“My words seem to me like birds too young and weak to fly far.”
Which is pretty much my sentiment towards my writing after reading the works of Slavenka Drakulić.
It has been oft-noted that books are the ultimate source of escapism: crack one open and you simultaneously open a portal to another world, life or era.
Similarly, close it and so too does the portal close and reality sweep back in.
Not so with Drakulić: her accounts haunt long after, whether pleasant or dark her protagonists niggle as you walk to work, the issues fretfully re-emerging as you eat your lunch.
Seldom has an author evoked the Communist era with such tragic wit and lurid detail; that it touches upon an aspect frequently over-looked – the gender dimension – renders her articles all the more pertinent.
It is the simple things that stand out: the absence of sanitary napkins, paper dolls, the value of a Bazooka Joe bubblegum wrapper and the creativity of women in sustaining beauty regimes in a society in which makeup and hair products were not available:
I understood just how ironic the advice in today’s Cosmopolitan or any other women’s magazine in the West is, advice about so-called ‘natural’ cosmetics, like olive and almond oil, lemon, egg, lavender, camomile, cucumbers, or yogurt. […] If Western women return to the old recipes, they do so by choice; it is one of many possibilities. Not so for Czech or Bulgarian or Polish women. […] They worked on construction sites, on highways, in mines, in fields and in factories – the communist ideal was a robust woman who didn’t look much different from a man. A nicely dressed woman was subject to suspicion, sometimes even investigation. [pp. 23-24]
Even during jaunty accounts – such as A Chat with my Censor – an underlying darkness remains denoting that repression does not necessarily exude shady menace; it can resemble “a secondary school teacher” or manifest through the double clicks on your phone-line.
By far the most arresting of the collection, The Day When They Say That War Will Begin is the finest account of war that I have read.
Accounts of war are plentiful in the realms of literature: more often than not they detail the midst of war, the crimes that take place, memories mulled over in the aftermath, and anecdotes gathered.
Drakulić adopts an entirely unique approach by taking the reader to the very moment that war is declared.
The minutiae of daily life rendered unreal the declaration of war on Croatia; the mundanities that continue to mark the minutes as usual, yet Drakulić is unable to fully process the news as her daughter leaves for school nonplussed:
There is no way to protect her from this madness, from the dark molasses of war that is clotting around us, gluing us all together in an immense mass of people where no one can be distinguished anymore. There is no us – me or her – anymore, I thought, giving her a light kiss on the cheek. [p. 175-176]
The smell of freshly baked bread, the voices of locals on the street outside, and the morning mist is sucked into the vacuum of fear:
Fear is like a beast that gnaws at you, eating you up bit by bit, until you totally surrender to its teeth, and you don’t even think that there might still be a chance. […] I can feel something cold, like a piece of ice, growing inside me, spreading in my chest, drying my mouth, making my palms sweat, making my body shake with illness yet unknown. […] The fear finally takes over. You can tell it by the way you stay there, in the middle of a room that you don’t recognize anymore, staring into emptiness, paralyzed by a sudden numbness inside you. [p. 177]
There is a tragic beauty to the narrative of Drakulić, one that is by turns formidably strong, yet retains a vulnerability that conveys the gravitas of a particular scenario.
The book concludes with a letter sent by Drakulić to her editor, in lieu of an epilogue.
Compiled in November 1992, the war had already demonstrated its merciless cruelty and Drakulić’s solemn take could just as easily be applied to conflicts past and present:
You do not see the animal that feeds on blood, but you see clearly the seed of division, one single cancer cell from which the war multiplies and grows. Just as the cells in our organism have the ability to change into malign agents that destroy healthy tissue, so, providing that circumstances are right, a certain part of ourselves changes, eats away at our soul. [p. 196]
How We Survived Communism is worthy of reading not just as an account of life under Communism, nor as an insight into a war-torn society; it should be read to understand and appreciate the strength of women.
Drakulić’s contemporaries and protagonists demonstrate that not only are women wells of strength, but that vulnerability and fear is ordinary – it is how we collect ourselves that determines our mettle.
How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed is published by HarperPerennial, 197 pages, 1993. ISBN: 0-06-097540-7.