08 April 2013

Monday Book Review: Surviving Communism, Possibly Laughing

Though I had discussed this book in an earlier post and reference it often enough, I have never done an official review on the book: How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulić.  I bought this during my internship in Hungary (oh no, was that really 3 years ago?!) in a cool English bookstore on Hercegprima utca, right by Szent István [St Stephen].  I also bought Anna Édes while seriously bemoaning my lack of Hungarian fluency.  The title of the book was all I needed to buy it and I immediately started reading it in Szabagság tér during lunch with some zsemle and kolbász to munch on.  Those were good times for lunch, I'm telling you because she transported me into another world, though in many ways I was living with a little toe in that world.

 The book sucked me in.  Drakulić has such a keen eye and an unfettered approach to writing.  While introspective, she is not a navel gazer.  She shares how she internalizes her experience to reflect the world at large.  Each chapter is an essay, a vignette of life under a regime of shortage, fear, and eventually of violence and war.  Speaking directly from the experience of women, she struggles with the ideology that denied her feminine desire for a doll, make up and tampons, freedom of speech, and the comfort of food.  "A Communist Eye, Or What Did I See In New York?" is one of the most striking essays to me since she gives the western reader a peak into the mind of one impressed by communist ideology.  She sees beggars everywhere and though her friend tells her she'll get used to them, "...[E]very day that I spend here I become more and more conscious of them - as if, walking down the New York streets, at some point I see only them and cannot take it anymore" (114).  It's painful to see so many people suffering, even though she realizes the regime made everyone poor, though not homeless, and that her own country is beginning to have visible beggars.

However, she also experiences the poverty of her own situation when she goes window shopping with a friend for fun ("Some Doubts About Fur Coats").  They soon become completely overwhelmed by the displays and the fun of pretending grates away into the reality that they would never be able to afford such luxuries.  When her friend Jasmina was trying on fur coats, she "tried to convince her [to not buy the coat], as if need has anything to do with buying, especially in New York" (137).  Later, she recounts buying a fur coat for $75 because she saw herself in the mirror as someone glamorous and not worn down by the repressive regime.  She realized this was her only chance to afford such an extravagant luxury and seized the opportunity.  That purchase showed what consumerism is at its roots: an aspiration for something better.  Drakulić is well aware that purchasing it won't make her happy, but the appearance of it was worth every penny.  While understanding all the ethical and ecological reasons to not buy fur, she understands that you cannot ask people to give up a better standard of living before they've even tasted it, in order to save the planet.  "We do live on the same planet ... but not in the same world. It is precisely the Third World people who have every right to demand that the Western European and American white middle class give up their standard of living and redistribute wealth so we can all survive" (139).  The same idea exists with fur - Third World women are forced to give up in the name of "higher goals", which she says is "a very familiar notion in the the communist part of the world".

That essay so skillfully blends the western world with the communist one while criticizing both.  She saw the hypocrisy and the exploitation that the western world imposed, which all too clearly resembles the ideology of its sworn enemy.  But she is not preoccupied with greater ideals.  Her essays speak to the broken experience of individuals: women who faced difficult choices, her own censorship, Tanja's lost struggle to survive, and the sense of meaning lost.  Feminism takes center stage in several essays and "A Letter from the United States - A Critical Theory Approach" only exposes the great divide between western feminism and the communist experience for women.  The issues they face do not have the same root and it struggles to take hold because women see feminism as bra-burning man-haters, but they do not hate their men.  They empathize with the lost feeling of power and marginalization; they don't see a world without men.

Her power as a journalistic writer meets the introspection and craftsmanship of fictional writing to produce a collection of writings so clear and powerful, the reader embodies her.  You empathize, not sympathize, because suddenly, you are her and there is no you.  Suddenly the reader sees her in everything, just as she saw everything in herself.  Her authenticity is touching and really absorbs you into seeing the connectedness of everyone, understanding their struggles as your own.  It's this kind of writing that changes the world, one by one, leaving a bright spot on any who read it.  You may not laugh from this book, but you will feel the optimism even in the dark gloom of communist Croatia.

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