me,’ she says, ‘these women are the most beautiful in the world because I know what is behind the serious, worried faces, the unattended hair.’ This is just a horrible orchestration of phoney emotion. All this slumming it round kitchen tables, all this ‘sorrowful talk, as old as the smell of soup’, all this we-this and we-that—one little word used so often to cover up huge gaps in sympathy and comprehension—it is all just utterly fake. When Drakulic talks about a girl she knows who jumped the Berlin Wall, about a woman friend who killed herself, about her own mother even, the intimacy feels forced, as though she is showing off about it.
The upshot is that Drakulic's written point of view comes to look very like that adopted by Western travel-writers, the sort who, labouring under the misapprehension that because they have ‘travelled’ in a country more than mere ‘tourists’ do, because they have sometimes even stayed in local houses and broken bread, they have become experts in that country's affairs. Foreign outsiders on this sort of trip perhaps can hardly be expected to be other than ignorant, thoughtless and hidebound by their own cultural preoccupations. But why should Drakulic feel she has to imitate them? In a book which professes to be about how material deprivation in Eastern Europe is dealt with from day to day as routine, is it necessary to observe that the jam jars, bottle-tops and so on that people collect knowing that they are bound to come in useful some day are things that ‘normal people’ throw away? In a world in which material deprivation and insecurity, political repression, even war are experiences known to most countries, what on earth does she mean by ‘normal people’?
What Drakulic means, of course, is Westerners, and rich ones at that. And in a way, why shouldn't she? All she is doing is absorbing and reproducing Western media industry assumptions. One gets so used to reading feature-pages which assume that, if you're intelligent enough to read them at all, you must also be a homeowner who finds endless copy about restaurants and school fees interesting, that after a while one forgets to notice how bizarre is this equation of intelligence and curiosity with worldly wealth. But it is bizarre. And it takes a citizen from a poor country attempting to cater for this tacit norm to make you realise how very cruel it is as well. Drakulic's anthropological little adjectives aren't intended to describe or evoke, but to judge. They function as sneaky little signals, dropped into the text to remind us that although the writer may be from this miserable place, she herself is not of it. This isn't the language of any sort of edification, but the language of shame. Drakulic is ashamed of her family, her friends, her country, that they can enter the media paradise of the Western world, a realm which defines handsomeness and intelligence according to wealth, looking ugly and stupid. All she can do in such circumstances is to bracket herself off.
Every time she opens a copy of Time or Newsweek, she finds herself treated to yet more stories about what a mess her country is in, how it has always been in a mess and how it will always be in a mess, with little interview boxes about how all her countrymen ever dream about is slaughtering Serbs, getting a job in McDonald's or winning an audience with the Pope. And she knows Westerners well enough to know that few of us have enough grip on international affairs ever to question how or why such demeaning rubbish is constructed. It's no wonder that Drakulic comes to writing with the feeling that she has so much to prove.
The most illuminating parts of How We Survived Communism … are not those that deal with Eastern Europe in itself, but those that see Drakulic dealing with her felt relationship to her readership head-on. Here, for example, is Drakulic on the subject of a certain North American feminist who invites her to contribute a paper to a book she's editing—Women in Eastern Europe: A Critical Theory Approach: ‘How easy, how incredibly easy it is for her; she even has an editor! … I can imagine her, in her worn-out jeans and fashionable T-shirt, with her trimmed black hair, looking younger than she is (aerobics, macrobiotics), sitting at her computer and typing this letter, these very words that sound so absurd that I laugh even more.’
The political climate which gave Drakulic the chance to write a book like How We Survived Communism … in the first place—the collapse of Communism as a ‘system of government’ in Eastern Europe, as ‘a political ideology’ worldwide—are part and parcel of a widespread retreat, in which Western feminism is itself very much involved, away from ideas to do with social collectivity in general. When Vaclav Havel and the other Charter 77 boys wrote their articles about Eastern Europe in the Eighties, it was open to them to mediate their ideas through collectivist concepts like ‘civil society’, ‘popular rapprochement’, ‘democracy from below’. With Eastern Europe thrown with the rest of the world onto the mercy of the free market, such mediations come to seem irrelevant as everybody scrambles to get and then protect their own private niche. Whatever you ever thought of things like the globally transcendent value of feminist testimony, it is clear that such a concept can have no market currency unless you grab it for yourself. This is why Drakulic's sisterly rhetoric seems even more insincere than sisterly rhetoric has seemed before. All it is really about is Drakulic clinging to her own niche and bleating: ‘Me, me, look at me!’
International-sisterhood-type thinking is premised on the conceit that the affinities between all forms of violence and injustice, from consumer capitalism to state socialism, from bottom-scouring toilet paper to fur coats, are simple and obvious and easily commensurable. This is not and has never been the case. And in the great confusion and suffering it manifests, Drakulic's book suggests also that nice kind feminism in its own way is also a medium capable of enacting its own special forms of violence and repression. If Gloria and her merry band really and truly care about the psychic and political fate of their international sisters, they're going to have to give up the gush and puff and acknowledge that sisterhood on its own means virtually nothing.
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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 their allegiance. Even if the travellers did feel chatty, there is nothing to talk about except the war—an impossible, unacceptable subject for conversation between strangers.
So, as the train bumps along, the three passengers sit, knees jostling, looking out the window mutely. Yet, Drakulic observes, the silence which “verges on a scream” is a “good sign, a sign of our unwillingness to accept the war, our desire to distance ourselves and spare each other, if possible.”
From a war that has been so noted for its brutality and horror, this approach may seem unexpectedly mild-mannered, almost drawing-roomish. There are no eyewitness reports of floating corpses in the river, no dens of torture, no barrels of babies' eyes—little of the common currency of war reporting.
Instead, Drakulic chronicles the smaller events which, between April 1991 and May 1992, illustrate the gradual shedding of normal life, the slow slipping into war. She notices that the word “slaughter” now slips off the television anchorman's lips with ease. She sees a gun tucked in the belt of a man at the bus stop. At the grocery store she hears a woman order: 16 kilos of oil, 20 kilos of flour, 20 kilos of sugar, 10 of salt.
Real life is always slightly at a slant for our expectations. When Drakulic opens a magazine and sees a photograph of a couple lying dead on the ground she finds she is fascinated, above all, by the crumpled, yellow packet of yeast by the woman's head. When the first bomb falls near Drakulic's flat in Zagreb, she freezes in her seat, and, overcome with a sense of heaviness, wonders why on earth she has just redecorated the bedroom with Laura Ashley wallpaper.
Just as in Anne Frank's Diary, despite the Holocaust, the teenager is obsessed with family squabbles and homework, Drakulic's attention to seemingly mundane matters accounts for the writing's verisimilitude. But there is also a self-conscious message: “Look, I'm one of you. I have an unexceptional urban, middle-class life—children, newspapers, visits to the cinema, shopping trips, television programmes. Now watch as I become something else … Let me show you the changes as the dark pressures of war take over.”
Drakulic writes: “The war devours us from the inside, eating away like acid … it wrecks our lives … it spawns evil within us … we tear the living flesh of those friends who do not feel the same as we do …” Some of the most moving essays are Drakulic's attempts to explain astonishing acts of treachery: the nice, homeless young journalist who feels justified in informing on a friend in order to be given her apartment; the famous actress who defends the political autonomy of art and finds herself the focus of a hate campaign and is shunned by all her friends.
These cases are reported with the sympathy and understanding of someone who recognises her own complicity, her own tendency to humbug, and who explains how she too is implicated in these acts. In a heartrending letter to her daughter, Drakulic also acknowledges the responsibility of all her generation who saw what was happening in Yugoslavia, and simply buried themselves in their smaller, private concerns until it was too late.
The experience of civil war has been likened to having sex for the first time, or taking drugs. The individual, questioning his or her identity and worth, will never be quite the same again. For the hypersensitive, the entire world seems undermined. Emotions are heightened, skin is thinner, every drip of the bathroom tap or rumble of the central heating can suddenly become unbearably loud.
Inevitably, war also undermines our trust in the power of language, and the writer trying to convey this heightened internal reality must call on enormous powers both of expression and of restraint. That Drakulic accomplishes this balance—her “ice over a treacherous river”—is probably the greatest achievement in this wise, profound and original book.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 900
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 newspaper page.
“A war snaps your life in half,” writes Slavenka Drakulic, a Croatian journalist and novelist who recently has reported on the systematic mass rapes and deliberate impregnations of Muslim women in the name of “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia. “Yet you have to go on living as if you are a whole person. But … you are not—and never will be—a whole person again.”
The Balkan Express chronicles the approach, arrival and reality of war from the spring of 1991 until May 1992. It is well known that the communist state kept a lid on centuries-old ethnic animosities. But at the same time, it reinforced the Yugoslav tendency to see World War II as heroic and meaningful, worth more than its million victims, and it discouraged citizens from becoming active, self-aware political beings.
When the Yugoslav state crumbled, it left behind no established democratic institutions to resolve conflicts. “Continuing to live with the same kind of totalitarian governments, ideology and yet untransformed minds,” Drakulic writes, “it seems the people were unable to shoulder the responsibility for what was coming—or to stop it. War therefore came upon us like some sort of natural calamity, like the plague or a flood, inevitable, our destiny.”
In her war-torn land, Drakulic is constantly struck by death in the midst of life: still-wet washing hanging outside a house destroyed by bombs, a roofless house whose exposed bedroom reveals blankets and pillowcases neatly in order, a puppy wandering the charred remains of a village. At a town at the front she is guided by a soldier who must confess to her the precise way in which the war made him a murderer. She listens to her mother's fears that they will tear down her father's gravestone because, though once a communist hero, even a dead member of the Federal Army is an enemy.
As the book progresses, it becomes fiercer, more relentless. In the essay “If I Had a Son,” Drakulic interviews a teenage soldier, imagining he is her son, listening to him tell her he will fight not for an ideal but simply because “they're killing my friends. They're killing them like dogs in the street and then dogs eat them because we can't get to them to bury them. How can I sit here and pretend that none of this is my business?”
Drakulic weaves into these essays her own reactions to the disintegration of her country: first, attempts at denial, then efforts to carry on normal routines, then flight to a peaceful village—but once there, church bells bring to mind the smoldering, broken church towers in some 60 villages in Croatia alone. Even Paris offers no escape: “a glimpse of shop window and then instantly a feeling of futility, remoteness, not belonging.”
Perhaps most profoundly The Balkan Express shows how war erases individuals and reduces all people to a side, a nationality, a group. “Before, I was defined by my education, my job, my ideas, my character—and yes, my nationality too,” Drakulic observes. “Now I feel stripped of all that. I am nobody because I am not a person any more. I am one of 4.5 million Croats.”
Drakulic's collection of pre-war essays about Eastern Europe, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, was marked by a guarded optimism and even humor. Those qualities are gone in The Balkan Express because the writer herself has changed, and she knows it. Death has not been the worst that could happen in the war but rather “the separation of self from the body, the numbness of the inner being, extinction before death, pain before pain.”
Once the idea of “otherness” takes hold, the unspeakable is possible, she painfully discovers when analyzing her anger at her daughter for giving their refugee friend Drazena a pair of high-heeled shoes. “The moment I thought Drazena ought not wear make-up or patent high-heeled shoes was the very moment when I myself pushed her into the group ‘refugee’. … [T]hat she disappointed me by trying to keep her face together with her make-up and her life together with a pair of shoes, made me aware of my own collaboration with this war.”
And so Drakulic comes to understand how Polish villagers near Nazi concentration camps got used to the screams from across the field. We are the war, she believes, for we carry within us the germ of the illness that reduces us to savages.
Buyers should ignore the insensitivity of commercial publishing in placing an attractive picture of Drakulic on the front cover, homage to the belief that a pretty woman can sell not only cars but even war. The Balkan Express is about the effects of war on peoples' souls. It is passionate defense of the individual, an important and timely book that deserves the widest possible audience.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3553
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 world's unspoken conviction, as it watches the unfolding savagery, is that all the parties must be, in differing degrees, insane. This belief comes in both simple and complicated forms, ranging from the sweeping finality of “they're all fucked,” which I heard from a Canadian UN soldier trying to keep Serbs and Croats apart at an UNPROFOR checkpoint, to visiting journalists' speculation on the irrational strain throughout Balkan history.
The Balkans depicted in Robert Kaplan's recent book, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History,1 for example, are a dark zone haunted by ghosts of violence and fanaticism. “Here men have been isolated by poverty and ethnic rivalry,” he writes, “dooming them to hate. Here politics has been reduced to a level of near anarchy. …” The tone is familiar from better books, notably Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941) and John Reed's The War in Eastern Europe (1916). The doom-laden approach purports to illuminate the present by delving into the past. In reality, it straightens out the meandering paths of the Balkan past into the more circumscribed tracks of destiny.
Nationalists everywhere turn the historical record into a narrative of self-justification. In the Balkans, the contestants have a particular interest in turning their history into fate, so that the past can then serve to explain away their hatreds. But there is no reason why outside observers should do the same.
Westerners often assert, for example, that the roots of the antagonisms in the Balkans lie in the fact that the Croats are Catholic, European, and Austro-Hungarian in origin, while the Serbs are essentially Orthodox, Byzantine Slav, with an added tinge of Turkish cruelty and indolence. The Sava and Danube rivers, which serve as borders between Croatia and Serbia, once demarcated the boundary between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. If this historical fault-line is emphasized often enough, the conflict between Serbs and Croats can be seen as inevitable. Yet it is not how the past dictates to the present, but how the present manipulates the past which seems decisive in the Balkans. The Croats' insistence, for example, that they belong to Europe, because they once belonged to Austria-Hungary, is also a way of saying: we're not those backward Balkan Serbs.
In Croatia, Franjo Tudjman's ruling HDZ Party asserts that it is a Western-style political movement on the model of the Bavarian Christian Democrats. Actually, the Tudjman state resembles Milosevic's regime much more than either resembles a Western European government. They are both one-party states, democratic only in the sense that their leaders ratify their power by manipulating populist emotion.
Freud once argued that the smaller the difference between two people the larger it was bound to loom in their imaginations. This effect, which he called the narcissism of minor difference, is especially visible in the Balkans. An outsider who travels the highway between Zagreb and Belgrade is struck not by the decisive historical fault-line which falls across the lush Slavonian plain but by the opposite. Serbs and Croats speak the same language, give or take a few hundred words, and have shared the same village way of life for centuries. While one is Catholic, the other Orthodox, urbanization and industrialization have reduced the importance of religious differences. As Misha Glenny points out in The Fall of Yugoslavia, the war between Serbs and Croats in 1991 was not driven by irreducible historical or ethnic differences. Rather it was ignited by nationalist ideologues who turned the narcissism of minor difference into the monstrous fable that the people on the other side were genocidal killers, while they themselves were blameless victims. What is truly difficult to understand about the Balkan tragedy is how such nationalist lies ever managed to take root in the soil of a shared village existence. No more poignant proof of the intertwining of Croat and Serb ethnic tissue can be found than ethnic cleansing itself. When both sides began cleansing villages in 1991, they often dynamited or shelled every second house. It cannot be repeated too often that these people were neighbors, friends, and spouses, not inhabitants of different ethnic planets. Misha Glenny argues that it was precisely because they were brothers and recognized each other across the barricades that the fighting so often degenerated into atrocity, for example into horrible acts of facial mutilation.
In order for war to occur, nationalists had to convince neighbors and friends that in reality they had been massacring each other since time immemorial. But history has no such lesson to teach. The different sides were kept apart for much of their past in separate empires and kingdoms. The killing began only in 1928 with the assassination of Croat politicians in the Belgrade parliament. This in turn set off the slide into ethnic warfare during World War II. While the present conflict is certainly a continuation of the civil war of 1941-1945, this explains little, for one still has to account for the nearly fifty years of ethnic peace in between. These years were not merely a truce. Even sworn enemies on either side still cannot satisfactorily explain why the peace fell apart.
Moreover, it is a fallacy to regard the current conflict as the product of some uniquely Balkan viciousness. All of the delusions that have turned neighbors into enemies have been imports of Western European origin. Modern Serbian nationalism dates back to a Byronic style of national uprising against the Turks, while the nineteenth-century Croatian nationalist ideologue, Starcevic, derived the idea of an ethnically pure Croatian state indirectly from the German Romantics. The misery of the Balkan people does not derive from their home-grown irrationality, but from the pathetic longing to be good Europeans, that is, to import the West's most murderous ideological fashions. These fashions proved fatal in the Balkans, because the very idea of national self-determination could only be realized by destroying the multiethnic Balkan reality in the name of the violent dream of ethnic purity.
Even genocide is not some ghastly local specialty, but an import from the grand Western European tradition. Ante Pavelic's wartime Ustashe regime, which Serbs mistakenly regard as the true face of Croatian nationalism, couldn't have lasted a day in office without the armed backing of the German fascist regime, not to mention the tacit approval of that eminently European authority, the Catholic Church.
In effect, therefore, the “West” is making excuses for itself when it dismisses the Balkans as a subrational zone of intractable fanaticism; or when it insists that local ethnic hatreds were so rooted in history that their explosion into violence in 1991 was inevitable. On the contrary, the Balkan peoples had to be transformed from neighbors into enemies, just as the whole region had to be turned from a model of interethnic peace into a nightmare from the pages of Thomas Hobbes.
Mention of Hobbes should help to point us toward a more convincing explanation of the catastrophe. For as Hobbes understood, no emotion is more likely to generate ethnic and religious hatred than fear. By 1990, post-Titoist Yugoslavia had become a Hobbesian world, a state of nature in which the means of violence were too widely distributed to afford anyone safety, especially those who found themselves a minority in the successor republics. Interethnic accommodation depended on the existence of multiethnic state. When this disintegrated, society rapidly decomposed into its primary national elements, since these alone appeared to promise the Hobbesian minimum of security.
As Branka Magas, a Croatian historian who lives in London, observes, Tito's achievement was to create a state which accomplished the peaceful national unification of the six major peoples of the region. Multiethnic federalism was the only peaceful way such a unification could have been achieved. For Serbs or Croats to unify their nation would have required the forcible movement of populations, for as much as a quarter of the Croat and Serb populations had always lived outside the borders of their republics. Tito understood this and created an intricate ethnic balance which, among other things, reduced Serbian influence at the heart of the federal system in Belgrade, while promoting Serbs to positions of power in Croatia.
Tito's strategy, built as it was on a personal dictatorship, could not have survived beyond his death in 1980. Even by the early 1970s, his socialist rhetoric of “brotherhood and unity” was falling on deaf ears. In 1974, he compromised with nationalism, allowing the republics greater autonomy in a new constitution. By the end of his reign, however, the League of Communists, instead of counterbalancing the ethnic clientism among elites in the republics, was itself splitting up on ethnic lines.
This fragmentation was inevitable, given Tito's failure to allow the emergence of civic-rather than ethnic-based party competition. Had Tito allowed a citizens' politics in the Sixties or Seventies, a non-ethnic principle of political affiliation might have taken root. But as Milovan Djilas correctly foresaw, the great anti-Stalinist turned out to be a Stalinist in the end. By refusing to allow democracy, Tito only delayed his regime's collapse while guaranteeing that nationalism would be the only available language of political appeal for his successors. Tito always insisted his was a communism with a human face. In the end, his regime was no different from the other Communist autocracies of Eastern Europe. By failing to allow a non-ethnic political culture to mature, Tito insured that the fall of his regime turned into the collapse of the entire state structure. In the ruins, his heirs turned to the most atavistic methods of political mobilization in order to survive.
Ethnic difference itself was not responsible for the nationalist politics that emerged in the 1980s. Consciousness of ethnic difference, as Glenny argues, only turned into nationalist chauvinism when a discredited Communist elite began manipulating nationalist emotions in order to cling to power.
This is worth insisting upon since most outsiders assume that all Balkan peoples are incorrigibly nationalistic. In fact many of them lament the passing of Yugoslavia, precisely because it was a state which allowed them non-nationalistic ways of defining themselves. In a poignant and bitter essay, “Overcome by Nationhood,” which she includes in her fine collection The Balkan Express, Slavenka Drakulic describes what it was like, as an independent Croatian journalist in the late 1980s, to be engulfed by the rising clamor of nationalist rhetoric. Having always defined herself by her education, profession, gender, and personality, she found herself, in the maddened atmosphere of 1991, stripped of all defining marks of identity other than simply being a Croatian. All that mattered in Zagreb was whether one was supporting the nation. What is true of a courageous and independent Croatian intellectual cannot be less true of ordinary villagers. The language of nationalist pride and nationalist grievance only appeared to give voice to their fears and longings. In reality, it ended up imprisoning everyone in the fiction of “pure” ethnic identity.
As Misha Glenny shows, Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic was the first Yugoslav politician to break the Titoist taboo on popular mobilization of ethnic consciousness. With the unscrupulousness of a true demagogue, Milosevic portrayed himself both as the defender of Yugoslavia against the secessionist ambitions of the Croats and Slovenes and as the avenger of the wrongs done to Serbia by that very Yugoslavia.
For Branka Magas, the entire Yugoslav tragedy can be traced back to Milosevic's program, first set out in the 1986 Serbian Academy of Arts and Science Memorandum, to build a greater Serbia on the ruins of Tito's Yugoslavia. If the other republics would not agree to a new Yugoslavia dominated by the Serbs, Milosevic was prepared to incite the Serbian minorities in Kosovo, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina to rise up and demand Serbian protection. These minorities served as Milosevic's Sudeten Germans, the pretext and justification for his expansionary designs.
It is easy in retrospect to demonize the Serbs and to make it appear as if Milosevic was merely responding to the ethnic paranoia of both his domestic constituency and the Serbia diaspora. The reality is much more complicated. While there were Serbian nationalist extremists, like the Chetniks, still seething with resentment at Tito's campaign against Mihailovic during the Second World War, most urban Serbs in the early 1980s displayed little chauvinist paranoia and even less interest in their distant rural brethren in Knin, Pale, Kosovo, or Western Slavonia.
What needs to be explained, therefore, is why many ordinary Serbs' general indifference to the Serbian question turned into phobic anxiety that the Serbian diaspora was about to be annihilated by genocidal Croatians and fundamentalist Muslims. Magas argues as if Milosevic invented Serbian nationalism to serve his demagogic ends, but Serbian nationalism was not of Milosevic's making. It arose inevitably from the collapse of Tito's Yugoslavia. Once the multiethnic state disintegrated, every nationality outside a republic's borders found itself a national minority. As the largest such group, the Serbs felt particularly vulnerable.
Magas also argues as if the Croatian drive for independence was a protective response to Milosevic's expansionism. Misha Glenny's account rightly views Croatian nationalism as an independent force that bears some responsibility for the descent into tragedy. While both Croatia and Slovenia professed a willingness to live within a loosely federal Yugoslavia, in reality, by the late 1980s, the leaders of both republics were determined on independence. Croatians had a right to an independent state, but as Glenny points out, an independent Croatia aroused genuine fear in the 600,000-strong Serbian minority within its borders.
When Croatia set out on the path to independence in 1990, its new constitution described it as the state of the Croatian nation, with non-Croatians defined as protected minorities. While many Croats sincerely believed they were complying with European norms for the protection of minority rights, Serbs did not regard themselves as a minority but as a nation equal to the Croats. When the Croats revived the Sahovnica, the red and white checkered shield, as their new flag, Serbs took one look and believed the Ustashe had returned. The Sahovnica was both an innocently traditional Croat emblem and also the flag of the wartime regime which had exterminated a very large, if still undetermined, number of Serbs. When Serbs were dismissed from the Croatian police and judiciary in the summer of 1990, the Serbian minority concluded that they were witnessing the return of an ethnic state with a genocidal path.
Defenders of the Croatian position insist that these fears were exaggerated or manipulated by Milosevic. No doubt they were, but in the broader context of the collapse of the multiethnic Yugoslav state, Serbs had good reason to be afraid. (Glenny himself reported in these pages on the massacre of Serbs by right-wing Croats in the town of Gospic in the autumn of 1991).2 This is the substance of Glenny's case, and while it has made his book unpopular in Zagreb, it is not anti-Croatian. It merely insists on showing, against the background of the general collapse of authority in the region, how each side's paranoia fed upon the other's.
As the BBC's Central European correspondent between 1989 and 1991, Glenny was uniquely placed to observe the disintegration of authority within Croatia's borders. He describes how in town after town the Serbian-Croatian war began with battles for control over the main seat of local power, the police station. In Serb villages like Borovo Selo, near Vukovar in Western Slavonia, the Croatian state dismissed local Serb policemen only to see them resurface as paramilitary vigilantes. When the Croats tried to restore control over Serbian areas, these paramilitary forces resisted and set up roadblocks at the entrance to their villages. With the Croats losing control of the Serbian areas of their state, the Yugoslav national army intervened, at first to restore order and then to smash the Croatian state altogether. Croatia then had no choice but to defend its national existence. It now finds a third of its national territory occupied by the rump state of Serbian Krajina and its supply routes to the Dalmatian coast blockaded by Serbian paramilitaries in Knin. The world's fitful attention is now turned on Bosnia. But the situation in Croatia is untenable and could explode into war at any time.
Glenny completed his book in June 1992, when the Bosnian war was still in its infancy. Yet in the chapter he devotes to Bosnia, he argues convincingly that it is not a separate drama, but a continuation of the primary struggle between Serb and Croat nationalist elites to establish ethnic states in the region. While Serbs have been rightly outlawed by the international community for their attempt to destroy the Bosnian state, the Croats have also been feeding on Bosnia's prostrate corpse. Croatia maintains both paramilitary and regular army units in Bosnia-Herzegovina and even otherwise liberal Croatians insist on their right to dismember the Bosnia-Herzegovina state, in order to guarantee the security of Dalmatia and south-central Croatia. As Misha Glenny recalls, Tudjman actually proposed to Milosevic in 1992 that they divide Bosnia between them. If Tudjman is now assisting Izetbegovic and the Muslims it is not in order to defend Bosnia's territorial integrity but merely to repel their common enemy.
From this it follows that the West may have made a mistake in singling out the Serbs for sanctions. At the least, Croatia should have been condemned, not for defending itself against invasion, but for its subsequent role in the dismembering of Bosnia.
When I talked with Milovan Djilas in Belgrade recently, he argued that the “satanization” of Serbia by the West had not undermined Milosevic or prevented him from aiding the Bosnian Serbs. Instead of blaming his regime for the long gas queues and the inflation, running at 200 percent per month, most Serbs in the streets blame the West. Even if economic chaos were to cause Milosevic to fall, his place might merely be taken by an even more odiously nationalistic demagogue.
Sanctions may be the minimum moral response to Serbian war crimes, but the West cannot suppose that they will be effective in stopping the war. Indeed the so-called “international community” has precious few cards left to play in the Balkans. It will not invade and protect citizens because no political leaders will take the risk. It cannot cut and run since its entire credibility is at stake. It cannot even impose a peace. At best it can only supervise a cease-fire once the disputants are sufficiently exhausted. Even then, peace keepers will have to stand on guard at the checkpoints, not for years but for decades.
The West's central dilemma is what position it should take toward the emerging order of ethnically cleansed micro-states which have taken the place of Yugoslavia. Ethnic apartheid may be an abomination, but for the more than a million refugees who have fled or been driven from their homes, apartheid is the only guarantee of safety they are prepared to trust. The Vance-Owen plan is much condemned in Washington for appearing to reward the results of Serbian ethnic cleansing. But the innocent civilian victims in the area are indifferent to such scruples. For the West has failed to protect Sarajevo, where Muslim, Croats, and Serbs lived together in peace for centuries. The traumatized victims of this conflict are hardly likely to trickle back to the multiethnic communities they have left behind simply in order to vindicate our liberal principles.
Standing back from the catastrophe, one begins to see, with the help of Misha Glenny's fine book, that Western failures of policy were caused by something deeper than inattention, misinformation, or misguided good intentions. The very principles behind our policies were in contradiction. In the light-headed euphoria of 1989 our political leaders announced their support for the principle of national self-determination and for maintaining the territorial integrity of existing states, without realizing that the first principle contradicted the second. We insisted on the inviolability of frontiers, without making clear whether we also meant the frontiers between the republics within federal states like Yugoslavia. Most of all, we allowed guilt over our imperial past to lead us to evade our responsibilities for defining the terms of the postimperial peace. The Western Europeans and the US could have ended the cold war with a comprehensive territorial settlement in Eastern Europe, defining new borders, establishing guarantees of minority rights, and adjudicating between rival claims to self-determination. After Versailles, after Yalta, the collapse of the final empire in Europe gave us a third opportunity to define a durable peace for the whole continent. Yet so concerned were we to avoid playing the imperial policeman, so self-absorbed were we in the frantic late Eighties boom, that we let every local post-Communist demagogue exploit the rhetoric of self-determination and national rights to their own nefarious ends. The terrible new order of ethnically cleansed states in the former Yugoslavia is the monument to our follies as much as it is to theirs.
St. Martin's Press, 1993.
See The New York Review, January 30, 1992.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1158
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 safe place beneath a staircase, however, he emphasized how inappropriate and even hypocritical it was to discuss “high politics” at such a time.
The remark confused me. If “high politics” meant what the world could do to halt the nightmare, I had to disagree, and I dutifully plodded on in search of big answers to the big questions. A year later, however, with Sarajevo still besieged and a hitherto unimaginable range of atrocities well known, I now understand. For international politics—indeed the whole official peace process itself—is conducted on a rarefied level, with little necessary connection to or even impact on the events on the ground. It is all too easy to debate the power politics of Washington, Whitehall and the warlords in the Balkans while having scant idea of the lives of the people we profess to be concerned about.
The best corrective to this trap is the writing of journalist Slavenka Drakulić, in The Balkan Express, a new collection of articles about the war. Through short but deeply felt essays on everything from house paint and high-heeled shoes to point-blank murder, Drakulić tells the story of the Balkan crisis as people are living it. This is firsthand war reporting without body counts or strategic analyses; in-depth political commentary without the statements of presidents or the opinions of self-appointed experts. Drakulić 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.
Drakulić's central theme, as she explains in an excellent new introduction to last year's How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (her collection that includes several pieces originally published in The Nation), is the “special kind of loneliness which enters your soul in the middle of war.” This emptiness breeds fear, and this fear brings the defensive mechanism of categorizing people into “us” and “the other.” That dehumanizing step, in essence the identity politics of nationalism, is the real horror—after which, Drakulić explains, many cruelties become inevitable. It is then only a matter of degree from being rude to an old friend who has become a refugee to dropping a bomb into a basement where several of your enemies are cowering.
In the extraordinary title essay in Balkan Express, Drakulić describes a train ride from Vienna to Zagreb as a kind of nonstop journey into nightmare. Only a few years ago the trip would have been convivial, with passengers chatting in a friendly way, perhaps about their shopping, while passing through a broad space called Yugoslavia. Now the war is an inescapable “brand” on ex-Yugoslavs of all nationalities. In Vienna they feel uncomfortable. In the compartment on the train, all are terrified to speak, knowing the merest phrase will identify their “ethnic side.” “In that moment the madness we are traveling towards might become so alive among us that we wouldn't be able perhaps to hold it back,” she fears.
But suffering in welcome silence is not protection enough, as Drakulić comes across an article in the Belgrade daily Borba alleging a hideous war-time atrocity. “Report[ing] bestialities as the most ordinary facts,” she writes, “gruesome pictures are giving birth to a gruesome reality; a man who, as he reads a newspaper, forms in his mind a picture of the testicles being drawn up from the well will be prepared to do the same tomorrow, closing the circle of death.”
Contradicting the stereotype of hysterical Balkans intent on slaughtering one another, Drakulić describes hesitant killers, reluctant nationalists. One explanation is that she writes from Croatia during the defensive period; there is a notable lack of coverage of the treatment of Serb minorities in Croatia or of Croatian expansionism in Bosnia and, perhaps unavoidably, no writing about the situation for Serbs in Serbia. The pieces, with some very notable exceptions, are mainly about journalist colleagues, actors and other professionals; about herself, her mother and daughter; and about the looming presence of her late father, a former Partisan and army general.
But Drakulić's achievement is in describing the trickle-down effect of ethnic homogenization, showing how even the very liberal and highly educated elite cannot avoid the pull of nationalism. Sometimes the pressures are fairly obvious. In December, the leading Zagreb weekly Globus attacked Drakulić and four other writers as feminists, Marxists, Communists and, worst of all, Yugoslavs—in short, not adequately Croat. As Drakulić writes in a widely quoted piece:
The war is … reducing us to one dimension. … Before, I was defined by my education, my job, my ideas, my character—and yes, my nationality, too—now I feel stripped of all that. I am nobody because I am not a person anymore. I am one of 4.5 million Croats. … The ideology of nationhood … has … been turned into something like an ill-fitting shirt. … You might not like [it]. … But … there is nothing else to wear. … And … perhaps it would be morally unjust to tear off the shirt of the suffering nation—with tens of thousands of people being shot, slaughtered and burned just because of their nationality. … Before this war started, there was perhaps a chance for Croats to be persons and citizens first, then afterwards Croats. … The last twelve months have taken away that possibility.
Drakulić does not try to provide the big answer; nor does she sound the by-now familiar (and well justified) alarms of a wider Balkan war. Instead she cautions that the deeper changes experienced by those in the region could infect the rest of Europe. “I don't know what the war is,” she concludes,
but I can see that it is everywhere. It is in a street flooded with blood … in Sarajevo. It is also in [our] not understanding it, in my unconscious cruelty towards [a refugee friend], … in the way it is growing within us and changing our emotions, our relations, our values. We are the war; we carry in us the possibility of the mortal illness that is slowly reducing us to what we never thought possible and I am afraid there is no one else to blame. We all make it possible, we allow it to happen.
War forces you to take sides, and if you don't oppose it, by design or default you are taking part in it.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1861
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; hearing the name “Macedonia,” we jump decades to the Balkan Wars or millennia to the conquests of Alexander. It is not hard to understand why, since except for a few folklorists and tourists, we have generally ignored this spectacularly complex region when it was at peace: The powder keg of Europe has only mattered when it exploded.
A small number of books have come out in response to the current tragedy in the Balkans. Misha Glenny's The Fall of Yugoslavia and Alex N. Dragnich's Serbs and Croats dealt with the political and historical background to the conflict. Now two journalists have published personal accounts of events in the region, one as an observer, the other as an insider.
In Balkan Ghosts Robert D. Kaplan, an American who has also written on the Middle East and Afghanistan, shares experiences gathered over a decade of reporting for the Atlantic and the New Republic. On its most ingenuous level, this is a Balkan travel book warmed by plum brandy and the author's self-described obsession with his subject. He moves us south from one end of the Balkans to the other, from Austria to the Asian aridity of Thrace. We stop at a rioting soccer stadium in Kosovo, on the flats of the Danube delta, in the smoke-coated intimacy of a Bulgarian journalists' club, and in the heady darkness of a Serbian monastery. We meet nuns, prostitutes, painters, priests, martyrs, opportunists, and alcoholics.
Kaplan vividly conveys both the unfamiliar landscape—the polluted Romanian countryside looks “as though someone had taken a billowing, yellow-green Oriental carpet and poured tar all over it”—and subtle ironies he encounters. In Transylvania, for instance, he finds a “coffee-house culture, even though there had been no coffee for many years.” He reports as well on the forgotten back alleys of culture—on Saxons in Transylvania, Greeks in Albania, Turks in Bulgaria—giving voice to ethnic minorities deposited, like glacial moraine, by the retreat of empires.
But Kaplan's more ambitious subject is his impressionistic take on Balkan history. “The Balkans are a region of pure memory,” he has written elsewhere, “a Bosch-like tapestry of interlocking ethnic rivalries where medieval and modern history thread into each other.” Here he unweaves the basic strands of that tapestry: the trauma of Ottoman rule, the memories of medieval greatness that inspire revanchist ambitions in so many countries, the open wounds of World War II, and Communism's role in deep-freezing development. Above all, however, he presents an anecdotal cavalcade of larger-than-life characters, including Romania's Queen Marie and King Carol II, Serbia's St. Sava, the Macedonian rebel Gotse Delchev, Count Dracula, the Croatian Cardinal Stepinac, the Fascist Ion Antonescu, and Nicolae Ceausescu. These apparitions are the ghosts of the title, more foreground than background.
In sketching Balkan history, Kaplan goes heavy on Bosch strokes. “What does the earth look like in the places where people commit atrocities?” he asks, as if any place on earth were truly innocent. Mixed throughout his account are stories from the particularly brutal Balkan past—the excesses of the Ottomans, the violence of the Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, and the horrors of World War II from the genocidal Croatian Ustashe state to the demise of Jewish Salonika to the rabidity of Romanian anti-Semitism in Bessarabia. The nadir of inhumanity is probably the 1941 pogrom of the abator, the slaughter-house where hundreds of Bucharest Jews were put through the stages of animal slaughter by Romanian Fascists.
As he extrapolates from these tales, Kaplan paints with a broad brush. For all his insightful interpretations along the way (such as his debunking the various myths about Greece, promoted by travel agents and classicists alike), he is too ready to portray the Balkans as a historical cauldron awash in gore, illicit sex and Eastern Orthodox incense—the haunted house of a violently dysfunctional family. One wishes for a less idiosyncratic sampling of Balkan figures. The author would similarly have been wise to avoid statements on “national character” and other sweeping generalizations about what he unblushingly calls “a time-capsule world: a dim stage upon which people raged, spilled blood, experienced vision and ecstasies.”
When Kaplan refers to “the East” as a realm of “darkness, mystery, sadness, and irrationality,” his orientalizing provokes us to ask whether the “enlightened” West—the home of Wounded Knee, the Hundred Years' War, the Spanish Inquisition, and Nazism—doesn't have abators of its own. The unusual cruelty of Balkan history may indeed help explain the current violence, but do these nations, however tangled their past at the border zone of continents and empires, really inhabit a different moral and historical universe? Kaplan is so anxious to prove they do that he even blames Nazism on Balkan thinking: It was in Vienna, “a breeding ground of ethnic resentments close to the Slavic World, that Hitler learned how to hate so infectiously.”
An uncritical acceptance of other voices is equally distorting. Kaplan quotes without comment this characterization of the Balkans by the late New York Times correspondent C. L. Sulzberger: “It is, or was, a gay peninsula filled with sprightly people who ate peppered foods, drank strong liquors, wore flamboyant clothes, loved and murdered easily, and had a splendid talent for starting wars.” Even Rebecca West, whose 1,200-page masterpiece on Yugoslavia is Kaplan's greatest inspiration, may have encouraged him to shoot from the hip on matters of national character. Almost every page of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon contains the kind of cultural generalizations that we can indulge in a British novelist of the 1930s but must read as absurdly patronizing in a reporter of the 1990s. Its overreliance on earlier Western images of the Balkans, from Bram Stoker's Dracula to the film Never on Sunday, renders Balkan Ghosts unnecessarily derivative.
Dazzled by the nationalist and religious passions he has come upon, Kaplan embraces a view of politics in which ethnicity is all. This severely limits his treatment of the current conflicts. We get only the fuzziest sense of other factors, such as the manipulation of nationalism by leaders in both Belgrade and Zagreb, or the economic and political malaise that fueled ethnic tensions in the former Yugoslavia. Absent completely are the roles played by the West's early recognition of Croatia and Slovenia, the inequitable arms embargo, and the world community's failure to face down aggression. Kaplan takes pains to “heartily condemn” the present violence, yet his lurid account makes it seem normal, if not inevitable. From Belgrade to Zagreb to Washington, those with an interest in fatalistically ascribing the war to “ancient hatreds” can read this book, nod their heads and pretend it simply had to happen.
Anyone comforted by that kind of demonization will have a harder time with The Balkan Express by the Croatian Slavenka Drakulić, who writes in an undeniably human first-person voice. She reminds us that “War is not a single act,” it is “a head-spinning spiral of events and a gradual process of realization.” The 18 beautiful and painful narratives in this slim collection trace her personal descent into the fighting in Croatia.
Drakulić's journey begins in April 1991, here in our world, where she has long been known as a contributor to the Nation and author of several books. Over Waldorf salad at the Harvard Club, she tries to explain the gathering storm to well-meaning friends. Her vain attempt to lay out alliances and territories on a napkin is a poignant symbol of the difficulty of clueing in Westerners.
Through the book's understated accounts, we watch her return to Zagreb and pass milestones of realization and denial, from her first glimpse of death in a newspaper photo, to her mother's advice, remembered across 50 years, on shopping in wartime (“Get salt!”), to her 20-year-old daughter's flight from the country. She learns the ache and shame of the refugee as she herself flees to Ljubljana, Vienna and Paris. And we see her draw close to the combat, visiting the front and meeting an adolescent who has learned to kill like a machine.
War erupts suddenly in these stories, forcing us to confront the normalcy of the life it destroys. When Drakulić's fork hangs in midair during the first air raids in Zagreb, some readers will be more surprised by the Cabernet and pasta al bianco on the table than by the bombs falling from above. Even in describing war photos she fixes on the recognizable remnants: the package of yeast next to a bloodied corpse, the clean wash still hanging next to an annihilated house. For this successful member of a post war generation raised on Titoist slogans of “Brotherhood and Unity,” atrocities are anything but commonplace; again and again she articulates a shuddering horror at “the deep crimson hue of gore” imbuing her homeland, at the nationalistic furies that have been unleashed.
The war soon brings more complex troubles. “Death becomes a simple, acceptable fact,” she writes, “but life turns to hell.” In what may be her most touching essay, “A Letter to My Daughter,” Drakulić blames her own generation for failing to protect its sons and daughters from today's agony. In another, she discusses how the nationalism of the war creates ethical quandaries and intolerable demands for conformity; despite her skepticism, internal and external pressures move Drakulić reluctantly toward the kind of ethnically defined politics Kaplan takes for granted. She writes sympathetically of a Croatian actress whose insistence on performing in the Serbian capital leads to exile, and of a cosmopolitan professor whose protests against the “narrowing of human horizons that the war and nationalism have brought” makes her a pariah.
Above all, these essays convey a sense of violation. Drakulić describes a photo of a house that had its roof blown off. “The picture of this bedroom with two neat beds, helpless and exposed,” she tells us, “looked like a picture of my own life: the perversity of war stripping away all intimacy.” Thus bared, she probes the meaning of war in the minutiae of her personal life, in her own behavior as a daughter, friend, mother, and citizen.
In the title essay, she and two other passengers share a compartment on a train returning from Vienna to Zagreb. No one speaks because, she explains later, “speech implies categories, assumptions, meanings, understandings and misunderstandings,” and may reveal them to be enemies. In Balkan Express she bravely breaks that silence. “In spite of everything,” she writes in the Preface to this sad book, “I still believe in the power of words, in the necessity of communication.” That faith alone is enough to challenge our assumptions, and to stir our compassion.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 677
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 rather than maternal love. Crossing the frontiers of taboo, Drakulič plunges into the heart of incestuousness to expose the female psyche in its darkest and most fleshy aspects.
At the centre of the drama lies the marble mother, carved in erotic self-absorption and exposed to the gaze and the sticky fingers of the public. It is a labour of love and hatred, sculpted by a daughter desperate both to reach her elusive mother and to escape the tyranny of her perfect beauty by trapping it in marble. The real mother sees the sculpture and, recognizing the years of sexual conflict and stifled communication etched in its contours, tries to kill herself. With the force of her chisel, the daughter has broken through the marble skin to touch her mother and to wrench out a retribution for the incest and rape she once endured at the hands of her mother's husband.
First published in Yugoslavia in 1989, the book's scandalous subject-matter earned it an explosive reception. More provocative than the literal incest, however, is the shocking incestuousness of the writing, which melts the fine line between pleasure and pain, love and disgust, to reveal their disturbing closeness. The daughter is at once violent and tender in her yearning for the mother she finally kills in art. Whether caressing or lacerating, her obsessive desire is to touch, to immerse herself in her mother and her own emerging sexuality. Her thirst for female intimacy is satisfied only fleetingly in the rare and intoxicating moments when her mother brushes her hair or bathes her for the last time, before the faceless stepfather comes between them. For the most part, the mother remains distant and “terrifying in her absence”, while the daughter gropes for impossible closeness through her mother's clothes, gestures, and even her husband. Pursuing her beneath the sheets, under her skin, and through her pores to her mucous membranes, the narrative takes us inside the mother and probes her most intimate thoughts and sensations.
While this visceral voyeurism offers tender insights (tasting inside the mouth or kissing the downy hairs behind the ear), it can also be suffocating. The narrative is relentless and penetrating, to the point of violating the mother: “she didn't know how to defend herself against the violence of a child's hands, rending her intimacy”. The obsessive focus also robs her of her personality. It reduces both the mother and the other characters to glimpses of fragmentary detail, so that we are left sharing the daughter's frustration that “I honestly don't feel I have ever seen her closely, in her uniqueness. I have only seen gestures, curves, elements.”
Though disturbing, the pervasive facelessness of Marble Skin imbues the novel with its overwhelming atmosphere of elusiveness and thirst. Whirling through dizzying shifts in perspective, the narrating “I” delves under the skins of the mother, the daughter and the stepfather to merge boundaries and identities in a “maelstrom of desire”. Added to the abrupt leaps of tenses, this technique is at times more disconcerting than seductive. Eroticism is also undermined when sheer, fluid description is choked by the self-conscious explanation of the sculptor-narrator. The significance of the marble skin is too often driven home with a chisel-like “cold precision”. Wielding more subtlety than force, however, Drakulič insinuates us into a heady realm of sensuous and sensual perception that blends touch, look, taste and smell. Searching the recesses of female sexuality, Marble Skin uncovers a breathtaking, subcutaneous world of knowing that is compelling if claustrophobic.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 417
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 scarcely recognize oneself any longer.” These 18 personal essays dramatize that terrible transformation.
At first, when the war begins to take shape, Drakulic comments philosophically about why her country has gone mad: “This society never had a proper chance to become a society not of oppressed peoples, but of citizens, of self-aware individuals with developed democratic institutions within which to work out differences, conflicts and changes, instead of by war. … War therefore came upon us like some sort of natural calamity, like a plague or a flood, inevitable, our destiny.”
War brings the terrifying division between Serb and Croat, neighbor and neighbor, husband and wife. Demagogues fuel the hatreds. Unforgivable bombings, sieges, rapes force everyone to choose sides. Later, Drakulic notes the war mentality: her neighbors hoard, her daughter leaves for Canada with a stuffed animal from childhood in her suitcase, bombs begin to fall.
Still later in its awful progress, the war destroys sanity. Oppositions congeal; anyone who questions them is a traitor. The essay “An Actress Who Lost Her Homeland” traces the exile of one celebrity who refuses to accept the conflict. Finally come the refugees who need care when the war has exhausted those who should give it: “We are the war; we carry in us the mortal illness that is slowly reducing us to what we never thought possible.”
By offering us her personal account of the Balkan war, Drakulic drops conventional journalism for a more appropriate form, half story and half essay. She keeps her journalist's eye trained on telling details, however: a refugee longs for frivolous high-heeled shoes, the Croatian president snubs a group of protesters, a church clock topples from its bombed tower, a teenage soldier becomes a practiced killer. She also records as honestly as possible the changes in her own feelings as the mythical monster of war enters and deforms her inner being.
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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 Partisan Review, who will moderate the discussion and the questions after the talk.
[Kurzweil]: Many of you met Slavenka last year at our conference in Newark [“Intellectuals and Social Change in Central and Eastern Europe,” Partisan Review Fall 1992] and afterwards here in New York. In the meantime she has written yet another wonderful book, called The Balkan Express.
[Drakulic]: I'm very happy to be here with you. I arrived just two days ago from Zagreb. As you know, there is a war only in some parts of Croatia, such as Dalmatia to the south, so I'm not exactly coming from the war zone, but I'm close enough; Zagreb is only about thirty miles from the war zone. I have chosen to tell you a story tonight which has to do with responsibility, one of the things we should talk more about. This story, the last one in Balkan Express, is called “High-heeled Shoes.” It is a very personal and painful experience about how I myself became an accomplice of the war. You know, it's not enough to see only what's happening to other people; at some point I realized I had to look into the mirror and see what had happened to me and see how much I have been changed by what has been going on around me. I believe that if we look away from the war, believing it is only the politicians and the military power and the nations or the states who are responsible for it, then we are delegating our citizens' human and personal responsibility. It is this refusal to become engaged on an individual level that has allowed the war to go on. I think that each of us has to look into the mirror.
This story is about a friend of mine, a journalist, who left Sarajevo a year ago. When it was still possible to leave Sarajevo by normal means of transportation, she came to Zagreb with only a suitcase and her six-year-old daughter, And she brought clothes only for her daughter because she had planned to leave her with friends and go back herself to Sarajevo in a week. While in Zagreb, she saw on television footage showing that her house had been burned down; she couldn't go back there, because there was no longer a place to go back to. She asked for our help, and because she was a long-time friend everyone helped get her an apartment, gave her some money, assist with the child, get her clothes. One day she came to my house, because my daughter was to give her some clothes, and among the things she gave her were a pair of high-heeled shoes, black patent leather shoes that ladies wear to parties, very fashionable shoes. The moment I saw my daughter give her the high-heeled shoes, I said to her, “Why did you give her high-heeled shoes? She doesn't need them, she's a refugee.” My daughter's reaction was very strong. She said, “Mother, just because she's a refugee doesn't mean that she needs to go out barefoot. She needs somehow to confirm her identity, and this is a good thing, to give her high-heeled shoes.” Of course I became puzzled by my own reaction, and started to think about it, and this is where my, what shall I call it, vivisection began. I think that it has much to do with the projection of this war, with the media, with the prejudices, with the symbolic level of the war, and perhaps with what I call the image of this war. Of course all of you have seen these photos and images on television, all these peasants' faces, people poorly dressed, especially refugees, and women covered with scars, their peasant faces, their hands, the way they dress.
Here I will digress from the story and show you several photos, so that you can understand better what I am talking about when I say “the image of this war.” Some of the photos are quite shocking, but I think that by now we all have become immune to them. This is precisely the problem I would like to address. The first photo is from a magazine cover page that was printed last year. The war in Croatia was more or less over, and the war in Bosnia already well on its way. It is a picture that somehow escaped my attention then, but later on I wrote another story entitled “Three Little Hens,” based on it. It's a picture of a dead man who is lying on the floor: his skull is open and there are three hens picking at his brain. This is a pretty dramatic photo, but we have seen even more dramatic ones, especially on television.
The second one appeared just a couple of weeks ago all over the world press. This is a blown-up picture of a woman who is hugging a skull. This third picture too is very meaningful for me. It's a cover of a slick, cultural, very highbrow magazine, which devoted a whole issue to the Balkans. One the cover they put a plain picture of two men and one woman. The woman has a dramatic expression of pain on her face, but you can't say which nationality any of them are or where it was taken. Are they Kurds, are they Serbs, are they Azerbaijanis? You can say only that they are peasants. Now you wonder why, after two years of war, the editors decided to put this picture on the cover of the Balkan issue. It's not depicting any kind of trauma, it's not of someone being beheaded or any such thing. It's just very revealing: it is how the world sees “the Balkans.” The message is, “It is the peasants who are doing all this, you know.” The problem is that since the very beginning, these kinds of pictures took over. The pictures clearly suggest cruelty, atrocities, savages, tribes, peasants, centuries-old hatreds; particular, complicated, strange. When I saw this cover page I said, “But this is not me, I don't belong to this, I don't identify with these people. I am urban, I have been living in a city all my life, I don't have anything to do with the peasants. Some other picture represents us, which other people, the people from the West, could identify with.”
The photo in fact reinforces the underlying gap which has widened in spite of the Berlin Wall going down, in spite of Communism collapsing: East-West, developed-underdeveloped, city dwellers-peasants, civilization-savages. Of course the first reaction to these dramatic images a year ago, of concentration camps and dead bodies, was shock. This is one of the wars that has been covered the most-by the media; everything has happened in front of the television cameras. We have seen it all—every single atrocity. Saturation set in and became estrangement. For the West, it became less and less possible to find points of identification. Who are these savage and cruel people? What do they have in common with us? What do we have in common with them, when they are so obviously different? On the symbolic level, it was difficult to remove the barrier of “otherness.” We, the civilized ones, can't understand what is going on there. Why all that killing? I think that all the pain and the suffering is somehow overshadowed by the images of cruelty and primitivism, sending a strong message and forming prejudices on the other side of the still-existing Berlin Wall. I'm purposely not talking about politics here, but rather about how political decisions were supported by the created images of the war, and by the problems of identification.
If we see the fighting nations are “different” and “special” and “violent,” qualities which we very often would like to attribute for example to the Serbs, saying that they are genocidally evil—in other words, “different”—then the consequence is that no one is responsible for what is happening and for stopping the killings. Because if it is somehow built into this nation, then how could you possibly be expected to do anything about that? In short, the construction of the “otherness” is helping to create the indifference, the tolerance of massacres, ethnic cleansing, the repetition of history. By now, we should have learned one lesson about this war. It has the power to change the destiny of the Continent. Not because it could explode out of the borders of ex-Yugoslavia, but because the rules and principles for dealing with similar situations in Eastern Europe and the ex-USSR are being set right there and right now, and if we don't understand this, we don't understand anything about the ongoing war in the Balkans. No one can wash his hands of this war, no one can claim, “I don't know.” There is no excuse for a single European state or nation, or even one person, to do nothing, to in fact become an accomplice to this war, and to the uncertain destabilized future of Europe.
Now let me go back to the story “High-heeled Shoes.” As I said, I was quite puzzled by my own reaction, and then I started to think. I concluded that I somehow subconsciously and automatically put my friend into another category, into the category of “refugees.” And I rejected my own responsibility. I delegated my own responsibility for a human being, for a friend of mine. I put her in an abstract category, and I delegated this responsibility to the Red Cross, to the State, to the Church, to the military; in other words, to the institutions. And in that way I think I betrayed my own friend. And what I recognized in myself is the process of creating “otherness,” and I was very much frightened by it. I will read you the end of the story, because it's very difficult for me to tell you:
Perhaps what I am also witnessing is a mechanism of self-defence as if there were a limit to how much brutality, pain or suffering one is able to take on board and feel responsible for. Over and above this, we are often confronted with more or less abstract entities, numbers, groups, categories of people, facts—but not names, not faces. To deal with pain on such a scale is in a way much easier than to deal with individuals. With a person you know you have to do something, act, give food, shelter, money, take care. On the other hand, one person could certainly not be expected to take care of a whole mass of people. For them, there has to be someone else: the state, Church, the Red Cross, Caritas, an institution. The moment one delegates personal responsibility to the institution, the war becomes more normal, orderly, and therefore more bearable. The person not only relieves himself or herself of responsibility, but also of a feeling of guilt too; the problem is still there, but it is no longer mine. Yes, of course I'll pay the extra war-tax, I'll gladly give away clothing or food to Caritas or any responsible organization, instead of to the suspicious-looking individuals ringing the doorbell claiming that they are refugees. Because what if they are not real refugees—your help might get into the “wrong” hands and you'll never earn that place in heaven that you'd promised yourself at the outset. The moment I thought Drazena ought not wear make-up or patent high-heeled shoes was the very moment when I myself put her into the group “refugee,” because it was easier for me. But the fact that she didn't fit the cliché, that she disappointed me by trying to keep her face together with her make-up and her life together with a pair of shoes, made me aware of my own collaboration with this war.
Now I think I understand what I couldn't understand before: how it happened that people who lived near German concentration camps didn't do anything, didn't help. In Claude Lanzmann's long documentary on the Holocaust, Shoah, there is a dialogue with one of the survivors from Chelmno, the place in Poland where Jews were first exterminated by gas, 400,000 of them.
“It was always this peaceful here. Always. Even when they were burning 2000 people—Jews—every day, it was just as peaceful. No one protested. Everyone went about his work. It was silent. Peaceful. Just as it is now,” he said. …
I don't think our responsibility is the same—and I am not trying to equate the victims with those who murdered them in cold blood—all I'm saying is that it exists, this complicity: that out of opportunism and fear we are all becoming collaborators or accomplices in the perpetuation of war. For by closing our eyes, by continuing our shopping, by working our land, by pretending that nothing is happening, by thinking it is not our problem, we are betraying those “others”—and I don't know if there is a way out of it. What we fail to realize is that by such divisions we deceive ourselves too, exposing ourselves to the same possibility of becoming the “others” in a different situation.
The last time I saw Drazena she told me she was okay. She's staying in a friend's apartment until the autumn and freelancing for a local newspaper. Afterwards she will manage to find something else. She also told me that she is writing a war diary since that is the only way she can attempt to understand what is happening to her. “And what I find the most difficult to comprehend is the fact that there is a war going on,” she said. “I still don't understand it. It's not that I expect a miracle to end this nightmare immediately. No, no. I mean, it is just hard for me to grasp that what is going on is the war. Do you know what a war is?” she asked, but I could tell from her look that she didn't really expect an answer.
… We are the war; we carry in us the possibility of the mortal illness that is slowly reducing us to what we never thought possible and I am afraid there is no one else to blame. We all make it possible, we allow it to happen. Our defense is weak, as is our consciousness of it. There are no them and us, there are no grand categories, abstract numbers, black and white truths, simple facts. There is only us—and, yes, we are responsible for each other.
And I also wanted to tell Drazena that she should go out and dance in her high-heeled shoes, if only she could.
Thank you very much, Slavenka. Who would like to start asking questions?
[Deborah Solomon]: An obvious question is, what do you think the United States should do about the situation?
[Drakulic]: The question is not so obvious. I'm not a politician, I'm a writer. But there are no simple answers. I can give you only my personal opinion. I think the United States shouldn't do anything on its own. If there is anything to be done, it should be done together with Europe. And both Europe and the United States are too reluctant to do anything. Forgive me for saying so, but I think wherever the United States has gone with force, there hasn't been a very brilliant outcome. So I'm very much afraid of intervening by bombing. A month ago, there were big talks about going in with planes and just bombing targets. Of course, I'm not an expert, but I think it is more important to set rules for the future, because obviously Yugoslavia, ex-Yugoslavia, the ex-Federation, with the new states emerging, and nationalism, and the war, may be the first place where this is happening, but it might not be the last one. So I think, if Europe, or the world for that matter, including the United States, doesn't set up very firm rules, the chaos will persist and recur. Europe and the United States should be asking questions like, should we allow changes of national borders? This is a big question. And how do we proceed? Do we proceed with force, or with some other measure? Are other measures, like sanctions, enough? What other kinds of pressures could be used? I think you can't make exemptions. You can't say, “Yes, now for this country, well, let's change the borders; let's divide Bosnia and Herzegovina among Croatia and Serbia, and give the Muslims some little enclave.” What are you going to do then in the ex-USSR? They have nuclear arms, so maybe you are going to treat them differently, I don't know. I'm very pessimistic about the future of Europe. I would like to see a more consistent and more articulate politics towards the whole problem than just bombing, because after bombing, then what?
[Philip Gourevitch]: My question has to do with your idea about the image of the war and the image of peasants and refugees and something that is “other,” because I suspect that a lot of the media has traditionally conceptualized the image of the oppressed as the image of a peasant, and the image of the refugee looks a certain way. In contrast, if you see the image of someone dressed like you or like me, you think, “They're not doing so badly.” Or you think of them the same way as you do in this country of rich people getting sent to jail, or in some way suffering or losing their homes: there is a certain public satisfaction in those images. And so I'm curious how you would suggest that one could effectively project the image of a suffering affluent person, a suffering familiar-looking person.
The problem is that the overaccumulation of these images of “otherness” creates the effect of their being ignored, because you cannot identify with these people, their appearance, their problems. I have written a book where you can find points of identification with the Western world, so the people from the West could see that “this could happen to us.” Out of four and a half million people in Croatia, four million didn't experience war directly. They haven't been bombed. Their children haven't been killed. Somehow the whole region of the Balkans has been cut off. And it was a clear message that it doesn't belong to Europe. The reaction to my book showed that people can identify much more easily when you show them that you are the same as they are, that there is no difference. And in that way you can somehow claim some responsibility, because if there is no understanding there can't be any responsibility. I'm not saying that the majority of the people there are not peasants. Of course the peasants are the ones who have been resettled and moved, who are the refugees. I'm describing the effect of this kind of journalism, though I'm not blaming journalists individually: we have to remember that forty of them have been killed in this war.
[Kurzweil]: I'd just like to add one point. I think that your question itself points to the problem of being presented with images. The presenters, it seems, know a great deal more than what they show us; that adds to the construction of otherness Slavenka talks about. For us, it's at yet another remove.
[Gourevitch]: Remember that extraordinary image of the man who played the cello every day in Sarejevo? It was certainly a European image, I would say. And in terms of stirring a sense of responsibility in the West, I wonder whether that image really was more effective than the images of atrocity which at the same time make people “other” and also stir a greater sense of outrage. I'm just wondering really, I'm not challenging what you have pointed out.
Okay, but have we seen any results of that outrage? What happened with all this outrage? Last year in August, images of concentration camps were projected for the first time, and nothing happened after that. There was the big story about tens of thousands of raped women, and nothing happened after that. So you have these worse and worse pictures projected; you have worse and worse atrocities committed; and the world is getting used to it. This is what I find so troubling, the phenomenon of getting used to it.
[David Sidorsky]: On the one hand, your objection is to the difference, the otherness that we see as the Balkans as savagery. And you have evoked the metaphor of the Nazi genocide against the Jews, to describe what is going on. On the other hand, you say the war should be treated as if it were not singular; that there should be rules for dealing with it, so that we would know how to deal with similar future happenings in, for instance, the former Soviet Union. But if that's the case you're making, then what strikes one as missing is a defensible political analysis that asserts this is a war of a fairly similar, repeatable sort.
As you say, it will repeat itself in Ossetia, in Azerbaijan, in many places. Namely, if you have a federation, and there is a secession which is disputed, and there are minorities who previously lived under a federation, then there is bound to be some sort of conflict. If Yugoslavia existed and a Serb population ruled, essentially, in Yugoslavia, with a Serb minority in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and there is a secession, then there is some need for some sort of solution on the political level. Croatia as an independent country has a solution; Slovenia had a solution. Bosnia-Herzegovina represents a very distinctive problem, and if one wants similarity, then at some point the political analysis comes; you suggested one part of it and dismissed it, that is to say, that there should be a Bosnian-Muslim autonomy. The Serbian population goes to Serbia, the Croatian population goes to Croatia. This, I understand, since you want rules for the future, is one formula of rules. There are others. There could of course be the insistence on the integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, with a Muslim majority, and no aggression from Serbia, or from Croatia, where the Croatian population is, if I understand the issue.
My point—this is just a logical point, I'm not an expert on Yugoslavia—is that to stress the otherness, to compare it inappropriately to the Nazi-Jewish experience, where there was no ethnic conflict over a territorial issue at all, is precisely to say this is not similar. The similarity among all such issues has to do with the ethnic breakup of a federation, and this is, of course, exactly what you said about rules for what will happen in Georgia if North Ossetia and the Georgians wish to break up: what are the rules? But looking at the problem in this way, one stresses the political solution, or the political aspects of the problem; which, I gather, because of the demands you make on our sense of responsibility and emotional concern, you are not willing to address.
I don't raise the political solution because I don't know what the ideal political solution is. I'm not a politician myself. I see my task as a writer who asks the questions, not one who gives the answers. If you understood me to say that it would be the best thing to divide Bosnia between Croats and Serbs and give Muslims the enclave, I didn't say that; I mentioned it, but it's not what I favor. I would put Bosnia temporarily under some kind of protectorate.
[Istvan Deak]: In your beautiful reading something disturbs me: your analogy about the situation of the Poles, the Jews, and the Germans. I would see it differently. The Poles, in my opinion, are presented and shown in a very prejudiced way in Claude Lanzmann's documentary film, Shoah. Lanzmann was hunting for examples to show Polish anti-Semitism, and he questioned the least intelligent Polish peasants to prove that the Poles were anti-Semitic. Secondly, the Poles were totally unarmed, except for the resistance movement. The resistance movement itself was hunted down and ended up in concentration camps. The picture is not simply that there were Poles outside and Jews inside, because if the peasant Poles had not worked next to Auschwitz, there would have been Poles and not only Jews inside Auschwitz. There were hundreds of thousands of Poles in Nazi concentration camps who died.
So I would say that the analogy that you make with today's situation perhaps is not quite right, because today's situation is absolutely insane, in that the United States and others could intervene. It's not that the Poles could have sacrificed themselves for the ghetto Jews but chose not to because they would have been killed. What makes the situation so difficult for us to understand and what makes us so exasperated is that it would be very easy for the Western powers to deal with Serbian aggression, and they are not doing it. And when you observe that United States intervention never has a positive outcome, I would say that it depends on what period you are talking about. It ended up quite successfully in World War Two, after it defeated Nazism. So that's why I wish you would either find another analogy, or explain to us why you think the situation is the same as with the Jews in Poland, that is, a world that is indifferent. The world's indifference today is far worse than the indifference of the Polish peasants.
Well, I wasn't especially attacking Polish peasants. I was talking about particular things in Shoah, simply because I think that the metaphor of the Jews is a very good one for every similar situation. It is a very good metaphor now for the Muslims, because they are losing territory and they are virtually exterminated in some parts. There are refugees, and what we'll see next is going to be a wave of Muslim terrorism, all over Europe. I think that the metaphor of Jews works very well for the fact that they have been exterminated people, so that regardless of where it occurred, were they Poles or were they in Croatia—we had the Jews being killed in Croatian concentration camps—the point is that people were standing there and didn't help. We see things happening to others, and we think it doesn't have anything to do with us. This is the essence of that metaphor. It doesn't really matter whether we are speaking about Jews and Poles or about Muslims or any other kind of otherness. Each of us could become a part of that otherness, in another situation. I wouldn't like you to take this so literally. I think there's always a Jew and always a community.
[Dimitri Urnov]: You mentioned the repetition of the past, and we cannot but be concrete in talking about the past, and in taking some lessons out of it. What we have today is certainly an outcome of that remote past which repeats itself, but in what ways?
I agree that part of this war in ex-Yugoslavia comes from the past, and it is somehow as if you had returned to the past, and as if it were a war of the living actually fighting the spirits of the dead of the Second World War. But I would say it is not only that, because I have lived in that country for forty-four years, and I know that we all lived in peace for a very long period of time. I see this war as having begun from the very top, not from the people, because in the ethnically mixed places like Vukovar, for example, we were not aware of any hidden conflicts. I would agree that the war began among the people, if it had in fact started five years ago, little by little, people fighting, and ethnic conflicts growing up to the point where the war started. But what I saw happening is just the opposite. I saw it happening at the very top. I saw the war being constructed, the idea of the war, the concept of the war, at a very high level, and then somehow in a spiral motion thrown down to the ground where it was almost impossible, much later on, to stop it, because when the first houses were burned, and the first people were killed, it was already done. I think it has very much to do with the fact that communism collapsed. You can't expect such a mammoth system, which existed for so many years and within which so many millions of people lived, to go away just like that.
Nationalism arose out of the collapse because as we know, historically, there was feudalism and after that communism, with no time in between for the development of a civil society and of the values of a democratic and liberal society. When, as it is popular to say, “the lid was lifted,” you had two basic things that had always existed there: religion and the nation. And so, when the big system started to break down, people instinctively clung to the things that they knew. And this is one of the very important elements to remember, when you wonder how and why all of this nationalism was resurrected. Then, of course, the governments themselves perpetuated this kind of nationalism in order to stay in power. It was quite clear in the case of Milosevic. And I don't think that we have to have any doubts at this point about who started the war and how was it started in ex-Yugoslavia; it's all very well known. What is not known is that it was started at the very top.
[Daniel Rose]: It's an American characteristic to think that for every question there must be an answer; for every problem, there must be a solution, however theoretical. And when the American public considers the events that are unfolding right before their eyes, they are disconcerted at not being able to imagine some kind of rational future for this society. That's one of the American problems; they just can't picture in which direction rational people can head. And we'd appreciate your comments on what you see as alternative futures, or as the prospects directly ahead.
Whenever I travel abroad, one of the questions I am asked is, “What do you think the future is going to be?” Now, the difficult part of it is that this is the hardest question that could be put to us, because the word “future” has been erased from our life. Somehow we don't think about the future. Somehow we don't even conceive, we don't have imagination enough to imagine what kind of life we would even wish. There are several reasons for that. One is the fact that we have been living in a communist society, and in a communist society you have this feeling that this society is eternal; nothing is ever going to change. Of course it was an illusion, but you have been raised with the idea not to question, not to think, and just to let things go, and so the future basically doesn't exist as a concept.
The other fact is that with the war, you learn to live day by day, and you don't invest in the future, not even in your imagination. Not even our politicians are doing that. We all agree somehow deep down in ourselves, subconsciously, that this war is going to go on for quite some time. I was asked at the beginning, “How long do you think the war will go on?” I would say, “Well, at least five years,” and everybody was kind of surprised. There is also political manipulation, because I think that the government we have now, or the governments in ex-Yugoslavia, both the Milosevic and Tudjman governments, are the type of governments that can exist only under the conditions of war, because it suits them very well. They don't even speak about the future. If they were to do so, for example in Croatia, the first question would be, “What kind of government do we want? What kind of democracy are we going to have?” These questions are not welcomed at the moment, because every question about the future is met with the answer: “We have a war. So let's not talk about democracy now, let's first solve this problem.” So in short, the answer is, yes, I like the American way of assuming that for every problem there is a solution. However, if there is a solution it's a long-term one, and it's very difficult to foresee the light at the end of the tunnel. For quite some time we'll have to deal with the problems we haven't solved. We haven't even solved the problem of the minority in Croatia, much less the Bosnian problem, which is a very burning question.
[Phillips]: I gather that some intellectuals and writers behaved very badly in this situation. I wonder whether we're talking about a small number of writers and intellectuals, or most of them? How many behaved badly? I don't mean an actual count.
I would say it's a very curious phenomenon. You will remember that at our conference Hans Magnus Enzensberger talked about intellectuals as bad people [“Intellectuals as Leaders,” PR Fall 1992], and I quite agree with him. We concluded that intellectuals are not people of higher moral standards, and that it's rather dangerous to attribute higher moral standards to them. This is especially so when we are talking about intellectuals in Croatia and Serbia. In Serbia intellectuals actually elaborated the idea of “Greater Serbia” and helped the whole nationalist movement. It is a sad fact that its best writers actually went for all this. But Croatia is no better just because it's in a different position. Croatia is in a defensive war, so every single intellectual there is nationalist, but they believe they are nationalist for good reasons. So there are good and bad motivations. In general, before the war and during communist times we always had state writers; ninety-nine per cent of intellectuals and writers always went along with whatever politics there were or whoever ruled the country. There were very few independent individuals. It's the same now. So the intellectuals in both countries are “bad guys.”
[Elizabeth Dalton]: Your point about making people “other” is a very good one, but one has to recognize also that there is survival value in not getting totally sucked into the disaster next door. Yet I think you're mistaken if you think that in this country there is a feeling of indifference to the problem. The paradoxical side is that the more outraged people feel by the images on television, the more enthusiastic they are for military intervention, which you and many other people feel might well be disastrous. I think that wave has sort of passed a bit, but that feeling of moral outrage did lead President Clinton and many others to say we must bomb.
I have seen that the feelings of the people sometimes are very different from their government's behavior; there is a huge gap between the two. Recently, I read in the International Herald Tribune that there has been a poll in several European countries about how to proceed in this conflict, and whether they should intervene with European forces or not, and in most countries there was a huge number, ranging from forty to sixty per cent of the populations, saying, “Yes, we are for intervention,” while the governments were behaving very conservatively. So there is some kind of gap between what the people and what the governments really see as necessary. Maybe there is something wrong with Western democracy; perhaps people have no power to influence the governments. But I have seen that they are getting desensitized, anesthetized by these kinds of images. There are two sides of the media, of course; one is to bring the story out and to let the world know. But the question is, “What then?” What do you do with information? To inform may not be enough. I am just saying that we—intellectuals, writers, people in general—are not dealing enough with the moral issues, with the moral questions, with the questions of responsibility. I myself am puzzled why European intellectuals are not posing any of these questions. This war hasn't been an issue among European intellectuals at all. Intellectuals next door don't discuss it. They pretend not to understand, but I wonder if they want to understand what's going on. This puzzles me. I see it as closing your eyes, I see it as turning your head away. I am a bit bitter because I come from there. Maybe an insider's look into these problems is different from an outsider's position.
[Kurzweil]: I want to follow up on that. Of course we all want the slaughter to stop. But can it be stopped with bombing? And, if it were to stop with bombing, where do we bomb? Do we know, can we even separate one population from another? After all, there are all these enclaves.
Well, I think nothing could be won without ground troops engagement. I read an article by an expert who said that without two hundred and fifty thousand soldiers nothing could be solved at all, and who is going to put two hundred and fifty thousand soldiers in Bosnia? It's yet another issue.
[Phillips]: You can get two hundred and fifty thousand troops, if the Europeans and the American government combine. The question is, as I see it, people are claiming that intervention wouldn't solve the problem. Now, I don't know the answer to that. You say you're not a politician, but you know more about it than we do. Do you think if America and the European nations send troops in it could stop the slaughter?
Well, I suppose, yes. Someone has to stop it, but the problem is that it's an enormous number of soldiers, enormous sums of money, and the question is, why would someone do it?
[Joanna Rose]: I have heard that there are Muslims, Turks, who are willing to go in with troops, but that the rest of the European countries do not want them to go in. There is money, there are troops, and there is a country willing to go in and help the Muslims in Bosnia. Well, is that a way of solving it?
Yes, of course they would probably solve it, but we should also take a look into their interest in the whole issue. You need a political solution, a proper political solution for that, and without it I am afraid it can't work.
[Rose]: It has to be troops you like, right?
I think without combined forces under the auspices of the UN, nothing much could be done. And as we all know, the UN is a terribly bureaucratic organization, and it's terribly slow. God knows how many people will die before they do something. But as I said, we can have a think-tank about what should be and could be done there. I am very sorry if I disappointed you, but I don't have any political solution, any ready-made recipes, and I don't even see it as my task to do find them.
[Jack Diggins]: You are puzzled about why intellectuals in the West have no response to this issue. I think it's mainly because a number of writers thought that communism was going to solve the problem of religion and nationality, but it has been a squalid failure. Many people felt that with the fall of communism, democracy would be able to take care of these issues, yet that doesn't seem to be able to do so. So everyone is at a loss, and there's nothing in the heritage of Western political thought to deal with these issues. We thought the Enlightenment would take care of it, but that hasn't happened: we thought modern technology and various other institutions would take care of these issues, but they didn't, and so we are at a loss. I also want to say, when you suggest that the problem starts at the top, I am really puzzled. To me, there was no problem while there was a top: there was an authoritarian system which kept a lid on this, and when that collapsed, the underlying problem of human hatred of people toward one another emerged. The elements of human animosity and human sinfulness and aggression can be manipulated, but I don't think they can be discounted.
Yes. I want to answer the last part first, on why it was that when the lid was capped, we had an authoritarian society, and everything was quiet and in order. In Yugoslavia that was not the case, because the pressure wasn't strong enough to keep it under the lid; if there was anything boiling it would have been very obvious. The only thing we had was the Croatian Spring in 1971, and it was really a mild decentralization, not really a proper movement in the sense that Croatia wanted to secede. So I think that if we are speaking about lids and authoritarian pressure in a society, Yugoslavia is not a good example, because people really had started to live together, and there were a lot of mixed marriages, especially in Bosnia, about twenty to thirty percent of the children now are of mixed marriages. They have to take sides today; this is one of the saddest things about this war.
And I wouldn't really speak about hatred, except that I would say we have to be clear; it's not that nationalism didn't exist at all. I think that it was there all the time, but when I say that the war came from the top I mean that there were methods used to stir up emotions. It's not that everyone wasn't aware of what happened in the Second World War, that Serbs were killing Croats, Croats were killing Serbs, and so on, but it is like a disease. Under certain circumstances it develops and becomes an acute disease. Other than that it stays dormant, not necessarily developing into something malignant. This is the best metaphor that I can use for what is happening with nationalism in my country.
What I gather is that you are giving some kind of excuse for intellectuals because they are confused with this situation. Yes, I think they are confused, of course, I am confused myself, but this is not an excuse, because their task is to think about this, and to ask, and to argue, and to try to find some kind of solutions. However, you mentioned one very interesting point which I didn't: you said that communism contained the problems, and that we had hoped that democracy would solve them. Now, what is happening with democracy in Eastern Europe? Each representative of these new governments, and their new presidents, came and said, “Now, this is democracy. We are bringing you democracy.” Democracy is like a gold medal. This is it. And what do you have? You have a democratic constitution, okay; you have a multiparty system, and you have free elections. There are the three institutions that you have.” Yet these are no more than formalities, since all the parties are really working very much within the mentality of a one-party system. Then you say, “Well, this is giving democracy a bad name, it's somehow changing the concept of democracy itself, because they are using this word, this concept, and democracy is not really happening.” So what you have is some kind of a backlash, even a danger that at some point people will say, “Oh, this is democracy? This is what we were fighting for? Excuse me, we are losing jobs, we don't have any security, there's an economic crisis, the people in government are the same people as before—in many countries, literally—so they are corrupt, they are just putting the money in their pockets.”
Democracy is something that people have to take, that they have to build—slowly. And for people in Eastern Europe who have been living all their lives with a totalitarian mentality, it's very difficult. I have seen how it works. They are afraid to even start doing the little things—holding gatherings, forming ideas, citizens' groups—and thus it is going very slowly, because on the one hand you have very authoritarian governments, and on the other hand, the people don't have the feeling that they are citizens, that they are individuals, especially not in mass societies like nationalist ones.
[Daphne Merkin]: You began earlier in the evening by saying that one of the problems with the media representation of the war is its focus on peasants, which reduces our perception of the population to an “other,” other than ourselves, a view I don't particularly agree with. But what surprises me is, I understand American diffidence about intervening;, but why are you diffident as an observer—not as a politician, which you said you are not, but as a writer and observer—about the American impulse to intervene, which is based precisely on the perception that these are not “others,” but humans like ourselves? You did make one rather slighting remark about American intervention not always being successful, but as someone else pointed out, in fact it has been successful in major instances.
In the Second World War, yes.
[Merkin]: Counter-aggression is commonly the only way to stop certain kinds of aggression. So your diffidence puzzles me, more than American diffidence, and I wonder if you're resigned, more than you know—this is a question, or speculation—to the “otherness” of this war, its “in-house” quality. Is your equivocating when you were asked about American intervention in fact a reflection of your own sense that this is a rather insular, ongoing conflict that is not amenable to a dashing international assault? There's a certain resignation in what you are saying.
Well, I have to say that if the message that you get is that this is an insular war and therefore I don't want America to intervene, that goes against everything I have ever written, which says, “We are as you are, and something should be done about that.” So it's not insular. I see it as a European problem. Europe should be first to engage in solving this problem. But the problem with Europe is it thinks it's not part of Europe. So I think it's very important for America to do something, but not on its own. What I think should be done at this point is to find a principled solution for this kind of problem. What I understand is meant by intervention would be the bombing of certain strategic targets in Bosnia—Serbian supply lines and so on. This for me is not the solution. I think the solution should be more complete and more principled, and therefore I don't worry so much about “intervention yes or no,” but “is this something that is going to contribute to the principal solution of the problem, which is in the first place a European problem?” What I'm saying is: bombing is not enough per se. Ground troops are necessary. This is what I understand from the analyses I have read. Because this is a European problem and because this is a problem of principle, we should find, fight for, a principled solution at this point. It's not enough to speak only about intervention. This is the only action that I see as essential to take, apart from stopping the slaughter.
[Rose]: You said that it is not for humanistic purposes that America would go to Bosnia. I have to defend my country. There is no other reason we would enter this situation except for humanistic purposes, because it is against every other interest of ours to enter for any other reason.
But you are not entering it. I would love America to go in for purely humanistic reasons. Great! But it hasn't happened.
[Kurzweil]: Let me interject some kind of explanation, something that I have watched for many, many years going back and forth between here and Europe. Americans are always, as Joanna Rose said, involved in the humanistic principle; ever since Wilson, they've been “making the world safe for democracy.” Every time I've gone to Europe I've heard that America has intervened here and there because it has some imperialistic ends in mind, and this is a kind of clash of opinions, of principles, that is not understood from one side to the other, and we then continue it here in a national discussion.
That is why these conflicts have to be solved as a joint project of America, Europe, NATO, and the United Nations. But it has to be a joint thing, not only the Americans going in. I am sorry if I sound very disappointingly conservative on that issue, but I do really think that if America pushes Europe into doing something and they do something together, fine. Yet in my view this is essentially a European problem. The Europeans have to solve it because they are going to have enormous problems in the future if they don't sort this out.
[Phillips]: Why don't the European countries, in your opinion, want to do anything?
Because they are fighting among themselves. There is this problem of France and Britain and Germany, and they have their own conflicts about the war, how to solve it and who is for what kind of solution.
[Phillips]: Well, they could just stop the slaughter. Why not?
If it would be so easy and simple, they would do it, probably.
[Phillips]: I'm not sure.
[Kurzweil]: I think you're being naive.
It's also very sad and disappointing to see all these big forces fighting among themselves about who should do what and who should send troops and how much money is needed, while people are being killed every day. This is the biggest frustration of all. And this is where you feel you can't do anything about it.
[Phillips]: I don't think that's quite an accurate picture of why America is not doing as much as it should. Let me start by saying that I'm struck by your remark that American intellectuals have done very little about the situation in presenting some kind of united group attitude and demanding some kind of action. Now, somebody said that that's because intellectuals are confused. Well, intellectuals are often confused: it doesn't seem to prevent them from doing things. For instance, they protested the Vietnam War, and they were confused at the time; and they supported World War Two, and they were also confused at that time. So I don't think confusion is the reason. I think that what has happened here is that the Clinton Administration can't make up its mind what to do because it's afraid of public opinion. There's a certain amount of public opinion that's simply isolationist, but there's another sector of public opinion, which seems to be supported by military experts, asserting that no intervention will help unless it's so enormous that it can't be undertaken. And the reason given is that the situation in the former Yugoslavia is so complex that no military action can disentangle the various forces and stop the slaughter. I think that's one reason why many of us have hesitated to take a bold and positive stand. Now, what do you think? Is there any truth in this argument that the situation is so complex that intervention by Americans alone or Americans with European troops won't do any good? Is that a false argument?
I think it's a false argument. I think that a proper number of troops and proper military action could stop it, but I think it has to go along with other measures to solve the problem, to be very simple on that point.
[Sidorsky]: I'd like to support your hesitation about intervention from the United States, but on different grounds, because I agree entirely with Joanna Rose that the only grounds for American intervention is what would be called humanitarian intervention. And indeed it's precisely that, because the intervention would have to be so large that you're speaking about significant casualties. The Serbs are going to fight back; they're going to kill people. And then, too, people pay a price for humanitarian intervention without any national interest—that's usually a compelling reason why people say countries should intervene only where there is a national interest—unless they are part of a large consort of nations, usually the case with humanitarian intervention, in which situation you assume that the casualties would be minimal.
The second comment has to do with your reference to a “principled solution.” There is no principled solution in one sense of the word “principle,” because there are only two principles here, federation and secession. Now, you do not wish, I assume, to force a refederation: you supported the Croatian unilateral secession, you support Slovenia's unilateral secession, presumably you support Bosnia-Herzegovina's unilateral secession. The alternative then is to accept the principle of secession, and never cross boundaries against a seceded state. Someone should have taught this to the Union vis-a-vis the Confederacy.
[Jan Kavan]: I'm not sure if I agree with your explanation that Europe is not going in with a resolution to stop the slaughtering simply because the European powers, Britain, France, Germany and so on, cannot agree among themselves on the solution. I think that's probably one aspect, but in fact in the majority of the meetings among the foreign ministers of the EC, there was a prevailing consensus that, first, they don't have a proper political solution, other than that they have different ones which would clash; and secondly, and primarily I think, they don't want to risk losing the lives of their own soldiers, because that would go down badly with public opinion, again since they don't have a national interest in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They have an interest as Europeans to keep Europe stable and secure, which is in fact also in the United States' interest. The United States has, obviously, humanistic moral motivation, but that is not its only motivation. It is in the interest of the United States to have a stable and secure Europe, and it has a responsibility as the world's remaining superpower to help. The objection of the Europeans was that Americans offered to lift the embargo, to help the Muslims defend themselves and to bomb certain strategic targets, but they were not prepared to commit American troops, risk American lives, until a peaceful solution could be agreed upon. And once again, the Europeans felt that this would endanger the lives of their own soldiers. I agree with you that bombing alone would not solve the problem but exacerbate it.
I think that, as David Sidorsky mentioned, federation and secession are both principles, but they are far from the only ones. The other one is to find out whether it's possible any longer to have a multinational, multi-ethnic unit, which, after all, Bosnia-Herzegovina was. At that time, the government argued that it was one of the few regions left in the former Communist Europe which had managed to have a functioning multi-ethnic and multinational society. Is that in any way possible now?
I'm grateful that you pointed out one of the essential issues, the hesitation of America and Europe to put the lives of their soldiers at risk, and rightly so. But on the issue of other kinds of solutions, it comes down to the question, “Is it possible for a multi-ethnic state like Bosnia to exist, or does it really have to divide into cantons and provinces, ethnically cleansed in this or that way?” Whether we are dealing with the federation or with secession or with the possibility of a multi-ethnic community, we must address the question of the borders and the question of the minorities. If we are speaking about nation-states, then we have to define the borders and minorities. Of course, the most substantial difference is whether this happens with a war or without war. The problem with the war is that while we discuss and try to find the solutions, it goes on. And in the face of it I, both as a writer and as a person who lives there, feel quite helpless.
[Kurzweil]: Slavenka, thank you very much.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7257
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 addressed this question, and enough electronic wizardry to boost a message to the edge of the universe. But that discourse was always dominated by men—fighting men in uniforms, political men reading opinion polls, think tank men fine-tuning the game of grown-up bullyboys called “deterrence.” But put all of these specialists together in a room, and the picture you get of this thing called “war” is still incomplete. Locked outside, but more deserving of entry than ever before, are people with a different view of war: those who are not its producers but, perforce, its consumers (and who thereby are consumed by it). Themselves products of two great developments of this century of ours—the inclusion of massed civilian populations in the target sets of warriors, and the spread of mass education—some of these civilian war consumers can today describe war in a way that is more complete than any previous description. Especially the women among them.
Move over, Les Aspin. Move over, all you Clausewitz wannabes with your Rube Goldberg “models” of this or that form of warfare. Move over, warrior-poets of glory or of anguish. Make room for experts like these: Jean Said Makdisi, a college teacher and mother who chronicled sixteen years of war in Lebanon in her book Beirut Fragments (1990); and Slavenka Drakulic, a journalist and mother who chronicled the first year of the present Balkan wars in The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War (1993).
These women might both have put into their titles a word, fragments, that implies a tentativeness of experience or discourse. But each book builds an overwhelming, thoughtful, and undeniably true picture of what war does to societies at the end of our century.
Never mind the generals. Compared with these women, what does Bill Clinton know of war?
Should we arrange a tea party perhaps? Invite Jean, Slavenka, and Bill. Do you think he's ever been to their countries? Maybe he visited “Yugoslavia” in 1969, on the trip when, most famously, he went to Moscow. I was in Yugoslavia in 1970: I got off the train in Slavenka's home-town, Zagreb, and hitchhiked down to the coast. Then in 1974, I went to work as a correspondent in Lebanon. I “covered” and lived the war there from 1975 through 1981; had my first two children there; knew, like Jean Makdisi, the special terrors of raising children inside a war zone. I knew, as Slavenka would, the particular difficulty that a mother can have in dealing, as a journalist, with topics impossible to speak of.
This is how Slavenka described an interview she was supposed to conduct with a survivor from the Croatian city of Vukovar, which had recently fallen to the Serbs. Ivan was nineteen. He had fought along-side the city's defenders, but had then been forced to withdraw from it with his mother and five younger siblings. His father was lost—either dead or captured. Slavenka talked to Ivan in Zagreb:
I knew he was waiting for me to ask him questions, but I was at a loss for words. I didn't know what to ask him, caught by surprise. His face was so unbearably young that it undid me in a way. This is a story that cannot be written, I thought, not the story of this child who has lost his friends, his house, his father, even the war itself. … He could be my son, I thought, and could not stop thinking of it. … The more talkative and open he became, the more I withdrew. I felt guilty.
Yes, these two women would be good to invite to my tea party. We'll have Bill sitting there—I hope our trees don't set off his allergies. I think we should invite Hillary, too; maybe she can do some cultural interpretation for us.
Why a tea party? Well, you might think of the Boston Tea Party, not a true tea party at all, of course, but it did mark a transition to a hopeful new order. You might think of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, a total up-ending of existing logics and systems of argument. Or you might think of this tea party, encountered by Jean when, in the midst of Israel's punishing 1982 bombardment of Beirut, she went with her husband to visit some friends:
For an instant I thought I was hallucinating, but soon I was laughing in delight. There on the lawn she had set up a table on which was spread afternoon tea. There was a teapot with a crocheted tea cosy, the kind you buy at church bazaars; there were porcelain teacups, silver sugar tongs and teaspoons, embroidered linen napkins, and a little silver dish with biscuits. Both she and her sister, whose house had become uninhabitable because of the bombings, were wearing long, fashionable cotton kaftans. They were neatly groomed and freshly lipsticked. …
“I can't believe this,” I said. “I feel as if I'm dreaming. How do you do it?”
“My dear, I would go mad if I didn't. … What do you want me to do? Die? When I must, I will. Meanwhile, every afternoon I have my tea.”
So, a tea party for sanity, amidst the craziness and killings of the new world disorder! Held here, in Washington D.C., capital city of the planet, and quite a killing ground in its own right. What could make more sense?
As the guests arrived, I would make sure each was well seated. Then I would preside over the ritual of pouring the tea, using the silver teapot bequeathed me by my Aunt Katie; and I would find out who drinks their tea with lemon, with milk, or with sugar. Perhaps at this point, already, Jean and Slavenka would start right on in, sharing with each other and the rest of us their considerable insights into one of our era's most troubling processes: the dividing up of people into confining ethnic or religious boxes.
In Lebanon, the enforced dividing was attempted along both sectarian and “national” lines. The Maronite Christian militias fought hard to create and enlarge enclaves free of both Palestinian and (Lebanese) Muslim presence. “Cleansing” (tantheef) was their word for this process from the beginning of the fighting in 1975. (In Arabic, as in English, “cleansing” has a close but usually unmentioned relationship with the more purely military term “mopping-up.”) In vast parts of the beautiful land of Lebanon, the Maronite campaign tore through a long-established coexistence, setting neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend, in a process of seemingly inexorable violence. The same process has now torn apart previously diverse communities in the former Yugoslavia—there, breaking communities up along lines of imputed ethnicity. Saddest of all, to anyone who has experienced Beirut, is the attempted destruction in Sarajevo of the idea of peaceable coexistence among the residents of a single, gloriously diverse modern city.
In Lebanon and in Yugoslavia, the deadly process of group homogenization hastens and has been hastened by war. Here is how this process feels to Jean, a Protestant Christian and a Palestinian, married to a (Christian?) Lebanese, who in the 1970s and 1980s were raising their three sons in Muslim-dominated West Beirut:
I have felt repeatedly that religion has worked rather like the stamp with which cattle are branded. I have seen it so many times in the movies. The cowboy chases the steer relentlessly. He throws a noose over the animal's head. …
And so we are all, like it or not, branded with the hot iron of our religious ancestry. …
And how does the brand work? How does one fall into the clutches of that cowboy holding the hot iron? How does one feel as it sizzles into the flesh? I have felt it. …
Here, a marvelous discovery, is the very same metaphor in the hands of Slavenka, a Croat formerly married to a Serb, by whom she has one daughter, now in her twenties: “War is like a brand on the brows of Serbs who curse Croat mothers, but it is also a brand on the faces of Croats leaving a country where all they had is gone.”
In January 1992, the day before the European Community gave formal recognition to Croatia, Slavenka wrote an essay called “Overcome by Nationhood.” By then, her new country had been racked for some months already by fighting between Croats and ethnic Serbs backed by neighboring Serbia. Slavenka wrote: “Along with millions of other Croats, I was pinned to the wall of nationhood—not only by outside pressure from Serbia and the Federal Army but by national homogenization within Croatia itself. That is what the war is doing to us, reducing us to one dimension: the Nation.” But neither of these women allows herself to indulge in abstract moralizing. Slavenka explained with engaging honesty how she, too, felt drawn into this identification with the national idea by the horrors of the war:
Right now, in the new state of Croatia, no one is allowed not to be a Croat. And even if this is not what one would really call freedom, perhaps it would be morally unjust to tear off the shirt of the suffering nation—with tens of thousands of people being shot, slaughtered and burned just because of their nationality. It wouldn't be right because of Vukovar, the town that was erased from the face of the earth. Because of the attacks on Dubrovnik.
While Slavenka felt herself becoming sucked into the system of ethnic categorization, for Jean no such option has ever, in the Lebanese context, been available. The complicated warp and woof of her personal reference groups has precluded it. Jean also actively resists the idea of closed sectarian identities in strong and wrenchingly effective language:
Although I am, by this definition at least, a Christian, I think of Islam as part—a large part—of my heritage and revere it as such. … I am the child in equal measure of Christianity and Islam, but, to my great discomfort, the marriage made between them in my historical background is threatened. I do not wish to choose between them. Yet the choice is being made for me by elements over which I have no control. … The situation I find myself in is like that of watching the rape of my own past, two legs of one body being forced apart to the eternal shame of victim and violator.
Is there something special about women, and our lives, that gives us a special, recognizable set of attitudes towards and insights into war? For years, I thought not. I was a successful war correspondent, after all; I got my stories on the front pages of major newspapers when I was only twenty-three. I reveled in proving myself as good as (better than!) my colleagues who were men. I hated signs of what I considered squeamishness in myself. I felt embarrassed in 1976 when, being taken by Falangist militia guides around Tel al-Zaatar, a Palestinian refugee camp that the Falangists had just the day before captured, I found I could take in every detail of the tour, the bodies squished this way and that by the trucks of Falangist looters, the body of a pregnant mother with her belly split terrifyingly, casually, open, and so on, until—when our Falangist guides invited us into a basement where they promised “lots more bodies”—I found I could not go on.
So there I sat. In a little dusty courtyard in the middle of that stinking, dried-out wasteland. In the strangely reassuring company of three crumpled bodies of tiny supplicating old people. And I pondered the words with which Falangist military boss Bashir Gemayel had prefaced our tour: “I am proud of what you are going to see there.”
Like that. No attempt to invoke the thin pretense with which I have heard other commanders respond to rumors of atrocity: The heat of the battle … a few excesses … dealt with promptly by commanders on the spot. … Bla bla, perhaps, but at least, a recognition that these things should not be crowed about, should be prevented or kept hidden, are acts deserving of shame.
Heat of battle / animals in heat / killing and pornography.
But here I was. The tour carefully arranged. The declaration pridefully asserted. And I knew that words could never, in their standard journalistic arrangement, adequately “cover” this “story.”
(Within six years, U.S. diplomats were trumpeting pudgy Bashir as their great white hope for the healing of Lebanon. In 1982, with U.S. and Israeli backing, he was elected president of Lebanon. Before he could be inaugurated, he was assassinated. His followers, well trained, immediately carried out another, equally horrific series of atrocities in the camps at Sabra and Shatila. No one can claim this was unexpected. Our press coverage from 1976 did at least accurately convey the facts, if not the full moral import, of the event.)
In 1980, at the start of another war, my husband at the time was covering the Iranian front, and I was covering the Iraqi front. Our two preschoolers were with the nanny in Beirut. Came a telex: “There is fighting in your neighborhood, and one of the militias has put a sniper on the roof of your building.” Did I stay on in Iraq, where the “story” was excellent? No, I didn't. Could I cover the story in Beirut, where the politics were intriguing? No, I couldn't. All I could think of as I raced back across the desert to Beirut was an image of my beautiful children, held up bleeding, dead, as I had seen so many other children taken from bombed-out buildings.
Nowadays, I consider such an attitude towards the horror of war to be authentic, and relevant. It is an important part of the human experience. It was not a part that fit into the standard conventions of journalism of that day—or of our present day. It is an attitude that women have more frequently than men, given our roles as nurturers. Men sometimes have it, too, I know. But none of us is heard: the hegemony that (male) power-based thinking exercises over the political echelon seeps into nearly every corner of the public discourse, forcing women who want to participate to do so on those terms. For some years now, I have been a member of both the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and an American-based networking group called Women in International Security. Most of the talented, ambitious women in these groups shy away from any discussion of whether women have a special attitude towards war. Their role models are Jeane Kirkpatrick or Margaret Thatcher: women who have spectacularly made it in a male-ordered world.
But I think it would be good to engage our tea party guests in a serious discussion of whether women have a special, and perhaps especially constructive, attitude towards violence and war. It's an important discussion, one that has particular relevance in this era of wars against civilians—and at this point, when the United States may become sucked into violence in the Balkans, as is already happening in Somalia. Let these two wonderfully wise women from Lebanon and Croatia help us further the discussion.
Partly, it is these women's ability to operate within both the public and the private worlds, and to see and muse upon the connections between them, that gives their writing its particular attitude and effectiveness. Jean attended school in very Church of England schools in Cairo, in the fifties. So she is probably familiar with the English tea-time custom of eating the piece of plain buttered bread before moving on to the jams, the jellies, the cakes, fruit breads, or scones. At our tea party, the conversation would probably keep threatening to run away with us; the chirping of Minton cups being replaced on their saucers would die away, the tea remain half-drunk, morsels of cake left uneaten on the plates—while Jean and Slavenka trade their impressions of the dualisms of war.
Slavenka writes with exasperation of the impossibility, when dining with admirers at the Harvard Club in Cambridge, of conveying to them the complexities of the Balkan situation. She then imagines the following scene, which draws its power from the cool precision of its domestic detail:
I can easily imagine the face of a Bush, a Kohl or a Major, at first eagerly paying attention to the report given by an expert consultant who comes from this part of the world over the plate of clear bouillon and then perhaps some light plain-cooked white fish, only to shake his head wearily at the end of the dinner, lifting a silver spoon of slightly quivering creme caramel, admitting that he cannot understand, not fully, that madness, the Balkan nightmare.
Jean writes of her war that,
It seemed simple at first, and limited, but gradually grew in complexity to encompass every aspect of life and thought, even as it grew geographically and in intensity. Expanding ripples of conflicts in a lake of violence caused parallel ripples in my own existence, and sent me, reeling, fragmented portions of consciousness.
Gradually, I … found myself overcome by the effort to manage both the inner and outer battles. Almost every aspect of the war I had fought out in my own heart. Whenever I heard the argument of one side expounded, I could immediately anticipate the other; and one without the other would seem simplistic, false. I could therefore accept and reject simultaneously all the arguments of the war, while at the same time categorically rejecting the war itself.
The connections between the public and private worlds are not the only connections that these women are able to help us see. Another kind of connection, particularly relevant for the era we have entered, is that between different cultures. Both, of course, are represented here in languages that are not their native tongues: How privileged we English speakers are, to have these writers communicate with us (and so beautifully!) in our own language. But the most important cultural divide they bridge, as in Slavenka's introductory essay on the Harvard Club, is that between cultures torn by war and those that do not know how blessed they are with peace.
In December 1991, Slavenka once again left Zagreb, this time for Paris:
I walked down brightly lit streets … and I could hardly feel my own weight. It seemed to me I was almost floating, not touching the pavement, not touching reality; as if between me and Paris there stretched an invisible wire fence through which I could see everything but touch and taste nothing—the wire that could not be removed from my field of vision and that kept me imprisoned in the world from which I had just arrived. … In a Europe ablaze with bright lights getting ready for Christmas I was separated from Paris by a thin line of blood: that and the fact that I could see it, while Paris stubbornly refused to.
While Slavenka rails especially against a Europe that has turned its back on the Balkans, Jean reserves her special anger for the arms dealers of the world:
I ponder, for the ten thousandth time since this damnable war began, on the happiness of the manufacturers and salesmen of arms and ammunition. Every roar, whistle, and crash translates itself in my mind to the sound of a cash register, the tinkle of champagne glasses, and the hum of conversation at a very expensive restaurant somewhere. The glisten of shrapnel, the smoke billowing out of someone's ruined home, the rumble of the big guns, are all echoed in my imagination as the glitter of jewelry, the smoke of cigars lazily puffed out of appreciative lips, and the rolling of drums for a hip-swinging, carefree dance. …
In addition to their ability to make sense of, and connections between, two or more different worlds, what marks these two writers as particularly female is the way they experience war as mothers. (Perhaps, too, their writing gains extra poignancy from their special concern as mothers of “mixed-parentage” children.)
Some of Jean's most anguished writing deals with the conflict she experienced when the Israeli army cast a deadly noose of siege around West Beirut. Should she defy the attackers by staying in her own home, as every fiber of her cried out to do? Or should she give in to the urgings of her husband, Samir, echoed within the parental part of herself, and take her sons out of the besieged portion of the city to safety?
My husband insisted. Like so many Lebanese, he had learned the lesson of Palestine, and so he would stay; but for the safety of our children, I must take them and go. I argued; I pleaded; I fought; but he prevailed. Would I, he had shouted, would I take the responsibility if our children were burned like those we had seen on television the night before? The sight of those little burned bodies had made him vomit. I had not had the courage even to look at them.
I could not find a counterargument. “You take them; I'll stay,” I had tried feebly. I had no right to condemn the children. I felt shame, humiliation, rage, as I packed in the dark. … My anger was a wheel with a hundred spokes. …
Jean took her sons out of the siege, and waited with them in a friend's house in the hills nearby. The agony of being outside the tortured city was intolerable; and when her husband later found a way to come out and join her for a few days' visit, he learned firsthand how hard her situation was. The three boys—the youngest was eleven—were eager to return. So, like many others who had previously fled, the whole family walked back into their besieged hometown.
Jean's descriptions of the psychology of a city under siege and constant bombardment from land, sea, and air should be required reading for all politicians whose military are urging this “solution” to any problem:
All of my previous hesitancy evaporated: Here was no doubt at all. This was one battle in which I felt I could unquestioningly take sides. All the criticisms that I had of the PLO's conduct in Lebanon—and there were many—receded, for it fought directly and gallantly, against the overwhelming force of the Israelis. Such courage as I possessed, such imagination, such idealism, such historical sense were all mobilized, focused on the necessity of resistance, which became to me the most meaningful political act of my life.
But the siege, and the daily, deadly bombardments carried on for weeks and weeks. They brought Jean to an even more terrifying view of her parental responsibilities:
Eventually, exhaustion filtered insidiously through the stoicism. I remember the haggard look on every face, the circles under the eyes, the weight everyone lost. We were the living among the dead and the dying, never knowing when we would be called to join their ranks, and so we took on the look of the dead. … The death machines worked; hardly anything else did. I remember raw, wordless fear, actual terror, gnawing at the bravest people, weakening them. And watching the children: my young son taking my hand and placing it over his pounding heart to show me; his thirteen-year-old brother sitting very still, very quietly, but very close to me, whispering on August 4, “Mummy, we're going to die today; for sure, we're going to die.”
A few days later, she once again put her parenting self first, and, shortly before the mid-August ceasefire finally took effect, she took the boys out of the city.
By the time Slavenka started writing the essays in this collection, in April 1991, her daughter, Rujana, was, by contrast to Jean's boys, just about grown up. In summer 1991, Rujana left Zagreb to go visit Slavenka's ex-husband in Canada, and she only reappeared in Zagreb the following spring. Slavenka thanks God that she has no sons. “To have a son in wartime is the worst curse that can befall a mother,” she wrote to her daughter in April 1992. (This was before most of us learned what some Serbian fighters were doing to Bosnian daughters in their “cleansing” campaign.)
Because she is a mother and a gifted writer, Slavenka has a sympathetic imagination that enables her to imagine that any of the young men waging this war might have been her son. Here is more of her reaction to nineteen-year-old Ivan, the survivor from Vukovar:
He could be my son, he is four years younger than my daughter, I thought, again disturbed by his youth, and looked down at my hands, at the floor. …
While I watch him light his cigarette with a resolute gesture, slightly frowning as if trying to look older, I again feel horror pierce me like a cold blade: really, what if this were my own son? What would I tell him—not today at this table when the war is almost behind us, but in the early summer of 1991 in Vukovar? What would I have done, if one day he came to me and simply said, “Mama, I'm going”? Of course, I wouldn't ask where he was going, that would have been clear by then, it could mean only one thing, going to fight in the war. I wouldn't even be surprised, perhaps I would have expected it. … But I would nevertheless tell him not to go, because this is not his war. … Forget it, I'd say, no idea is worth fighting for. But it's not an idea that this is all about, he'd say, I don't give a damn about ideas, about the state, about independence or democracy. They're killing my friends, they're killing them like dogs in the street and then dogs eat them because we can't get to them to bury them. …
The dialogue that follows is a quietly explosive master text of moral philosophy. But if we were discussing this issue of “what is war”—for mothers, for anybody—at our tea party, I would hope that the guests had already read, as well, the next essay in Slavenka's collection, “What Ivan Said.” Ivan, asked to help load a pile of corpses onto a truck: “I couldn't do it, I just stood by. As soon as I got there, I began to vomit. People, dead people, rotting, decaying, flies coming out of their mouths. …” Ivan, watching his friends beat a local Serb to death. Ivan, killing a man for the first time, close up. Ivan, deciding with his friend not to kill two advancing Serbian soldiers because they were conscripts, not volunteers:
One of them almost shot my brother, then my brother returned fire and shot him. The other one threw himself on the ground. … When he gave himself up, we saw he was really just a kid. … We felt sorry for him, he was born in 1972, like me.
This is powerful stuff, as journalism and also in the context of the greater human story. I believe that Slavenka's ability, as a mother and as a writer, to reach out to Ivan in the full dimension of his humanity was an essential ingredient in her success in getting this story. When I was in Beirut, I interviewed several young fighters from different sides of the war. But I was still fairly young, myself. I was speaking to them more from a sense of horror at what it was that they felt they had to do, than from the sense that Slavenka conveys so strongly: of the terrible sadness a mother might feel, on learning that they have done these things.
Another part of these women's testimony speaks to the power of domestic and personal orderliness to restore a larger sense of orderliness to a life turned inside out by crisis and war. I have felt some of this in my own life: there were years of internal and external chaos when my most powerful personal mantra was “When in doubt, fold clothes.” So perhaps, when we need a change of mood at the tea party, we can trade some stories along this general theme.
We need not ask Jean to repeat the story of the tea party amidst chaos that was the exemplar for our own gathering. But as I ask my children to fetch the guests' cups for a refill, we could ask her to recall the day when, in the middle of the Israeli siege, she found her friend S emerging “triumphantly” from the working salon of a resourceful hairdresser. Or she might recall the numerous occasions she refers to in her book when, following yet another hideous series of events, she takes special pains over her appearance. Like this time, in April 1989, after she had spent several nights in the parking-garage-shelter with no electricity:
I woke up at 7:30. It was quiet outside. I showered and dressed, choosing my clothes carefully. I chose a dark blue skirt and a sweater and a white blouse, polished my black shoes, and fixed my hair. In patching up my appearance, in choosing particularly neat and orderly clothes, I felt I was undoing the humiliation of my ratlike state last night.
Slavenka's friend Drazena would probably appreciate that account. Drazena came to Slavenka's house after fleeing from the siege in Sarajevo. Slavenka's daughter, Rujana, insisted that, among the other things they were giving Drazena, it was a good idea to give her a pair of black patent leather high-heeled shoes. At first, Slavenka thought that a daft idea; Drazena would need “sensible” footwear to trek around looking for an apartment and a job. But Rujana stood her ground, and persuaded her mother that having the emotional lift of elegant shoes might be precisely what Drazena needed.
Slavenka recounts this discussion with her usual, most engaging candor. She then develops her theme by musing how easy it is to start judging people by the categories into which they fall (“refugee”) rather than by who they are as persons:
What I am starting to do is to reduce a real, physical individual to an abstract “they”—that is, to a common denominator of refugees, owners of the yellow certificate. From there to second-class citizen—or rather, non-citizen—who owns nothing and has no rights, is only a thin blue line. I can also see how easy it is to slip into this prejudice as into a familiar pair of warm slippers, ready and waiting for me at home. …
Now I think I understand what I couldn't understand before: how it happened that people who lived near German concentration camps didn't do anything, didn't help.
High-heeled shoes, warm slippers: once again, domestic images, and the contrasts between them, are skillfully invoked to convey truths of existential human import.
Slavenka might tell us, too, about the Laura Ashley wallpaper that she had bought at the beginning of July 1991, when the Yugoslav Federal Army dropped the first bombs on Slovenia:
I had been wanting to redecorate my bedroom for ages, but went to buy the paper only after I heard the news about the attack. … I was aware that I was doing it in spite of the war, perhaps as a symbolic gesture of faith in a future when putting up new wallpaper would make sense.
And Jean might counter by explaining, as she did two or three times throughout her book, how important it was to her after times of particular stress to work out her frustrations in house-cleaning. House-cleaning, that is, as the persistent, quiet, and hopeful response to all the militiamen's attempts to sow the chaos and disruption of their form of “cleansing.”
Then Jean might recall the first time her apartment received a direct hit from heavy artillery. The whole family had been waiting out the attack in the underground garage of their building. After it subsided, she went up to check the apartment:
Front door doesn't open. Wrong keys? After a little struggle, lock gives way. I have an impression of total whiteness. Strange, I think to myself, when did Samir have time to cover everything with white sheets? Funny: I don't own enough white sheets to cover everything. …
Realization dawns. Those are not white sheets, but dust. The place is a shambles. Everything is white and broken. Real fear now. This is death. Not something to be read about in the newspapers, but something that has come into my house, that has violated my life, my territory, my being. …
But Jean resolved that she would stay in Beirut. That was March 1976. She stayed through another eight months of intense internal fighting that year; then through five years of continued sporadic fighting, some of it very violent. (I left Beirut with my children in early 1981.) She stayed through most of the Israeli siege of 1982, then through the chaotic years of internal warfare that followed. In the last dated entry in her book, in February 1990, she recorded that her apartment had received another direct hit.
I believe that Jean is still in Beirut. In spring 1990, she wrote:
Time has been wasted; years have passed; loneliness and emptiness have encroached. I have had my youth ushered into middle age by war. My children's—all the children's—childhood was lived in its shadow. My youngest son was four when the war began; now he is in university.
Women's lives can be described as having their own rhythms, with each initiation into a new stage being marked by its own rituals and meaning. First menstruation, first romantic love, marriage, first intercourse, first childbirth; the nursing and raising of children, and sending them off into the world; developments in the world of friends, the maturing of a marriage, the passing of older generations. The rhythm of these events (which may not always happen in the same order) has in our time been overlaid with other acts of transition: graduations from various stages of education; first full-time job, then promotions or other changes in our careers; moves from one community to another; perhaps a divorce. As for war, in the past it was often present in women's lives, against the background of the traditional transitions. But generally, in the past, women's experience of war was vicarious, mediated through either their male family members or its general impact on their communities.
In this century, women and children in settled civilian communities have become the direct targets of war, however far they might be from a battlefront: from the first tentative forays into aerial bombardment of cities in the First World War, to the development of a whole doctrine, “counter-value targeting,” that held massed civilian populations to be a plausible target in the “massive retaliation” of nuclear deterrence. What has happened, is happening, to women and families in Beirut, Croatia, and Bosnia, is just a simple extension of this thinking.
So perhaps we can start to look at women's lives in new ways, constructing the dimensions of our experience not just on the basis of how many children we have, or the stage we've reached on the job ladder, but also by examining our lives through the lens of war. In this context, Jean has to emerge the veteran. Not just in surviving the eighteen years of Beirut's war, but in the intensity of some of those experiences, and the thoughtful, articulate way in which her writing tries to make sense of them, mark this woman as one who can give wisdom to us all.
Those who are outside looking in see only the war. For us, there are people, friends, life, activity, production, commitments, a profound intensity of meaning. …
Most important of all, there has been a sense of community so powerful as to compensate for the difficulties of life. I have felt, over the years, in spite of the depression, the fear, and the doubts, a sense of privilege at having shared this impossible fragment of history with so many good people. We have looked evil in the face; we have spoken to wicked men; we have asked ourselves the questions that most people are spared; and we have understood that the lines between goodness and evil are sometimes broad and clear, sometimes thin and invisible. We have done these things together.
We have understood our own and each other's limitations in a way that has made us all more tolerant of humanity. There are, for instance, no more illusions left in any of us about bravery and stoicism, about who can stand how much and for how long. We have seen each other crack under the pressure of events, each one in his own way, each one at his own time and for his own reason; we have seen each other lose dignity, seen each other shake in humiliating fear. We used to laugh at these weaknesses but no longer do so. We have seen ourselves and each other under a microscope for years, naked blobs of humanity on glass slides scrutinized through the merciless lens of history, and nothing any of us does surprises the rest anymore. We understand and accept our own and our friends' limitations.
Some of the profoundest insights that Jean draws from her experience of war are related to her gathering renunciation of violence:
Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. Familiarity with violence breeds contempt—for what? People? Life? Nature? Goodness? Beauty? Prayer? God himself? For me, familiarity with violence has bred contempt for violence, and only for that, for I have seen what it has accomplished and it is nothing to be proud of. …
In the name of causes come the scream of children, the wails of mothers, the smoke of a burned land. In the name of humanity comes the merciless inhumanity of air raids, tanks, machine guns, and throats slit from ear to ear gushing blood.
And in the midst of this orgy of violence, this dance of death, this saturnalia of killing, what is there to do but refuse it? Put it down, this refusal, if you will, to sentimental bourgeois finickiness, and dismiss it with contempt. I have no answer, except to say that I have seen what I have seen.
Slavenka shares Jean's passion for nonviolence. In July 1991, she wrote a moving essay about the World War II pistol that her father had kept hidden away in a closet at home and showed to his two children only once, hiding from them, along with the pistol, memories of the terror of war that continued to prey on his mind. Then, moving to her present situation, the writer adds:
While I shop for dog food in a store selling hunting equipment, where they also sell guns, an old man comes in offering to sell a lady's pistol for 1000 DM. He puts it down on the counter, small and shiny like a silver toy. All of a sudden, I felt a strong urge to possess it, to buy it, to have it—me, too. Why not, I think, I am alone, defenseless and desperately frightened. My desire lasts only a second, but I realize that in that moment the jaws of war have finally closed around my fragile life. … Like my father's, my life is now breaking in two.
And even Jean, while pronouncing a nonviolent manifesto, does so with huge empathy for those who are not able to. In the passage about her attitude towards those who defended Beirut in 1982, she expressed clear support for people using forceful means to defend their home-town. And she even seriously questioned whether, under each and every circumstance like those she has seen, she would abstain from acts of personal cruelty:
What do all these acts of unimaginable cruelty mean? … I want to know whether I can escape the apparently inescapable conclusion that it is in the nature of the beast, that any of us could do it, that I could do it. Could I, if pushed far enough, yet do it?
I have not seen my baby's body mangled in the dust or my fiancee's raped body lying bloody in the street, legs wide apart and eyes blank. I have not seen my father dishonored in death or my mother's nakedness exposed to the world. I have not seen my beautiful, strong, young husband reduced to unidentifiable bits of flesh. … And since I haven't, I no longer dare say that I would not do such cruel things as have been done.
Besides, is there a difference between killing people by pressing a button as you soar through the sky and killing people while you see terror on their faces?
Slavenka might reply to this question that yes, from the point of view of the killer, there is a difference: in her interview with Ivan, he spells out how much harder it is to kill someone when you can see his face. But both women would probably agree that, from the point of view of the victims and their survivors, there probably isn't any difference at all.
The atmosphere at our tea party has become quite serious. We are talking, after all, about questions at the core of human existence and purpose. Jean might bring some of her points home, for the Americans present, by expanding her reflection on what she describes as the “generalized rage” of the young men with guns. Perhaps, she writes, they wield them, “to vent a bottomless anger with a world that has done them no good and, when they shoot, aim at their own dissatisfaction as much as at any more precise target.”
In her introductory essay, this thoughtful, experienced survivor of the war zone warns:
Outsiders look at Beirut from a wary distance, as though it had nothing to do with them; as though, through a protective glass partition, they were watching with immunity a patient thrash about in mortal agony, suffering a ghastly virus contracted in forbidden and faraway places. They speak of Beirut as if it were an aberration of the human experience: It is not. Beirut was a city like any other and its people were a people like any other. What happened here could, I think, happen anywhere.
So these women—whose depth of experience of war and breadth of sympathetic imagination have allowed them to conclude that there are circumstances under which anyone, even you or I, dear reader, might submit to the brand of a confining, imposed identity, and that there are circumstances under which anyone, even you or I, might commit atrocities—are also telling us that there are circumstances under which any societies, even yours and mine, might fall apart. That's a serious thought to ponder. Not just in Croatia, Mogadishu, or Tadjikstan. But here in Washington D.C., too.
Come to think of it, never mind Bill Clinton. We could just have Hillary at the tea party. And have a far-reaching discussion between women about society, evil, social breakdown—and the wars, and threats of wars, in all of our cities.
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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” and “A Bitter Capuccino”). Drakulić is a well-known Croatian journalist who, in addition to publishing articles in Danas, the major independent Croatian political journal, has been a regular contributor to The New Republic, New Statesman and Society, The Nation and Time. Her earlier book of essays, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, ends just before war broke out in Croatia. Sterben in Kroatien is about life in Croatia in the middle of war.
Drakulić is not an ordinary Croat; she comes from the communist establishment. Her father, an army officer, fought with the partisans and she was raised in a household which was Croatian in form; both parents were Croats but Yugoslav and communist in orientation. Slavenka Drakulić's former husband was a Serb. In the first essay, “Ein Brief an meine Tochter,” she explains that at the time they married such things were not important. Their daughter is half Croatian and half Serbian at a time when the two nations are at war. In the last decade of communist Yugoslavia, Slavenka Drakulić became an outspoken anti-communist, a leading feminist writer and an internationally known journalist. She was in London when war broke out in Slovenia. Her daughter fled abroad as war reached Croatia and Drakulić herself spent a short time then in Slovenia as a “refugee.” With the coming of war, the world Drakulić knew, imperfect as it may have been, was shattered and the new was alien to her. Perhaps that is why hers is a voice more appreciated abroad than in her own country: she stands at an emotional distance from independent Croatia.
Drakulić observes the war in Croatia as one would a natural disaster. She is haunted by the images of families killed while going about daily chores, boys forced to take up arms, friendships broken. She writes many of the essays from abroad, well aware that few there understand the intricacies of the Croatian war and that the repeated horrors of war become “boring” to outsiders. She laments that the illusion of freedom within communist Yugoslavia, seen in the ability to shop abroad and to travel freely, blinded people to the need to organize politically for post-communism. Although there is one standard war report and an interview with a boy who fought at Vukovar in the Croatian National Guards, Drakulić is at her best when she writes of what one might call the “underside” of the war. She describes her mother's worry that “they” will despoil her husband's grave because it has a red star, her own momentary irritation that a colleague from Sarajevo, who is now a refugee, wears high-heeled shoes, and that a young ambitious journalist who had been apartment “sitting” for a couple who were living and working in Belgrade tried to steal the apartment. Drakulić is consistently negative about the present Croatian government and in one essay describes Croatian President Franjo Tudjman calmly ignoring a demonstration of refugees from Vukovar as he sits in his favorite Zagreb cafe.
There is nostalgia in this book for a Yugoslavia which was large and prosperous, where nationality did not matter, where children chanted praises to “brotherhood and unity” and where there was peace.
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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 being treated like a sheep by the communist rulers. As the daughter of one of Tito's partisan generals in a country reaping the benefits of the 1948 break with Stalin, she used her frequent travels to the West to train her keen journalistic eye on the contrasting experiences of women on both sides of a disintegrating Iron Curtain. Part of a cynical and apolitical post-war generation, she did not believe in Marxism but was ideological in her espousal of militant feminism to the point of denying her small daughter the coveted Barbie doll.
Ten years on, her new batch of short essays focuses on life in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. No longer a struggling single mother, but happily married to a gentle Swedish journalist, with a well-stocked home in Sweden and a summer house in Croatia, the author finds that the gulf between the two halves of Europe persists. Despite growing privatisation, a free market and the lifting of censorship, she sees a lasting legacy of communism in the inability of East Europeans to grow up and practise democracy—‘they do not know how to be free and are not ready for responsibility’. Instead, they are willingly mobilised behind their rediscovered and often rewritten past, clinging to nationalist ideals and myths which lead to the old mistakes, back to Balkanisation rather than to the Westernisation they aspire to. Real democracy still eludes them.
While there is little to quarrel with in the author's general observations, the charm of her writing, now as before, is to be found in the arresting details, and revealing paradoxes gleaned as she ranges over the spectrum of post-1990 change from Albania to Czechoslovakia. Revolution is seen in small everyday things: sounds, looks, smells, images. Would anyone else have spotted that in Budapest, as in no Western capital, you can buy sweets in a shop called Bonbonnière Hemingway? In Zagreb a beautiful cinema, once named ‘the Balkan’, has been rechristened ‘the Europa’, encapsulating what people want to be, not what they are. In Sofia, where a smile is at a premium, the Café Wien's meticulous recreation of an elegant Viennese ambience produces ‘a Brechtian alienation effect’, as do the depleted ‘supermarkets’ and the humble Café Hollywood in Bucharest.
Drakulic's habit of looking at the state of personal hygiene and public lavatories as a litmus test of the surviving heritage of Communism and the faltering advance of democracy leads to a comic act of symbolic resistance followed by serious reflection. Having relieved herself in the gleaming bowl of the pink and gold kitsch bathroom in the sumptuous villa of Ceausescu's daughter,
I understood that a civilised democratic society has a very slim chance of taking root in countries where a normal clean bathroom with running hot water, toilet paper and soap was a luxury reserved for dictators.
True, as far as it goes.
Not being political, Drakulic puts her faith for the future in responsible individualism. But in confessing that she has remained an incorrigible hoarder of cheap consumer goods and that she expresses her opposition to the appalling shortages and soaring prices under post-communist dispensations by becoming ‘a “professional” East European smuggler’ of foreign goods, she gets entangled in contradictions which her life in the West has not resolved.
Nevertheless, her critique is well worth listening to, especially with regard to her native Croatia. Her merciless lampooning of General Franco Tudjman is just, and her refusal to be swept away by the prevailing nationalist tide is worthy of respect. However, her condemnation of the crimes of the fascist wartime leader Ante Pavelic and the horrors of the extermination camp at Jasenovac (‘our own, local, home-made little Auschwitz’) would have carried even more weight if paralleled by a more acute political indictment of communism.
In asking rather diffidently whether Eastern Europe, too, has something to contribute to the West it longs to join, Drakulic mentions the model of the moral politician represented by Vaclav Havel. This seems to me to hit the nail on the head: for the most heartening thing about communism's collapse was its ultimate failure to win by way of fear and opportunism. In the end, the dissident voices of courageous men and women of principle could not be silenced.
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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 and, more important, reliable guide to a land—terra incognita, for many—about to lay claim to the world's attention.
True, the Communist system had fallen apart, but the habits of thinking inculcated in its citizenry persisted, often in the guise of virulent nationalism. When fighting broke out in Yugoslavia, first in Slovenia, then in Croatia and then, most tragically, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Drakulic chronicled “the other, less visible side of war”—the ways in which war changes one's values, perceptions and thinking.
In The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of the War, she described, in poignant terms, how the war stripped Yugoslavs of their individuality and plunged the land into ever-accelerating cycles of destruction and despair.
In her latest collection of personal essays, Café Europa: Life after Communism, Drakulic uses a wider lens to focus on the general plight of Eastern Europeans seven years after the revolution. The Croatian writer, newly married to a Swedish journalist, now divides her time between Zagreb and Vienna, and what she discovers shuttling between her homes, as well as in travels to Bucharest, Budapest, London, Prague, Sofia, Stockholm, Tel Aviv and Tirana, is that she can neither escape her past nor pretend that Eastern Europeans are anything other than second-class citizens. Writing in English, in a supple and felicitous manner. Drakulic suggests how very far she and her countrymen have yet to go to create a civil society. “Even I, in my own head, have not made the definite step from ‘them’ to ‘me,’ from communism to democracy,” she admits.
Civil society, she realizes, will not begin of its own accord. “Individual responsibility, including the responsibility for oneself, is an entirely new concept here,” she writes, yet it is crucial to the development of democracy. She illustrates the continuing failure to recognize the connection between individual behavior and democratic ideals in a variety of ways, none more humorously than in her essay on bad teeth: “As absurd as it may sound, in the old days one could blame the Communist Party even for one's bad teeth. Now there is no one to blame, but it takes time to understand that.”
Drakulic tells her “short half-stories, half-essays,” as she describes her style of reportage, through revelatory details—a hotel clerk's refusal to smile, the number of new businesses with Western names, the amount of mud in the city streets.
In Tirana, for example, once her eye becomes accustomed to the concrete bunkers lining the road—some of the more than 600,000 “pillboxes” built to protect Albanians from a Western invasion—she notices the mangled remains of greenhouses the Albanians wrecked during their revolution. It turns out that they destroyed everything associated with the Communist state—factories, schools, hospitals and monuments to their hated dictator, Enver Hohxa. Drakulic explains their anger as a function of the bunkers, whose “only purpose was to create and perpetuate fear. If you live surrounded by them, when freedom finally comes, that fear turns into hatred and aggression. You could even call it the ‘pillbox effect.’”
Café Europa is full of such insight; and if there is a limitation to Drakulic's method it resides in her occasional refusal to ask the larger questions these insights demand—questions she never ducks when it comes to references to her homeland. For example, though she sympathizes with the Albanians' desire to erase even the material aspects of their past, she is not so forgiving of her countrymen's propensity to rewrite history. To her horror, Croatia's “independent” fascist past is now cause for celebration: Street names are changed to honor members of the Ustasha, the Nazi puppets who committed vicious atrocities during World War II, their crimes against humanity played down or denied. And the Croatian people, she asserts, are engaged in a conspiracy of silence about the ways in which their government “is more or less discreetly establishing a direct link with the 1941-45 period, thus rehabilitating fascism.” This is why Drakulic admires the Germans: They at least had the strength not to erase their Nazi past.
The most moving essay here, “My Father's Guilt,” is indeed a meditation on memory. On a visit to her father's grave, the writer notices that her mother has taken to covering up the star carved into his tombstone, signifying his membership in the Communist Party. He was by turns an opponent of fascism, a partisan and a high-ranking officer in the Yugoslav National Army—marks against him in Croatia today. But the writer believes that it is no better to forget Croatia's communist history than it is to resurrect and celebrate its Ustasha past: “It is all part of our identity and our growing up as individuals, as citizens, as a nation. It is essential if we decide that we don't want to repeat the same mistakes that brought us where we are now—to the war.”
The war, in fact, is the most visible sign of the divisions the writer discerns between Eastern Europeans and Western Europeans. That she can find in every European capital “a hotel, a cinema, a bar, a restaurant, a cafe or a simple hole in the wall, named, for our desire, Europa” does not mean that Western Europeans have accepted their neighbors. Drakulic vividly portrays the distances between them during a meal with a family of Bosnian refugees in Stockholm. The refugees do not belong to Swedish society and all that remains of their former lives is the food they share with her.
How can it be, she wonders, that after 50 years of peace another genocidal war broke out in Europe? And why did Europeans watch the war, paralyzed? “Should we not, must we not ask, then, what is Europe after Bosnia?” America, too, for that matter. Café Europa is literary journalism of the highest order.
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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 obsessive love.
José and Tereza are strangers in the city. He is a Brazilian anthropologist with an interest in cannibalism, who has a wife and child in Sao Paulo. She is a Polish literature student and, nominally, a poet. They have nothing in common except, paradoxically, their differences: at first, “the fact that we were not each speaking our own language made it easier, rather than more difficult, to strike up a conversation.”
As in the story of Sylvia Plath's first physical encounter with Ted Hughes, she bites him, drawing blood. Three days later he moves into her apartment. Soon, however, “José and I could barely rely on any language other than that of the body, precisely because we lacked a common language.” Their relationship is forced on to an exclusively physical plane. And, ultimately, it proves fatal.
Single-mindedness and clarity of purpose are all-important when choosing to kill the one you love. Tereza's account explores the intricate memory-triggers and thought processes leading to her final decision. It is in these that the real tension of the story lies.
In spite of its willingness to describe the unimaginable, there are few surprises in this novel.
In the controlled, dispassionate voice of a true obsessive intent on rationalising her behaviour, Tereza, narrator and chief protagonist, introduces the story with a chapter devoted almost entirely to house-cleaning.
This leaves little room for doubt in the reader's mind that a truly terrible crime has recently taken place in her now-spotless New York apartment. Still, one can't help staying with it out of a sense of grisly expectation and in this Drakulic does not disappoint.
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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 massacres in Vukovar, the author sat, impassive, in a bath in a Parisian hotel, recollecting brutal photographs of the atrocity, and watching impassively as blood seeped out of a cut in her finger. Squeezing the cut, watching the blood ooze, she wrote:
This body was no longer mine. It had been taken over by something else, taken over by the war. I had thought that the death of the body was the worst thing that could happen in war; I didn't know that worse was the separation of self from the body, the numbness of the inner being, extinction before death, pain before pain.
Now, in the novel The Taste of a Man, her third, Drakulic again explores the terrifying possession that comes when a person is consumed by a larger, inexorable force; this time, love. Again we see a woman in a tiled bathroom at Christmastime, watching blood pinken the water as she struggles to remember who she is. Again we read language, almost in the same words, of the annihilation of self, the usurpation of the body by the other. But this time the blood the woman sees belongs not to herself, but to the man she has murdered—a man she loved, and the man in whom she had invested her identity so wholly that rather than lose him she chose to kill him, cut him up and, in short, eat bits of him, in order to rebuild herself via the grim communion. Drakulic's narrator, Tereza, reflects:
On the surface, that is what I did. I took his life, I killed him. … But that is not at all what this is about: it is about the possibility of prolonging life, about a way of allowing us to stay together. Jose's death was merely a necessary detail, an unavoidable step towards achieving union; a means, not an end.
In other words, to paraphrase My Lai, she had to destroy the union in order to save it. Usually, one would hate to give so much away in a review; but here, Drakulic's relentless foreshadowing, which peekaboos from the dedication page all the way to the bloody end, guarantees that anyone who reads the first five pages cannot possibly doubt the nature of the unappetizing feast that awaits them. At any rate, the point of the book, one guesses, is not so much the story as its telling, and love has precious little to do with it.
There are those who will want to see The Taste of a Man as a straightforward story of obsessive love; and indeed, the book does inhabit the male-female-wife love triangle that has been so convenient to romantic tragedy and comedy immemorially. If you choose to read the book this way, and if you have a fondness for “Fatal Attraction”-type sexual jealousy stories, a thoroughgoing indifference to the psyche of the male character in such a triangle, and a hearty taste for hacksaws, you can be satisfied with the novel on those points alone. Tereza, a Polish graduate student at New York University, falls headlong in love with Jose, a married Brazilian visiting professor, who is at work on a book about cannibalism. A smorgasbord of ghoulish teasers pop out from every corner: The book opens with Tereza fanatically scouring blood out of the floorboards; the couple meets when Tereza, by a “chance happening,” lunges for Jose's copy of Divine Hunger, a book about his pet subject, “the geographic distribution of exo-cannibalism and endo-cannibalism. At the time,” Teresa declares (can we be blamed if we doubt her?), “nothing in the world could have interested me less than a study of cannibalism.” But funnily enough, the subject keeps recurring, at dinner parties, at art exhibitions and wherever else the two of them wander. “At their first tryst they lunch off each other's shoulder blades, Tereza mistaking Jose for a “roast joint” a la Sylvester eyeing Tweetybird, and for small talk, they discuss the manner in which the subjects of the film “Alive!” snacked off slivers of their doomed co-passengers' bodies in order to survive. They love, he dies, she has interior monologue.
Much as Fassbinder's remarkable film The Marriage of Maria Braun served as an allegory of the whorish compromises post-War Germany had to make to ensure its survival, Drakulic's novel serves, one guesses, as an allegory for semi-Post-War Yugoslavia (sic), which continues to devour what it loves—its own people—under the unhealthy illusion that by doing so, it can be restored. As Jose explains to Tereza, describing the consoling grace that allowed the survivors of the “Alive!” crash in the Andes to violate the human flesh taboo. “Up there in those heights there were no obstacles between them and God. The moment they believed that God wanted them to stay alive by eating the corpses of their friends, it all became so simple.” In The Taste of a Man, Drakulic has written a grotesque; a cannibalistic fable that makes love war, and takes no prisoners.
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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 holding up a tampon as a symbol of why communism was destined to fail—its inability to provide citizens with the basic requisites of modern existence. She also lamented the intractability of communism in Eastern Europe, even after its formal demise, as a “state of mind.” Another book of short essays appeared the following year. The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War (New York, 1993) was perhaps the most accessible journalist's take on the various human sides to the Yugoslav wars. She interviewed Bosnian refugees and Croatian soldiers. Anyone who followed the war closely will recall the incident in “Love Story,” when a young Sarajevan couple (the Bosnian Serb Boško and Bosnian Moslem Admira) were gunned down while trying to flee besieged Sarajevo for Belgrade, even though their safe passage had been agreed to by both sides. In Café Europa Drakulić revisits some of the issues concerning newly independent countries in Eastern Europe that she discussed in the previous books and comments as well on the realities of (let us hope) post-war ex-Yugoslavia.
It is an unfortunate irony that the two women writers who have been most successful in conveying to Western (especially American) readers the commonplace tragedies of the Yugoslav debacle and the perspectives of the victims of the conflicts—Drakulić and the writer and Slavist Dubravka Ugrešić—suffered recriminations and, to varying degrees, persecution in their native Croatia for their “cosmopolitanism,” that is, their rejection of virulent nationalism. Ugrešić published a book of essays on the war from her vantage point in the United States (she lost her teaching position at the University of Zagreb), Have a Nice Day (New York, 1994), followed by the award-winning lament for her homeland Kultura laži (antipolitički eseji) (Culture of Lies [Antipolitical Essays], Zagreb, 1996), which will be published in English this year. Ugrešić's name appears in a review of Drakulić's book for several reasons. These women, coevals and former residents of Zagreb, by virtue of their celebrity and eventual notoriety, appear to have become indistinguishable in the public consciousness. This is understandable when one considers the uncanny way in which they at times appear to be in sync, or in dialogue. They have both discussed in their works their mothers' vacillation over whether to remove the red star from their husbands' (and the writers' fathers') graves, because service in the Partisans or the Yugoslav Army became a source of suspicion or shame after Croatia's succession from Yugoslavia. And they have likewise both analyzed the West from the perspective of Eastern Europe: the reduction of individuals to a monolithic mass of “Eastern Europeans” that begins with their first meeting with a Western border guard, the culture of Western advertising, and the perky phatic language that is required in a service economy—our “Have a nice day!” Yet there are significant differences. Drakulić's prose conveys a sense of immediacy and the presence of the writer as an eye-witness and participant. This contrasts to Ugrešić's pensiveness and her philosophical and literary recontextualization of events.
In Café Europa, Drakulić is most engaging when she takes us where few people are allowed to go, whether literally or figuratively. Her piece on Albania, “The Pillbox Effect,” may be edifying even for Slavists, for whom many of the other revelations of this book come as no surprise. The author describes her first reaction when landing in Tirana to the hundreds of defensive “pillboxes” around the airport, which only confirms the image of Albania as a virtual prison. Drakulić reminds us of the rampant destruction that ordinary citizens inflicted on their own country's infrastructure after the revolution. The author attributes this mayhem to the public's attack on all that they equated with the government—and that would have been everything. However, her suggestion that this destruction occurred because Western television advertising promised Albanians a whole new world once they were out from under Hoxha's rule seems less plausible.
Drakulić reveals much of herself personally; at times she is confessional. In “To Have or Have Not,” she questions her habit of carrying loads of goods back to friends and relatives in Croatia, even now when almost everything is available there, if expensive. She recalls the original reasons for this practice—there was less to buy in Yugoslavia, and it was the duty of the person traveling “abroad” to compensate the less fortunate at home. Yet now she is irritated that attitudes have not changed. The person living abroad is not necessarily more fortunate, but those in Croatia still feel more needy and entitled.
Drakulić's generalizations on the current status of “Westernization” in Eastern Europe will not be news to specialists, but she travels widely and offers glimpses of the process in various locales. In Prague, there is still no sense of the connection between work and pay. Capitalism means only the former scheming to get money, but now without rules. In Sofia, hotel receptionists still equate service with servitude and treat hotel guests with contempt—they are determined to preserve their pride despite their position. Several pieces deal with Croatia's rush to resurrect, rather than atone for, its Fascist past. The title essay “Café Europa” treats the ambivalent attitude of Eastern Europeans toward the West. Capital cities all have their version of a European café, but their vision of the Europe that denies them their geographical membership in the continent is just that—an ideal that cannot be realized or even approached without drastic cultural changes.
Presumably Drakulić wrote Café Europa in English. It is pleasantly idiomatic, yet still in serious need of an editor. The English is too often ungrammatical, and occasionally confusing (in the last sentence on page 84, surely both clauses should not be negative—Croatia was able to erase its Fascist past), or nonsensical (“the uniform of an army officer … complete with a sable” ). More disturbing is the rare occasion when the author seems to write carelessly. In the touching essay with which the book concludes, “Bosnia, or What Europe Means to Us,” Drakulić recounts a visit to a Bosnian refugee family in Stockholm. She muses over the differences between them and herself—superficial matters like names and ways of preparing food—and the more important similarities—45 years of shard history, their Slavic race, not to mention their basic humanity. She regrets the Western European nations' neglect of their formerly shared homeland, which they justified “with the very convenient theory of the ‘ancient hatred’ of peoples of the Balkans” (211). Yet on the very next page, when discussing the myth of “Europe” that Eastern Europeans devised, Drakulić employs the same orientalist stereotype that she deplores: “Because for us, the people from the Balkans, the biggest fear is to be left alone with each other. We have learned better than others what you do to your own brother” (212). Certainly the author was referring to the latest atrocities, “brother” was intended metaphorically, and this reviewer is hyper-sensitive. Yet we must be that careful.
Café Europa is a now humorous, now poignant glance at the growing pains of Eastern Europe. Drakulić entertains and informs. Her book is welcomed by those who are invested in any way in the fates of these nations and who strive to remind the world of their continuing existence.
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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 move in together, and intensely enjoy each other before their life schedules take them back to the places they came from and to the people they left behind. Jose is a married man; his wife calls at some point to let him know she is pregnant, and Jose flies away for a week to see her. Alone in New York, Teresa realizes that she has become so devoted to Jose that she just cannot bear losing him. She gradually grows obsessed with the idea of possessing him fully, and comes to think that the only way to keep him is to kill him. She plans his death, then carries out the plan, then eats bits of Jose's flesh, and spends several days in dismembering his decomposing body and getting rid of the body parts. Then she takes an airplane and leaves for Warsaw.
This straightforward story is told in a way that makes it look rather complex—mostly in flashbacks in which Teresa, busy cleaning blood stains, recounts the relationship and reveals an elaborate world of past and present relationships and interactions. The preoccupation with disease and death in their bodily aspect is characteristic for Drakulic's fiction (this is her third novel, following Holograms of Fear and Marble Skin). Cannibalism is only one of the many dimensions that consumption in general takes in The Taste of a Man—another one is eating (there are numerous references to traditional Brazilian and Polish dishes, detailed descriptions of cooking and eating at restaurants), and a third one consists of references to the body of Christ, quite relevant considering that the protagonists are Catholic. It seems that the plan to consume the body of the lover is at least partially induced by the nature of Jose's own macabre studies. Throughout the book there are scattered references to well-known incidents of cannibalism, and the text itself triggers parallels to works like the Brazilian film How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman, or Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and his more recent Pillow Book, where the consumption of the body of the beloved one is represented as a superior level in a love relationship.
Drakulic is conscious of the expanding universe in which races and cultures mix in a global post-modern copulation, a blend that only lately has come to be of interest to Slavic writers. The Taste of a Man is a novel which integrates several dominant trends, characteristic of today's cosmopolitan fiction writing. The first one is the concern with explorations of the body; a second is the preoccupation with the erotic; and a third is the interest in experiences of displacement. One cannot expect, however, that this novel will be trend-setting itself. Challenging the boundaries of sensuality is the main feature of The Taste of a Man, and Drakulic deserves praise for being as daring as she is. Yet, the eroticism is not as intense as one could expect, and occasionally looks like an imitation of Erica Jong. Teresa's obsession remains insufficiently explored, and the detailed gut-wrenching description of ritualistic dismemberment commands the attention of the author more than the psychological motivation of her heroine. Another shortcoming is the lack of a full-blooded male protagonist. Jose is somehow not quite present in the book. Before becoming a decomposing dead body, he was supposed to be an exciting individual, but in fact he remained a stereotypical exotic presence with nothing much impressive besides his Brazilian olive-colored skin. He was never alive enough to make the reader understand what in him incited the passion that led to his killing and consumption.
Born in 1949, Drakulic now enjoys acknowledgment as an international columnist, writing for The New Republic (USA), La Stampa (Italy), Dagens Nyheter (Sweden), Frankfurter Rundschau (Germany), and The Observer (UK). Her collections of essays are much better known than her fiction (How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, Balkan Express, Café Europa). Endorsed by internationally known feminists, she often speaks for all East European women. Her articulate commitment to cross-cultural interpretation and understanding has made her a major voice from the former Yugoslavia. Drakulic has proven to be a courageous and blunt woman, for which she has gained as much admiration as criticism.
From the photograph on the cover of The Taste of a Man, Drakulic looks straight at the reader with an enigmatic smile. Yes, obviously, she enjoys being controversial. Yes, she is an outspoken essayist who is known for her commitment to civil society causes. But she is also a “sexual persona,” preoccupied with recording the experiences of intense eroticism and dynamic cosmopolitanism. This should not eclipse her vocal defense of Bosnian women or blasting of Croatian nationalism, however. While some may question the compatibility of these two lines of literary output, I prefer to see these two aspects of Drakulic as the most intriguing and promising feature in her work. She will most likely continue to provoke and surprise us.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2331
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 leading writers of nonfiction as well as fiction that challenged the status quo in their homeland. As such, both moved in a circle of intellectuals, admired and feared for their subversive potential in a state where media control and antifeminism were the norm.
But as the war in Yugoslavia—the most recent one, not the centuries' worth of others waged on its soil and subsumed in history—erupted nearly ten years ago, both Drakulić and Ugrešić faced new challenges. Both watched in horror as Croatian streets were renamed after Nazi sympathizers from Croatia's World War Two alliance with Germany. Both found themselves on a list of “anti-Croatian” writers put out by the ruling nationalist party of the newly independent state. What their home was, and is, has never been harder to write about—or accept. Since 1993, in fact, Ugrešić has remained in more or less permanent exile.
Given their commonalities, it's not surprising that Drakulić's and Ugrešić's latest novels delineate the unspeakable effects of the recent European war on identity, home and self from the point of view of women who experienced it. Indeed, readers have come to expect their insight into often forbidden subjects, whether surviving communism, nationalism, or hatred of women. But focusing on such commonalities obscures why Drakulić and Ugrešić are avidly read in many countries (even if, sadly, not much in their homeland): they are excellent writers who have added immensely to European literature and thought over the last twenty years. As different in their approaches and styles as ever, they ensure that silence on the former Yugoslavia will never be deserved or lasting.
We first meet S., the protagonist of Drakulić's fourth novel of the same name [S: A Novel about the Balkans], in a Stockholm hospital in 1993. There, she has given birth to a son conceived by rape—specifically, rape by Serbian soldiers in Bosnia at the height of the war in 1992. Gradually, we learn the harrowing details of why she is there and how, as Drakulić unfolds events from the previous year. She is Muslim, daughter of a Muslim father and Serbian mother. She is 29 years old, unmarried, and has a sister who lives with their parents in Sarajevo. She herself is a teacher in a small, mostly Muslim, village in Bosnia. When Serbian soldiers in early summer 1992 force the Muslim villagers to a concentration camp, she is disbelieving: how could this be happening and to her, half Serb, of all people? Given only a few minutes to leave and not even beginning to understand what it means, she takes her two best possessions, a red summer dress and a pair of never-worn Italian shoes. The shoes, notes Drakulić with perfect poignancy, still smell of fine leather.
Thus a nightmare begins. After several villagers are killed outright, the rest are bused to a deserted warehouse complex in the middle of a forest. It is a so-called exchange camp, but clearly the only exchange intended here is with death. Through S.'s eyes, we see the face of human cruelty and suffering: the guards “amenable to bribes,” the necessity of selfishness in a new world where food, medicine and safety are coveted luxuries, the bloodstains on concrete floors that the prisoners themselves must clean. The younger women, including S., stay in a darkened cell called the “women's room.” There, they slowly descend into madness, awaiting the repeated, personalized hatred that has come to signify this war: rape and torture of women.
Drakulić has reduced the names of all the Yugoslav characters down to single letters. She gives place names the same treatment, and the perpetrators of the violence themselves speak in bursts of short, angry words. It's a wonderful conceit: under such circumstances, language, that civilizing force, can no longer function. Like the fancy shoes and dress that S. is forced to use here as her pillow, the contents of civilization have utterly lost their meaning.
Given the graphic nature of what she describes, it is much to Drakulić's credit that she pulls this off with such a engagingly told story. Ironically, in this, probably her best work of fiction yet, her training as a journalist serves her exceptionally well. In March 1993, for instance, she reported in The Nation on Bosnian Muslim women in a refugee camp outside Croatia's capital, Zagreb. Many, she noted, were too ashamed to talk of the rapes and other tortures they had endured. Still, each was able to document in her own way the horrors that she saw, elements of which Drakulić clearly fictionalized here to powerful effect. This is no newspaper account or simple dramatization: you are indeed there.
As in Drakulić's previous novels, the lack of spoken dialogue creates a sense of emotional interiority. Released from the camp to the “freedom” of a refugee camp in Zagreb, for instance, S. finds out that she is pregnant from being raped and cannot obtain an abortion:
Her body lies in the bed like an inanimate object, an empty bellows or shopping bag. Nothing has changed in her departure from the camp. Her body is still in their power, even more so now. Only now does S. understand that a woman's body never really belongs to the woman. It belongs to others—to the man, the children, the family. And in wartime to soldiers. Five months. A distant and remote verdict has condemned her to this condition from which there is no escape, S. feels as if someone has returned her to the camp, to the “women's room.” She has been betrayed. This is war, inside her, in her own womb. And they are winning.
The novel's denouement, in Sweden, is both heartrending and the weakest part of the book. But that apparent contradiction is not entirely Drakulić's fault: after all, what resolution can there possibly be to losing one's identity and family, one's home? S. reflects on the hospital-issued gown her newborn is clothed in, with the Swedish words for “public property” stamped on it. Those words, she sees, are “a symbol of fate. Only just born and already he belongs to somebody else, not to himself.” Sadly, after years of “ethnic cleansing,” intolerant nationalism and European misunderstanding and indifference, this experience promises to be one of the more enduring products of that war.
The war in the former Yugoslavia is also the subject of The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, but this bald statement doesn't do justice to Ugrešić's creation. Written between 1991 and 1996, as Yugoslavia and its citizens were being fragmented into relics, the novel is itself a series of fragments—diary, letters, stories, even a wartime recipe—that together create a moving meditation on the effects of war and exile on identity and what we know as home. This untraditional format is only what we have come to expect from Ugresić's fiction: in her previous novel, Fording the Stream of Consciousness (1993), for instance, she played on names, languages and literature to create a fantastical world based loosely on the banalities of a literary conference.
In this novel, Ugrešić has set the stakes much higher than in anything she has done previously. Her middle-aged narrator may be, as some have speculated, a portrait of the author—Yugoslav herself, born to a Yugoslav father and Bulgarian mother, in exile from her work as a teacher and translator of Russian literature in Zagreb. No matter. Known to us only as Bubi (her mother's endearment), the narrator travels through her experiences as an exile, living in Berlin with other exiles from the former Yugoslavia. But this is no mere skipping down Yugoslavia's memory lane (what cynics call “Yugonostalgia”). Ugrešić uses Bubi's history and that of her mother, along with an extended essay on photography as a basis for memory and future, and quotations from other writers and artists in exile (including Josef Brodsky, Vladimir Nabokov and the fictional characters she creates), as a kind of palimpsest of war. The effect is stunning: Ugresić slowly persuades us that the Yugoslavia-rending war was not the singular event we desperately want to believe it is, but a cataclysm linked to all wars in Europe this century, from the cold war back to the first world war, through which Yugoslavia was carved into being.
The novel briefly takes us into the present of the narrator's Berlin exile, only to delve into her past in the former Yugoslavia. We meet her mother, who left Bulgaria after World War Two and fell in love with a handsome Yugoslav sailor, Bubi's father. Though he dies in the 1970s, we never actually see the father directly. Like so much in their family life, he's viewed only through the photographs that literally burst out from the family closet and that her mother hides from Bubi. This chaos is not a matter of bad housekeeping. After all, in the small, sooty town where Bubi grows up, where after the deprivation of World War Two scraps of cloth served as clothes and soup was made from the only ingredients available, fat and water, identity is yet another possession that may be taken, depending on who's in power. Indeed, the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, and the ousting of its Communist patrons, presents Bubi's mother with a particular challenge:
In 1991 … Mother gathered my father's old medals … into a heap, put them into a plastic bag—as though they were human remains—saying sadly: “I don't know what to do with these … What if someone finds them?” … I believe that it was then that she looked for the first time at [his] moist gravestone and suddenly noticed the five-pointed star (although it had always been there, at her request) and perhaps for the first time she had the thought … that it might be possible to paint out the five-pointed star carved into the stone.
As a sort of crossroads for East and West, Europe and Asia, Berlin is the stage of four of the novel's seven sections. In its streets and cafes, and most particularly the numerous flea markets of that once-divided city, refugees and exiles from all over the former Yugoslavia cross paths. Even more than a source of cash for impoverished immigrants, Berlin's flea markets act as living memory banks:
The Turk sits in the cab of his truck surveying his territory: a scattered heap of old books, records, albums, photographs. … Things last longer than people. Albums outlive their owners. A prolonged life hides in an old coat, in a senseless object which meant something to someone and which will again mean something to someone else. That is how souls migrate. Here refugees from Bosnia meet. They enquire after souls: who is from where, does anyone know what's become of so and so, where is such and such now … They exchange news. They gather according to their towns and villages. Along the way they buy some small thing which will help their little refugee room look like home.
Here, in Gustav-Meyer Allee, on Saturdays and Sundays, the country that is no more, Bosnia, draws its map once again in the air, with its towns, villages, rivers and mountains. The map glimmers briefly and then disappears like a soap bubble.
If a book as purposely decentered as this can be said to have an emotional core, Ugrešić has provided it in a funny and singularly fantastic event. The narrator and her friends, all women and teachers from throughout the former Yugoslavia, get together for one last time to “throw cards”—their euphemism for playing with tarot cards. Of course they don't know it will be the last time, for Yugoslavia has not yet been destroyed. Besides enormous political consequences, the war had mundane ones as well—for instance, eliminating the easy travel between Sarajevo, Belgrade and Zagreb that these friends, happily, normally, took for granted along with their identity as Yugoslavs. During this last session, the women find they have a strange guest in their midst. He's nothing less than a lonesome male angel, who manages to touch their spirits and homes with a bit of humor and happiness that the breakup of their country, and circle, will soon deny.
Not surprisingly, given the fragmentary design of the book, one of the most painful moments occurs offhandedly, in a letter one of her Yugoslav friends writes to Bubi. The friend lists all the places he visited before the war that destroyed not only a political entity but memory and the idea of home. He concludes simply: “Those are all the cold, melancholy, objective images (or more precisely: verbal photographs) from a past life in a former country which it will never again be possible to connect into a whole.”
As we learn late in the book, there was a “real” Museum of Unconditional Surrender, which closed in Berlin in 1994, a small relic of communist East Berlin. As both Ugrešić and Drakulić testify, the museum and its contents will live on in the hearts and minds of those who have indeed lost more than a country. “Remembering is actually an act of love,” says one of Bubi's Berlin friends. In a war with no winners, that may be the most important lesson of all, and we are lucky to have writers like Ugrešić and Drakulić to provide it.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 681
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 Slavenka Drakulić. Drakulić, a Croatian journalist and writer, is familiar to the U.S. reading audience as the author of three novels (Holograms of Fear, The Taste of a Man, and Marble Skin) and several nonfiction works, including How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (1992) and Balkan Express (1993).
It is March 1993 in a Stockholm hospital where S., the novel's unnamed principal character, has just given birth to a baby conceived in a rape camp in Bosnia. The mother feels only revulsion for the child. For nine months she considered it a burden, a tumor growing inside her, and she could not wait to rid herself of it. She welcomes the labor pains. Recalling how Bosnian women in a Zagreb refugee camp killed a baby, S. does not even want to look at her own child.
This beginning prepares the reader for the bland prose of the novel, in which Drakulić, in her own words, abandons the documentary technique in order to “give voice” to rape victims unable to describe their own suffering. Ten months earlier, S. was taken together with thousands of others to a prison camp, where they were subjected to unspeakable acts of terror. While the majority of men were shot, young attractive women were used by soldiers as sex slaves.
S., a twenty-nine-year-old school-teacher in a small village in Bosnia, half-Serb and half-Muslim, is herself taken to one such notorious “women's room.” However, she soon catches the eye of the camp commander, who, unlike her regular abusers, is clean-shaven and sober. She welcomes the change, because she is determined to survive her ordeal and bear witness to it. After six months, scarred but alive, S. is among the first exchange prisoners. Resettled in Sweden, she begins the difficult task of reassembling her life.
Regardless of the author's noble intentions, nothing is more upsetting than a fiction writer with a mission. The plot of As If I Am Not There quickly develops into a flat-footed narrative which chronicles, in black and white, the events of S.'s six-month ordeal. Drakulić does not do a convincing job of depicting either events or characters. Rather than allowing S.'s character to develop, the author uses S. to illustrate her own political ideas. History is simplified, an image seen on CNN or a story told in the New York Times. Everything is clearcut, charged with an effect in mind. The author never stops to elaborate, explain, emphasize. As a result, characters and their feelings are muted.
As If I Am Not There is a journalistic enterprise thinly disguised as a novel. Summaries of women's experiences given through “indirect narrative” are reminiscent of actual press coverage of the rapes in Bosnia. The world of the novel is divided into “good guys” and “bad guys.” Occasionally a “bad” character is presented with some vestiges of humanity, like the woman who brings food to the “women's room” or the young soldier who initially addresses S. formally. However, that quickly evaporates. “They,” the Serbs, are all brutes; everyone else is good.
Ideology and fiction are a dangerous mix. The black-and-white depiction was supposed to have gone out of vogue with the demise of social realism. Whereas the reading of the newest novel by Dubravka Ugrešić, which deals with the same time period, was a pure joy, the perusal of As If I Am Not There was altogether unsatisfying.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7752
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 politics, some of the most eloquent representatives of civil societies chose expatriation and dissidence as a political, cultural, and rhetorical way to articulate democratic beliefs from behind the Iron Curtain.1
Solzhenitsyn, Kundera, Milosz, Cioran, and Eliade are among well-known expatriates who identify themselves as writers of resistance from communist Eastern and Central Europe.2 According to their accounts, expatriation and dissidence mark them forever, being both their stigma and their redemption. A marginalized “condition” remains a constant part of their disrupted discourse.3 Joseph Brodsky,4 in his appeal to other exiled writers, defines the problem of exile and dissidence as a linguistic confluence joining discourse, questions of identity, and legitimacy of voice, a rhetorical “pendulum” oscillating between moments of “expulsion” into the “capsule” of one's native language, and “the necessity of telling about oppression.”5
After 1989, the discursive scene in Eastern and Central Europe takes a cultural, political, and rhetorical turn, offering detailed and controversial perspectives on the civil and civic transformations in process in this part of the world.6 Emerging from the samizdat arena and advocating political change, voices of democracy like Václav Havel, George Konrád, and Adam Michnik, for example, provide insight on the turmoil of transition from communism, on nationalism, and on the difficult political venues these countries face on their road to democracy.7
It would be easy to think that, once communism was over-thrown and new societies were emerging, writers of dissent from this part of the world were freed from turmoil. Not so. Critical intellectuals are and remain confronted with ontological, political, and rhetorical questions of identity and public voice. Their dissidence implies an inherent conflict, for participants fighting communism or communist ghosts cannot simply throw off one identity and assume another. Rhetorically, these public anticommunist writers carry a double problem throughout their discourse. For, while dissidents speak to the necessity of democratic values and civil society, in doing so, they communicate from their condition of marginalization and resistance.
Such dissident intellectuals bring to the discourse their personal experiences of living in the margins, of recuperating rhetorical voice in the public arena, and of moral responsibilities of democratic existence after the fall of communism. Dissidence, then, becomes a significant rhetorical site for multiple investigations of public discourse. While continuing to advocate civil societies, democratic intellectuals revisit their experiences through discourse and, thus, rhetorically create new definitions of resistance and democratic identity in novel sociocultural contexts. Significantly, dissident intellectuals continue to voice their presence in the public arena, bringing to their audiences appeals for democratic values.8
Once communism was defeated, could critical rhetors of resistance's powerful appeals for democracy in the public arenas of their countries fall silent? Do public intellectuals continue to have rhetorical power? Can they change the collective discourse of communist values into individual involvement in creating civil societies? And in their discursive processes, how can these advocates of democracy reaffirm the need for civil society while legitimizing their own rhetorical voice through language?
Slavenka Drakulić is a writer from the Balkans, one of the critical intellectuals whose life in the margins posits significant rhetorical and political problems. A Croat and also a former Yugoslav, a European who lives part of her time in Eastern Europe and the rest on the western side of the continent, a civic voice with two homes and no land, an advocate of democracy, Drakulić brings to the rhetoric of resistance a unique and intriguing perspective on the relationship between marginalization and discourse. For Drakulić, the chaos of the Balkans starts in 1990 and from then to present times, her search for rhetorical voice in a democracy never stops. Drakulić experiences dissent in postcommunist Eastern Europe, in her native Croatia. Although 1989 represents the “end” of the communist era, for some critical intellectuals in the Balkans, exile and dissent remain political, cultural, and ethnic realities.
An unsettled voice, Drakulić offers in her writings in the 1990s rich narratives of postcommunist and communist times in a country once called Yugoslavia.9 For this Croat journalist with dangerous ideas of anti-nationalist resonance, issues of political power remain to be redefined by the rhetorical, cultural, and political identity present in her discourse.10 Why, then, does a critical intellectual in postcommunist Croatia continue to resist the public arena of nationalist and neo-communist practices? How can Drakulić recapture her legitimacy once her native land is no longer in the realm of political oppression?
Focusing on the discourse of this important voice in postcommunist Eastern Europe, this study argues that critical writers as rhetors recapture rhetorical identity by transforming the condition of dissidence into rhetorical strategies of public legitimation. Thus, the study explores Slavenka Drakulić's discourse of resistance from a rhetorical perspective. The critical examination proposes an insight into Drakulić's rhetorical strategies to legitimize resistance and transform discourse. Specifically, I argue that Drakulić's rhetorical strategies to reconstruct her legitimate voice in and through discourse assist her creation of an important rhetorical action: namely to reevaluate the cultural and political salience of collective and individual responsibility in the creation of civil society in Eastern Europe.
Accordingly, the research examines first Drakulić's dissident rhetoric and her strategies of redefinition in discourse before and after 1989 in Eastern Europe. Second, it explores her rhetorical strategies of redefinition utilizing as a case study an essay I consider representative for the rhetorical legitimation of Drakulić's voice in the public arena. Third, the study investigates this critical intellectual's strategies of legitimation in light of collective and individual responsibilities in postcommunist discourse.
VOICES OF DISSIDENCE: NOVEL CRITICAL QUESTIONS ON RHETORICAL ACTION
Before examining how Drakulić's strategic resistance regains power and legitimation through a language of dissent, let us visit certain assumptions used in this rhetorical exploration. Identity or voice, key terms I use interchangeably throughout the study, constitutes the speaker's rhetorical power in discourse. The inherent premise for using identity or voice in this analysis is that exile and dissidence test a rhetor's powers as a speaker. Identity constitutes in my view a dynamic inherent dimension of the rhetor's reinvention of self in response to exile and dissidence. Identity for such a rhetor comprises of revisitation of the traditional ethos, while transforming itself, at the same time, into a relational construction of the speaker within the cultural, political, and social context of his or her dissidence or exile. It is toward this rhetorical reinstantiating of voice that I gear my examination of Slavenka Drakulic's position as a rhetor of resistance.
In addition, while proposing a rhetorical investigation of the speaker's powers in discourse, this study acknowledges the role culture plays rhetorically in discourse.11 By interpellating contextual and constitutive forces in discourse, speakers of resistance create cultural discourse as they invoke salient relationships between context and voice in their rhetorical appeals to democratic views. In this sense, culture becomes a dynamic rhetorical concept that transforms speakers, audiences, and critics. Culture as a rhetorical dimension reveals how expatriation and dissent force critical intellectuals from Eastern and Central Europe into a rhetorical crisis, into the silence of non-participation in public discourse. Hence, in order to explore Drakulic's appeals, the significant rhetorical issue of her reinvention of voice becomes the speaker's negotiation of identity against political power in specific cultural discourse. This exploration, then, proposes a notion of rhetoric that interpellates the rhetor and his or her culture through discourse.
SLAVENKA DRAKULIć: HOW MANY LIVES IN THE MARGINS?
From a rhetorical perspective, Slavenka Drakulić presents an interesting and atypical case in dissident literature. Unlike other critical intellectuals coming to terms with their existence in limbo for a long time, her identity as an expatriate is relatively new (only eight years) and not total.12 And unlike fellow Croatian feminist, Dubravka Ugresić, a voluntary exile, Drakulić refuses to acknowledge such an identity in her writings.13 Relatively new in experiencing dissent and marginalization, Drakulić refuses to consider her political status of persona non grata either a definitional or a definitive experience. More important, from a rhetorical, and I might add, political standpoint, Drakulić cannot remain silent when facing post-1989 neo-communist practices.
Slavenka Drakulić reconstructs her dissident identity in two accounts, The Balkan Express and Café Europa, published outside of her country. Drakulić's discourse on postcommunist Eastern Europe reveals a rhetor in conflict with forced displacement as a refugee during the Balkan war, vehemently resisting the realities of nondemocratic practices in her native land. Writing from the margins, her discourse always already engages the other discourse (pun intended) on Croatian realities. For, in contrast to Drakulić's articulations, the official account in Croatia offers an explanation for the casualties of an absurd war, providing a rationale for authoritarian politics or nationalistic “fantasies of salvation” (to borrow the title from Tismaneanu's recent work on the complex political realities in the area).14
Drakulić's life, identity, and rhetorical powers carry a “before and after 1989” narrative. Before 1989, she is settled as a critical intellectual and journalist in the former Yugoslavia, publishing in one of the most important newspapers in Zagreb, Danas.15 Unlike most dissidents from Eastern Europe, Drakulić's life in the margins of political opposition remains without political consequences.16 Able to publish actively in magazines and newspapers in the West,17 Drakulić has a passport in hand and the freedom to travel in both Western and Eastern Europe, enjoying, as she acknowledges, a “much higher standard of living and greater freedom … than did [those people in] the rest of the communist states.”18
After the 1989 revolutions, expecting a civil democracy to follow in the Balkans, Drakulić carries a bewildered voice. History, it seems, has a different political experience in store for this land. The fall of the communist regime brings with it the disintegration of the six federal republics called, once upon a time, Yugoslavia.19 All of a sudden, the war in the Balkans between Serbia and Croatia, and later between Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, presents a different reality, a reality of battles, nationalist claims, and civil unrest. Her homeland, Croatia, is proclaimed independent in January 1992. As a new state, Croatia posits a novel political and cultural question, since “no one is allowed not [my emphasis] to be a Croat.”20 Drakulić, Ugresić, and many other critical voices charge that Croat independence and Tudjman's nationalist and authoritarian regime do not bring a civil society and freedom in the country.21 Can it be that the political transformation of Croatia remains a skeptical scene with no guarantees for a democracy?22
Leaving the experience of refugees in the Balkan war aside,23 in the hope of a brighter future, Drakulić finds out that her right to speak up against the government is denied in the Croatian media in the name of nationalistic cleansing of the public arena.24 Hence, the year 1993 marks a rhetorical, political, and cultural turn for Slavenka Drakulić. Her questioning of the regime, her writings in the domestic and international press prove uncomfortable for the new authorities.25 If Croatia is a democratic regime, asks Drakulić, why is the discourse of political resistance and dissidence not allowed in the new public arena? And why is the media controlled by the nationalist frenzy of Tudjman's rhetoric? Can it be that communist practices are back with a vengeance, only under a different name in this new state?26
The response to her critique is dramatic. Called a “witch” in an article entitled “Croatian Feminists Rape Croatia,” she is expelled from the press in her country.27 Hunted, together with four other women writers for her “anti-war, anti-nationalistic, and individual standpoint,”28 Drakulić crosses the cultural borders of exile, becoming a persona non grata in Tudjman's Croatia.29 A “traitor of the Croatian people,” Drakulić is forced to enter life in the margins of discourse, this time, on feminist charges.30 One could say, then, that Drakulić exists rhetorically and politically in more than one marginalized discourse, namely in the realm where women's voices are barely audible in a male-oriented culture.31 Thus, harassed in the media, unable to present her opinions in the new public arena, her public voice is silenced.32 In postcommunist Croatia, Drakulić becomes a political dissident.
Publicly banned, Drakulić loses her public and professional identity in Croatia, as her collaboration with the newspaper Danas ceases.33 A critical intellectual, a witch, and a feminist, her main offense was her overt criticism of “nationalist homogenization and the non-democratic new regime.”34 Oblivion is her punishment.35 The only way Drakulić is present in the Croat press is in well-articulated attacks against her.36 Drakulić explains that: “they [my emphasis] publish only criticism towards my writings.”37
And yet, Drakulić resists her non grata status, mentioning her publications in Croatia in 1995 in Feral Tribune, one of the very few opposition newspapers.38 For the most part, however, Drakulić remains with no readership in her homeland, no presence in the Croatian media, expatriated, and yet refusing to accept her new political status. What happens, then, to her rhetorical redefinition of identity in response to dissidence?
Drakulić repositions herself as a critical writer and rhetor in search of civil societies throughout Eastern Europe. Drakulić moves away, fighting old enemies like communism and authoritarian regimes, relentlessly promoting individual responsibilities to create democratic societies, a view she articulates in her collection of essays Café Europa: Life after Communism, in 1996. A voice of resistance on a mission to reveal the horrid traces of communism, Drakulić travels Central and Eastern Europe in search of answers for her own vocabulary of democracy. Touring the trails of postcommunist change in Europe, she never forgets her marked life in the margins, as an Eastern European.39 Drakulić remembers: “I know, they know, and the police officers know that barriers exist and that citizens from Eastern Europe are going to be second-class citizens still for a long time to come, regardless of the downfall of communism or the latest political proclamations. Between us and them there is an invisible wall.”40
In response to her own role as a dissident journalist away from her readership and from the public arena of her homeland, Drakulić invokes her identity in relation to the linguistic and cultural dimensions of the communist past and the postcommunist present. Thus, time and grammar become her counterpart context in which she recreates her voice of resistance against nationalism and the authoritarian regime in Croatia. “Introduction: First-Person Singular,” the very first essay of her writings on postcommunism in Eastern Europe, reveals Drakulić's rhetorical strategy to reconstitute the dissident voice through the cultural powers of language.41 Therefore, as she recaptures her identity as a public intellectual in postcommunist Eastern Europe, how does the speaker articulate a voice of democracy through her discourse of resistance?
THE OLD PARADIGM IN CROATIA: RESISTING MEMORIES OF COMMUNISM
In “Introduction: First-Person Singular” Drakulić offers a rhetorical account of her symptomatic political opposition to the still-communist Croatia. The writer recaptures rhetorical force as a speaker of dissent in relation to the cultural and political metaphor of “we” and “I.” This simple contrastive paradigm aligns the writer's voice with discursive counterparts in communist and neo-communist times in Croatia and the Balkans.42 Especially for Eastern European writers, pronouns represent strategic choices to invoke cultural walls of exclusion that words create in circumstances of dissent.43
Presenting herself as a political and rhetorical user of pronouns, Drakulić captures the rhetorical tensions that “I” versus “we” carry in the new political, cultural, and social Eastern Europe. More important, the author provides reflexive and reflective meanings to the cultural and political dyad “I” versus “we,” turning it into a powerful appeal for democracy. Her claims not only address her audiences back home, but also all people aware of communist ideologies of past or present times. Rhetorically, her strategic relation between “I” and “we” becomes a cultural and political move to differentiate two conceptual cultural identities: communist versus dissident. In the discursive process, Drakulić reconstitutes herself as a promoter of democratic values in Eastern Europe, opposing anew communist practices. Objecting strongly to any communist and neo-communist experiences, Drakulić provides a powerful account of political ostracism before and after the so-called fall of the Iron Curtain in the Balkans. And in doing so, Drakulić reinvents her discourse as a grammar of dissidence, to paraphrase Burke.44
Empowering her voice as the grammatical voice of the singular “I,” Drakulić asserts her dissident identity as a threat for any communist and neo-communist public sphere.45 For, both in past and in present political contexts in Croatia as her homeland and her cultural point of reference, “the first-person singular” is “exiled from public and political life,” turning it into a voice of dissidence.46
Similarly, Drakulić explores how the first-person pronoun constitutes a rhetorical gauge exposing the cultural and political barriers between the author and communist or neo-communist times in Croatia. Drakulić articulates resistance by juxtaposing a rhetorical action of saying no as a definition of the “I” against communist contexts:
How does a person who is a product of a totalitarian society learn responsibility, individuality, initiative? By saying “no.” But this begins with saying “I,” thinking “I” and doing “I”—and in public as well as in private. Individuality, the first-person singular, always existed under communism, it was just exiled from public and political life and exercised in private.47
Individuality is the locus for her voice of dissent, the “I” represents the rhetorical impetus for her identity of difference, her rejective terra firma, her own outside.48 The negation implies more than a rhetorical tension marking the grammatical distinction between first-person pronouns in singular and plural form. In this discursive relationship, Drakulić affirms her own voice of resistance against the “safe, anonymous ‘us’” of the collective brought about by communism.49
Rhetorically, this dyad transforms Drakulić into an outsider, a critical voice isolated from life as part of “we,” apart from the mass mentality of possible nationalistic or neo-communist views. Thus, Drakulić turns the cultural relationship between “I” and “we” into a rhetorical and political locus of conflict, into the very nexus of her voice of dissent. Strategically, as she refuses the “we,” Drakulić recaptures the communist times as part of her resistance. Accordingly, the strategic play of pronouns as cultural and political articulations become the rhetorical locus for the author's own voice in discourse. For, when looking at “we,” Drakulić remembers that:
I hate the first-person plural. But it is only now … that I realize how much I hate it. My resistance to it is almost physical, because more than anything else, to me it represents a physical experience. I can smell the scent of bodies pressed against me in a I May parade. … I can feel the crowd pushing me forward, all of us moving as one, a single body—a sort of automatic puppet-like motion because no one is capable of anything else.50
For Slavenka Drakulić, the first-person plural constitutes her enemy, personifying everything communism means or has ever meant. Memories triggered by the plural pronoun remind her of the ideology and propaganda pressed on the populations. Remembering mandatory participation in popular and populist events in communism, the writer reacts to the transformation of people into “a single body,” a “puppet-like” group. As the first-person plural gets personified and rhetorically transformed into communist cultural discourse, Drakulić vehemently rejects the public sphere of the collective, responding as a promoter of individualism (equating, culturally, in this part of the world, democratic freedom of speech), and thus, the dissident voice. After all, this writer is ostracized precisely because she continues to say “I,” remaining excluded and in disagreement with the popular and more collective government of present-day Croatia.51
In order to bring this criticism to present-day Croatia, the writer invokes another rhetorical strategy—a temporal comparison of past and present, a powerful reminder of the political and social significance of the year 1989 in the area. Delineating in this grammatical dyad the rhetorical identities of communist versus democratic participants in society, Drakulić posits herself within different times to emphasize her political opposition through discourse. Once again, using language and grammar as rhetorical and cultural invocations of dissent, Drakulić turns the past tense into a rhetorical strategy in order to reject the communist ideology of Eastern or Central Europe. Thus, thinking of the past, Drakulić recalls that she “grew up with ‘we’ and ‘us’ in the kindergarten, at school, in the pioneer and youth organizations, in the community, at work.”52 In addition, as a journalist and a critical intellectual, the author reminisces on the political dangers of using the first-person singular, on the problems a speaker like herself faces in and through the language of individuality in a not-yet-democratic society.53
Writing meant testing out the borders of both language and genres, pushing them away from editorials and first-person plural and towards first-person singular. The consequences of using the first-person singular were often unpleasant. You stuck out; you risked being labeled an “anarchic” element (not even a person), perhaps even a dissident. For that you would be sacked, so you used it sparingly, and at your own risk. This was called self-censorship.54
Here, her discursive resistance becomes a rhetorical strategy of opposition to and resistance against communism and its haunting ghosts, a call to reclaim individual responsibility in creating democratic life in Eastern Europe. Depicting the life dictated by the “we” of communist times, Drakulić delineates clearly the fluid insider and outsider position of any professional in the communist media before (and after) 1989.55 In communist times in Eastern Europe, whenever a person attempted to speak out against the regime, that individual became an outsider, “an ‘anarchic’ element,” or “even a dissident.”56
Of course, the fall of communism in 1989 should have changed all that. Drakulić denies that it did in Croatia. With this strategic move, her indictment of the neo-communist regime takes shape. Blaming the war on the collective mentality of nationalism, Drakulić relentlessly criticizes the political, cultural, and rhetorical consequences of such a mind set. For, she argues, “that hideous first-person plural” infects “20 million-bodied mass swinging back and forth,” making them follow “their leaders into mass hysteria.”57 Thus, the rhetorical relationship between time and identity helps her to reconstitute herself against both past and present communist times in Croatia.
Drakulić transforms her rhetorical voice from that of a critical intellectual of past communism to that of the present dissident living in the outside. As an advocate of democracy, her individual voice can no longer be heard in the new Croatia. Left without readership in her homeland, Drakulić explains how the communist past and neo-communist present call forth in discourse identities like hers. As in communist times, individual citizens “had no chance to voice his [her] protest or his [her] opinion, not even his [her] fear” in the postcommunist Balkans:
He could only leave the country—and so people did. Those who used “I” instead of “we” in their language had to escape [my emphasis]. It was this fatal difference in grammar that divided them from the rest of their compatriots. As a consequence of this “us,” no civic society developed. … As under communism, individualism was punished—individuals speaking out against the war, or against nationalism, were singled out as “traitors,”58
Accordingly, exile, particularly her own unacknowledged expatriation, is interconnected with dissidence, within the user of “I,” within the action of saying no. Drakulić has not so much distanced herself from her Balkan homeland, as she has from pre-1989 communism. In her view, and not only hers, it appears that the Croat regime has not thrown off the communist past; and therefore, those who dissent remain distanced between their democratic dreams and the realities of 1989 and beyond. Thus, locating herself in an account on present neo-communist and nationalist practices, the writer emphasizes that, like her own case, critical voices of antinationalism remain singled out, ostracized as traitors, forced to leave their homeland.59
In other words, even if Drakulić does not explicate her own status in the essay, she acknowledges that people who use the first-person singular continue to live as dissidents and expatriates in countries like hers, after 1989. As the writer links her political agenda to her right of freedom of speech, Drakulić sees the “fatal difference in grammar” as a conflicting relationship between her identity and the present regime in Croatia. A “traitor” in and through her rhetorical action, Drakulić experiences and articulates marginalization and dissent.60 The relationship Drakulić constructs between voice and past-present communist practices starts in language, accruing rhetorical and sociocultural force. “Introduction: First-Person Singular” becomes her grammatical, rhetorical, and cultural discourse of resistance, capturing an unsettled identity determined to fight (yet again) neo-communist practices in Eastern and Central Europe
INDIVIDUALISM: A NECESSARY STRATEGY IN POSTCOMMUNIST RHETORIC
Can, then, a rhetoric of dissidence offer novel relationships between individualist and collective perspectives in the public sphere of Eastern Europe? I argue that Drakulić's rhetoric of dissent assists postcommunist discourse in creating a democratic public sphere. More important, Drakulić's rhetorical and cultural contribution emphasizes the role of individualist and collectivist discourse in a democracy. Norman Manea, a well-known dissident from Romania, supports similar views, explaining the meaning of “I” as a political threat to communist regimes:
It is hard to believe that in a totalitarian society the “I” could survive, and yet inferiority was a mode or resistance, however unavoidably imperfect. It [the “I”] acted as a center for our moral being, as a means of respiration from the corrupting aggressiveness of the environment; as a hope, however uncertain, for the integrity of conscience. The “I” persists, even in the totalitarian environment … the site of struggle between the centripetal necessity to preserve a secret, codified identity and the centrifugal tendency towards liberation.61
An unsettled and unsettling rhetor, Drakulić does not intend to solve the critical, cultural, and rhetorical problem between the two strategic appeals. Not satisfied with a simple contradictory relationship between the communist and the postcommunist appeals embedded in the individualist or collectivist nouns and pronouns, Drakulić layers multiple and complex rhetorical loci for such strategic usage, precisely to remind, evoke, and invoke the political, cultural, and social power of “I” versus “we.”
Accordingly, by collapsing identity along the past and the postcommunist realities of her country, Drakulić reconstitutes her voice as a speaker rejecting nationalist and neo-communist practices in the Balkans. In other words, the “I” versus “we” rhetorical strategy allows Drakulić to respond to “otherness.”62 Drakulić turns the paradigm of individualism and collectivism into a dynamic trope of communist and postcommunist existence. For Drakulić, language becomes the main repository of the cultural and political connotations for former communist regimes.
Recalling abusive usages of language in communism and contrasting them with the powers of civic rights in a democracy, the Croat dissident recaptures legitimacy for her own rhetoric of resistance. In recent electronic correspondence with the author, Drakulić continues to remind audiences of the rhetorical role of “we” as collective enemies of the democratic, individualistic voice of postcommunist discourse.63 The Croat writer articulates with these rhetorically sensitive pronouns a locus for an identity free of communism, calling audiences enthymematically to join a freed paradigm of political discourse in Eastern Europe.
WHERE NOW? ARE WE DONE WITH DISSIDENTS AND EXILE IN POSTCOMMUNIST TIMES?
As argued here, I consider Drakulić's appeals for democratic discourse extremely important for all scholarship on contemporary public discourse. In my view, critical intellectuals' reinvention of voice in Eastern Europe reveals important rhetorical, cultural, and sociopolitical perspectives on resistance and democracy in a world at the beginning of a new millennium. Ten years after the Eastern and Central European revolutions and the demise of communism, the discourse of such cultural and political luminaries continues to be questioned or revered, challenged or challenging, as these societies change toward civil arenas of democracy.64 After 1989, the discourse on nationalism, on difference and tolerance, and on ethnic cleansing raises questions for the new Europe, for western, central, and eastern democratic communities altogether.
What is happening in the Croatian public sphere, after Tudjman, after a new president, Stipe Mesic, and a new prime minister, Ivica Racan, won the elections early in 2000?65 Croatia has chosen a new government, a new public discourse, and new expectations for a democratic life in Eastern Europe. Even Drakulić recognizes that some members of the new Croatian parliament are as much part of the democratic intellectuals group as she is.66 Thus, can one say that critical intellectuals have finally completed their political and rhetorical role for democratic discourse in the area?
In a recent interview, Drakulić clarifies that the political changes in Croatia are bringing new alliances—some intellectuals “who were for Tudjman” are now “shifting towards the new government,” a government with “more of a democratic potential,” yet where opportunism rules. The (former) dissident warns (again) that: “Croatia—as was Yugoslavia—is still a society with very small margins for intellectuals to be independent.”67
In this novel context, what happens to dissidence, to voices of resistance and to the “I” versus “we” mind set? Leaving the persona non grata status, after eight years of dissent and a decade of postcommunism. Drakulić agrees that the “nationalist ‘we’ that ruled the public sphere is not dominant any longer.” And yet, Slavenka Drakulić immediately adds that, in spite of all changes, “no power likes independent minds, people who think independently … So you are always on the margin of society, even if your friends are in the government.”68
Most likely, Drakulić's rhetorical identity of resistance is needed more than ever in the discourse of democracy in Eastern Europe. Her articulations of voice against the social, political, rhetorical and cultural past remain necessary in a public arena waiting to be freed from oppression.
Tismaneanu offers an extensive definition of civil societies for Eastern and Central Europe: “[C]ivil society can thus be defined as the ensemble of grassroots, spontaneous, nongovernmental (although not necessarily antigovernmental) initiatives from below that emerge in the post-totalitarian order as a result of a loosening of state controls and the decline as the ideological constraints imposed by the ruling parties. KOR or more recently, the ‘Orange Alternative’ semi-anarchist group in Poland; Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia; various forms of dissident activities in the Soviet Union; the ‘Peace and Human Rights Initiative’ in the GDR; and all the independent peace and human rights activities, including the underground presses, samizdat publications, and the flying universities as they existed especially in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, can be considered components of the growing civil society” (See Vladimir Tismaneanu, Reinventing Politics Eastern Europe from Stalin to Havel [New York: Free Press, 1992] 170-71).
Some of these dissidents' works that deal specifically with exile and anticommunist ideas are Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956 An Experiment in Literary Investigation, trans. Thomas R. Whitney (New York: Harper and Row, 1974); Milan Kundera, Milan Kundera and The Art of Fiction: Critical Essays, ed. Aaron Aji (New York: Garland, 1992); Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind, trans. Jane Ziclonko (New York: Vintage, 1981); Emile M. Cioran, Temptation to Exist, trans. Richard Howard (Chicago, Ill.: Quadrangle, 1970); and Mircea Eliade, 1937-1960, Exile's Odyssey, trans. Mac Linscott Ricketts (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1988).
Joseph Brodsky calls “exile” a condition. See Joseph Brodsky. “The Condition We Call Exile.” in Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile, ed. Marc Robinson (San Diego, Cal.: Harcourt Brace, 1994) 3-12.
Brodsky reveals the exiled authors' urgent motivation to act, rhetorically in my view, through language and speak up against communism. Brodsky writes in “The Condition” that: “our [exiled writers] greater value and greater function lie in our being unwitting embodiments of the disheartening idea that a freed man is not a free man; that liberation is just the means of attaining freedom and is not synonymous with it” (11).
Brodsky, “The Condition,” 9-11.
J. F. Brown, Hopes and Shadows: Eastern Europe After Communism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press: 1994); and Vladimir Tismaneanu, Fantasies of Salvation: Democracy, Nationalism, and Myth in Post-Communist Europe (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998).
An extensive body of literature on communist and postcommunist changes reflects also the other, the political context and significance of exilic or dissident action in Eastern and Central Europe. See Stanislaw Baranczak, “Before the Thaw The Beginning of Dissent in Postwar Polish Literature (The Case of Adam Wazyk's ‘A Poem for Adults’).” East European Politics and Societies 3 (1989): 10-15; Miklos Haraszti, The Velvet Prison: Artists under State Socialism (New York: Basic Books, 1987); Vaclav Havel, Summer Mediations, trans. Paul Wilson (New York: Vintage, 1993); Ferenc Feher and Agnes Heller, Hungary 1956 Revisited: The Message of a Revolution—A Quarter of a Century After (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1983); Gale Stokes, ed., From Stalinism to Pluralism: A Documentary History of Eastern Europe since 1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); Michael Kennedy, “An Introduction to Eastern European Ideology and Identity in Transformation,” in Michael Kennedy, ed., Envisioning Eastern Europe: Postcommunist Cultural Studies (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 1-46; Tony Judt. “Nineteen Eighty-Nine: The End of Which European Era?” Daedalus 23:3 (1994): 1-19; George Kolankiewiez, “Elites in Search of a Political Formula,” ibid., 143-57; Steven Lukes, “Principles of 1989: Reflections on Revolution,” in Kenneth W. Thompson, ed., Revolutions in Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R., Promises vs. Practical Morality (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, the Miller Center Series, 1995), 149-65; Andrei Sakharov, “Our Understanding of Totalitarianism,” in Peter J. S. Duncan and Martyn Rady, eds., Towards a New Community: Culture and Politics in Post-Totalitarian Europe (London: University of London, 1993), 3-15; Tismaneanu, Reinventing Politics; and Katherine Verdery, National Identity under Socialism: Identity and Cultural Politics in Ceausescu's Romania (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).
I use interchangeably the terms “critical intellectuals,” “public intellectuals,” “democratic intellectuals,” and “dissidents.” In the body of literature on Eastern and Central Europe in communist and postcommunist times, scholars, mentioned previously use the terms interchangeably as well, emphasizing such critical voices' political, social, and cultural function of dissidence under communist regimes.
Slavenka Drakulić, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (New York: Norton, 1991); Slavenka Drakulić, The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War (New York: Harper Collins, 1993); and Slavenka Drakulić, Café Europa: Life after Communism (New York: Penguin, 1996).
Throughout her writings in the 1990s, Drakulić has not changed her perspective on the communist and neo-communist political situation in her country. Drakulić repeatedly claims that in Croatia “communism is not gone. Briefly, the new political leaders [Franjo Tudjman] used democracy to establish their authoritarian system, much alike one-party system during communism” (Slavenka Drakulić, e-mail to the author, 1 February 1999).
A singular definition of “culture” can be a difficult operational concept for this study, as the discourse of dissidents from Eastern and Central Europe reveals different dimensions of communist and postcommunist culture. However, a basic definition of “culture” stemming from the intercultural research in communication can function as an operational assumption for this research. Accordingly, Dodd defines culture as “a holistic set of values, interrelationships, practices, and activities shared by a group of people, influencing their views on the world” (See Carley H. Dodd, Dynamics of Intercultural Communication, 5th ed. [Boston, Mass.: McGraw-Hill, 1998], 36).
George Konrád and Andrei Codrescu, for example, had been experiencing alienation for 16 and 25 years respectively. See George Konrád, The Melancholy of Rebirth: Essays from Post-Communist Central Europe, 1989-1994 (San Diego, Cal.: Harcourt Brace, 1995), ix; and Andrei Codrescu, The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile's Story of Return and Revolution (New York: Avon, 1991), 11-77.
Dubravka Ugresić, another persona non grata, acknowledges her political fate. Leaving Croatia, Ugresić comments that: “soon I shall be voluntarily joining that ocean of (willing and unwilling) refugees who are knocking at the doors of other countries in the world” (See Dubravka Ugresić, The Culture of Lies: Antipolitical Essays, trans. Celia Hawkesworth [University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998], 85).
Vladimir Tismaneanu, Fantasies of Salvation: Democracy, Nationalism, and Myth in Post-Communist Europe (Princeton, NW.: Princeton University Press, 1998).
Robert Kaplan retells his encounter with Slavenka Drakulić in Zagreb. He writes about her as a settled voice of opposition, identified as “a Zagreb journalist who writes in Croatian for Danas (Today), a local magazine, and in English for The New Republic and The Nation” (See Robert Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History [New York: Vintage, 1994], 3-29, 6).
According to her own description in “A Chat with my Censor,” Drakulić wrote articles on cultural politics or on Albanians in the province of Kosovo prior to the fall of communism, in 1988. See Slavenka Drakulić, “A Chat with my Censor,” in How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (New York: Norton, 1991), 77-82, 78.
Drakulić has been a contributing editor at The Nation since 1986. She also publishes often in The New Republic, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times. For example, see Slavenka Drakulić. “Voting Their Fears in Croatia,” New York Times 21 June 1997, A21.
Continuing her explanation, Drakulic expands on the benefits a passport could bring to the Yugoslav population: “We had refrigerators and washing machines when others did not, and could travel abroad, see American movies, buy a graduation dress in Milan or spend our summer holidays in Greece or Spain. Yes, essentially it is a comparison between prison cells, but the comfort of your cell makes a lot of difference when you are imprisoned” (See Drakulić, “My Father's Guilt,” in Café Europa, 143-60, 149). Also, Drakulić repeatedly acknowledges her different status in comparison with the rest of Eastern and Central Europeans in the 1980s. She explains that: “[H]aving a Yugoslav passport meant that you could travel both to the West, and to the East, and the USSR was the only country in the communist bloc that I did not visit” (See Drakulić, “Why I Never Visited Moscow,” in Café Europa 22-32, 28).
See Marcus Tanner, “‘Comrade Tito Is Dead,’” in Croatia: A Nation Forged in War (New Haven, Conn. Yale University Press, 1997), 203-11; and Tismaneanu, “Vindictive and Messianic Mythologies: Post-Communist Nationalism and Populism,” in Fantasies, 65-88.
Drakulić “Overcome by Nationhood,” in Balkan, 52.
Tanner notices the authoritarian practices similar to communist ones. Mixing nationalist vision with the legacy of communist politics. Tudjman's regime raises many questions in the international arena regarding freedom of speech and freedom of speech. In addition, the 1996 “free” elections constitute yet one more remainder of the communist practices in the public arena. Tanner states that: “[A]longside the disturbing new habit of judging everyone in Croatia's history on the simple basis of whether they were dr zavnorvorm (state-building) or not, there were other signs that Tudjman and the HDZ had a decidedly skewed view on democracy [my emphasis]” (See Marcus Tanner, “Postscript: Freedom Train.” Croatia, 299-305, 303)
Both Ugresić and Drakulić present doubt in terms of the political future of the new Croatian state. See Ugresić, Culture, 49-55; and Drakulić, Balkan, 53-60.
Drakulić, “On Becoming A Refugee,” in Balkan, 29.
Tanner presents the problem of liberated media in Tudjman's new political arena: The new government were soon determined to control the media almost as much as the old Communists, and much more so than the Racan-era Communists had been. The new HDZ bosses were strong nationalists with an intolerant streak. Milovan Sibl, director of the new Croatian news agency Hina, was typical of the group. “Many of these journalists are of mixed origins,” he scoffed, referring to the anti-HDZ press, “one Croat parent, one Serb. How can such people provide an objective picture of Croatia? … The only place you can read the truth about President Tudjman is in Hina news” (See Tanner, Croatia, 221-41, 230).
The 1996 elections in Croatia appear, according to the western press, to have been tainted by nationalist politics. See Chris Hedges. “In Croatia's Capital. Politics and Democracy Don't Mix Well.” New York Times, 2 May 1996, A10.
Tanner, Croatia, 299-305.
Martha Halpert, reporting on the fifty-ninth International PEN Congress held in Zagreb in 1993, writes in Partisan Review about this incident. “The guests from abroad focused on an article, published in the private tabloid Globus last December 11th, which denounced five outspoken female Croatian writers as “witches.” … Two of the brutally attacked women. Slavenka Drakulić and Dubravka Ugresić … are members of PEN” (See Martha Halpert. “The Fifty-ninth International PEN Congress.” Partisan Review 3 : 450-52, 452).
Halpert, “The Fifty-ninth International PEN,” 452.
Dubravka Ugresić, partner in “crime” with Drakulić and others, presents the Croat political discrimination on feminist basis, as she offers more quotes from the same article appeared in the Croatian press. The accusations are mostly warranted by these women's feminist actions, depicted as follows: “In ‘democratic’ Croatia, those women have been proclaimed ‘traitors,’ ‘women who conspire against Croatia,’ ‘a serious danger,’ ‘women who sell their homeland for their own gain,’ ‘amoral beings,’ ‘a group of unhappy, frustrated women’ … and finally ‘witches,’” (Ugresić, Culture, 124).
Drakulić, e-mail with the author, 18 February 1999.
Rada Ivekovic is another of the “witches” who suffered discrimination and had to become a voluntary exile. See Rada Ivekovic. “Women, Nationalism, and War: ‘Make Love Not War.’” Hypalm 8:4 : 113-27.
Drakulić writes that “the new political leaders used democracy to establish their authoritarian system, much alike one party system during communism. If you write this, however, you become an enemy of the system, i.e. a dissident [my emphasis]. You cannot get a job, you are harassed in the media, etc. which all happened to me. So you have to go abroad in order to survive!” Drakulić even calls herself an “enemy of the state” Personal correspondence with (Drakulić, e-mail to the author, 1 February 1999).
After 1992, the liberated media becomes a problem for the Tudjman's political arena. Determined to control it, the new government returns to the old practices of communist censorship. Press releases continue to report abusive and authoritarian measures taken against journalists. Similar instances are mentioned in the articles: “CPJ Protests Journalist Trial in Croatia,” Editor and Publisher, 12 October 1996: 25; and “Jail Time for Croat Journalists.” Editor and Publisher 2 May 1998: 48.
Drakulić, e-mail to the author, 18 February 1999.
From 1993 on, the writer admits it becomes “impossible to publish anything in Croatia.” Drakulić, e-mail to the author, 18 February 1999.
A sample of such an attack is published by C. Michael McAdams, “C. Michael McAdams Responds to Michiko Kakutani's New York Times Review of Slavenka Drakulić's Ghost of Communist Past.” The Zatedmear, 9 April 1997. A reprint of a position signed by C. Michael McAdams, University of San Francisco, this attack is just one of his vehement responses sponsored by the Croatian Information Services. His recent Croatia; Myth and Reality: The Final Chapter intends precisely to rectify all cultural and political misconceptions related to Croatia. See C. Michael M. Adams, Croatia, Myth and Reality: The Final Chapter (Arcadia, Ca.: CIS Monographs, 1997).
Drakulić, e-mail with the author, 18 February 1999.
Drakulić publishes The Taste of a Man in Croatia in 1995. Drakulić, e-mail to the author, 18 February 1999.
Married to a well-known Swedish journalist, Richard Swartz, Drakulić can use both Western and Eastern European identities. She mentions in one of the essays that identities in intercultural marriages reveal the cultural and political barriers between Eastern and Western Europe. See Drakulić, “Buying a Vacuum Cleaner,” in Café, 109-18.
Drakulić, “Invisible Walls Between Us,” in Café, 21.
Drakulić “Introduction: First-Person Singular,” in Café Europa 1-6.
In my correspondence with Drakulić, the author overtly states that “communism is not gone” in Croatia. This is the reason I refer to neo-communist and post-communist times as synonymous terms for the Croat political situation after 1989. Personal correspondence with Drakulić, e-mail to the author, 1 Feb. 1999.
Most of the Eastern and Central European dissident writers refer in their writings to the cultural difference between “we” and “they,” implying the political and sociocultural dichotomy between official and underground discourse in communist times. Baranczak, when analyzing dissidence, refers to this important rhetorical strategy in yet another dissident's discourse, Miklos Haraszti; see Stanislaw Baranczak, “The State Artist.” Breathing Under Water: And Other East European Essays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990) 87. George Konrad makes use of the same strategy in “15 March: A Colorful Day,” Melancholy of Rebirth, 130-36.
Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).
Drakulić, “Introduction,” 3.
Konrad writes about identical cultural and political delineations in grammatical form between official and underground arenas in communist Hungary. The famous dissident writes that: “[L]ooking backward, we must keep in mind that communist censorship did more than prohibit; it affirmed, affirmed all manner of things. Moreover, it did so in exalted tones and as often as not in the first-person plural [my emphasis]” (Konrad, Melancholy, 90).
Drakulić, “Introduction,” 3-4.
In a similar way, playing against each other the cultural with the political connotations of pronouns in Eastern Europe, Codrescu writes that in Romania “we knew why we existed, why we were ‘us’ and not ‘they’ … why the world was the way it was” (5). (See Andrei Codrescu, The Disappearance of the Outside: A Manifesto for Escape [Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1990], 1-37).
Drakulić, “Introduction,” 4.
Drakulić, “Introduction,” 1-2.
Drakulić, “Introduction,” 2.
Drakulić, “Introduction,” 2.
Drakulić was never a member of the Communist party. See Drakulić, “My Father's Guilt,” in Café, 143-60.
Drakulić, “Introduction,” 2-3.
Baranczak refers to similar rules of censorship in the Polish press under communism. See Stanislaw Baranczak, Breathing Under Water, 61-67.
Drakulić, “Introduction,” 3.
Norman Manea, “Common Historical Roots.” Partisan Review 4 (1992): 577.
According to Drakulić, the powers of language, the strategy of “naming them, by reducing them to the other” in discourse lead to horrors like the killings of Jews in World War or the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans (144). The author reacts precisely against the refusal of Croatian audiences to reflect on their cultural and political discourse, when naming “the other.” For, continuing to use such vocabulary, places audiences as complacent participants in the discourse of war (See Drakulić. Balkan, 144-45).
Drakulić, e-mail to the author, 18 February 1999.
Most recently, Tismaneanu reiterates the importance of critical intellectuals in Eastern and Central European post-1989 discourse. See Vladimir Tismaneanu, “Fighting for the Public Sphere: Democratic Intellectuals under Postcommunism.” in eds., Between Past and Future: The Revolutions of 1989 and Their Aftermath Sorin Antohi and Vladimir Tismaneanu, (Budapest: Central European UP, 2000) 153-75.
A large number of reports in the press cover the changes in Croatia, like “Croatia: All Change in Croatia.” The Economist, Jan 8, 2000, v. 354, 8152, 46: “Croatian Elections,” Europe, February 2000, S3; or “Croatia—Edgy Start,” The Economist, 8 April 2000, v. 355, 8156, 56.
Drakulić agrees that “yes, some of my friends are in the government, and this government has more of a democratic potential. But I do not see that … yesterday's dissidents play any role” in the new Croatian public sphere. (Personal Correspondence with Drakulić, e-mail to the author, 26 July 2000).
Drakulić, e-mail to the author, 26 July 2000.
Drakulić, e-mail to the author, 26 July 2000.
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