11 February 2013

Monday Book Review!

It is no secret that I really love Slavenka Drakulić.  She ranks right alongside Vàclav Havel, Ryszard Kapuściński, and Dezső Kostolànyi as one of my favorite authors to read from the other side of the Iron Curtain.  Her journalistic writings have the same narrative power as Kapuściński with the idealism and compassion of Havel.  I was aware she had a number of fiction novels to her name as well, but it wasn't until recently that I gave it a try.  I ended up buying A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism at THE bookstore in NYC during my first ever visit to that metropolis.  The title, the author, and the subject matter all sang to me.  I thought it would be a continuation of what I loved so much about her writing.

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The book is 191 pages, but it's about as large as a young adult novel.  In many ways, it resembles a child's fairy tale book, but with dark, adult themes disguised by cute protagonists.  The secondary title is: Fables from a Mouse, a Parrot, a Bear, a Cat, a Mole, a Pig, a Dog, & a Raven.  True to the title, the collection of stories starts with a mouse living in a museum of communism in Prague.  The mouse tells you his story of living in communism, both in the time of its power and in the monument of its death.  Though the book starts off with a "warning" by Drakulić that tells the reader, "This is not fictitious, though it seems to be outright fantasy," the perspective of the story (from an animal) and the subtle twists in narrative (to fit the animal and its circumstance) make it seem like fiction.  However, if a well-versed-in-communist-repression reader continues through the various stories, it becomes much clearer that the story of the animal is the story of a people, a nation, and the tale is far more accurate than allegorical (which, for me, is the saddest part of it all).  The animal itself is symbolic of the nation and people, but the story is the truth.

The novel is a collection of history that reads as pure fancy to the uninitiated.  I will have to test this out by having my husband read it, but I assume that the symbolism and representation would not make sense to anyone who was not familiar with the history of various communist regimes.  To whit, the story of Koki, the parrot from Croatia, made almost no sense to me because I had no real working knowledge of Tito's reign of terror there, and the story of the raven of Tirana, Albania, took some mental exercise as well.  (I will admit that Koki's use of 3rd person waxed obnoxious and nearly prevented me from finishing the book.)  The rest of the stories were familiar and made sense to me: Tosho, the dancing bear of Bulgaria; the cat of Warsaw, Poland; the mole of Berlin, Germany; Magda, the goulash cooking pig of Hungary; and the dog of Bucharest, Romania.  Some of these bestial protagonists have obvious allusions without even reading the story: the mole of Berlin discusses the the Wall, the cat is cunning like the Polish underground, and the dog of Bucharest is both a literal reference to the stray dogs and a metaphorical reference to decreţei.

The others have more subtlety to their representation.  The mouse is a representation of the small conscience that lived within the Czechs and Slovaks--the intelligence and clear-eyed judgment--but hidden after the 1968 Prague Spring.  The tender mouse has hidden for so long and now lives within the mausoleum of its oppressor.  My favorite part of the story was when the mouse remarks that visitors of the museum are disappointed.  All they see is old stuff and no monumental marks of the regime itself.  It simply looks like the remains of a rubbish bin, the remains of communism in the scrap heap of history.  But, "[p]ermit me to say, that from what I have heard from the professor, Communism is not so much about the exhibits, about seeing. It is more about how one lived in those times, or more to the point, how one survived them" (6).  The museum is almost a deception; it can only show the physical demise of the regime, but it does not hold the key to its terror, to its lasting legacy.  It is the slow hardening of the soul, the selfishness of survival, and the complicit behavior of an entire nation.

The true legacy is walking around every day, making decisions based on an old system that does not apply to a new world.  Power balances, compromises, values, and moral ambiguity have different meanings now.  Each of the stories deals with the way communism mangled the soul of its victims and supporters, as they were one and the same.  The self-censoring, the compromises, and the submission were all done by those who were prey to it.  The stories are just that, the stories.  The novel itself is the museum of communism, with each one being its own exhibit.  The actual museums don't tell the story, but they only hold the rubbish left in the heap.  What is living, breathing, and struggling still is captured in those pages, but it is only a representation of the real stories that exist within each of the people the system mangled.  This theme is why she begins the book with the mouse; she lets the reader know that this book is the museum, not the one the mouse is living in.

The book, again, is puzzling if you don't know the background to the stories.  I think that is both its weakness and its strength because it is not a mass marketable book, but it's also a delightful departure for people like me who read lots of nonfiction about communism.  It's a great adaptation of the story of communism in Europe that mocks the institution by telling the truth.  Havel wrote and preached the power of living in truth and this book is certainly Exhibit A for the power of truth to make reality seem absurd and to disarm it.  This theme is what makes me think of Kundera's The Joke, which is entirely true to the reality of communist life, but seems like a huge joke.  Jokes become a meta device in that novel since a joke is what gets the protagonist in jail, but the real joke is the entire system.   A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism is wonderful at using literary devices to guide the reader to understanding without being terribly bookish or heady.  For those who are familiar with communism within the broad spectrum of Europe (since all experiences were not equal), the book is a way to get to the heart of the matter.  Drakulić does what makes her such a compelling writer and tells the truth exactly as it comes to her and lets the reader sit, take it in, and decide for him/herself.

The tragedy of the mangled soul is what continues to plague and fascinate me about this region and this system and this novel speaks to these transcendent aspects.

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