Are closed and claustrophobic societies a necessary condition for satire and irony? Certainly, censorship, which has been described as the mother of metaphor, drives anger underground. It emerges later in disguise, transformed into sarcasm or icy calm from which it is hard to deduce the fury that lies beneath it. So it would appear when you read the underground literature of east Europe and the Soviet Union under communism that was smuggled out to the West. Or, if it managed to survive at home, it was because the Censor, usually party hacks, was unable to detect the subtext between the lines.
Slavenka Drakulic, a Croatian feminist writer and journalist, is widely recognised for critical non-fiction works on communism — Café Europa, How we Survived Communism and Even Laughed and, most recently, Two Underdogs and a Cat: Three Reflections on Communism, which were based on her academic studies on the working of communist societies. But now, inspired by George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Ms Drakulic has now come with A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism: Fables from a Mouse, a Parrot, a Bear, a Cat, a Mole, a Pig, a Dog, and a Raven (Penguin, $12). These are stories about the lives of generations who grew up under communism, people of her own generation. It is the story about the end, of how that system was experienced across the different countries (each animal is in a different post-communist country), and of how Stalinism or the rigid country fell apart.
The eight satirical pieces are written from the viewpoints of animals from the former socialist European countries. Essentially, they are stand-ins for human beings just as the Pigs in Animal Farm were clearly Stalin, Trotsky and Kamenev, and Party workers who simply followed the Line.
The first section is presented by Bohumil, the mouse. He is the tour guide through the Museum of Communism in Prague and points out that 20 years ago no one could imagine that communism could end up in a museum. The ugliness of the museum could be seen in the ugliness of communism. But the pictures displayed in the museum did not show “the full depth of what the people endured”. Bohumil comes to the conclusion that the absence of a personal history and individual stories is “the best illustration that individualism was the biggest sin under communism”.
The mouse leading us through the museum tells us that such institutions say very little to people who know nothing of the stories behind the artifacts. But those who know the history – both the victims and the accomplices of the regimes – prefer to forget. In the words of Bohumil’s friend, “What is important is what you do not see — the fear, the complicity and the hypocrisy of life under communism.” What is important is that people must remember and ask questions and, therefore, the museum is important. The mouse also explains, quoting Vaclav Havel, “The line between victim and oppressor in late communism runs through each person.” But, as he tells a German tourist, “You won’t see shades of grey.”
Enver Hoxha’s Albania was, by all accounts, the most closed and isolated place in the communist world. Ms Drakulic uses Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven (1845) as the peg to hang her story on the sinister happenings in this inhospitable land between Greece and Serbia in south-eastern Europe.
Like the mournful song of remembrances of things past, the Raven here has seen the terror through the eyes of the psychiatrist who had examined the Albanian prime minister before he was driven to commit suicide in 1981. The suicide, a true historical event, is reconstructed from the case notes of the Albanian psychiatrist as discussed by his daughter a generation later, that is, after the collapse of the communist system. All of Ms Drakulic’s stories are based on the frightening moments embellished by sardonic fictionalised observations which give us a sense of the foibles, fears and absurdities of life back then.
Ms Drakulic draws heavily from the literature of dissident communism. She uses Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz’s Warsaw ghetto poem, A Poor Christian Looking at the Ghetto (1943), which has created a “guardian mole” that would be able to judge us with certainty by our ashes. But she adds her own twist to it through a comical scholar mole who delivers a lecture to a learned society about the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall is used as a metaphor for a prison that did not allow for any fresh ideas to infiltrate and grow because this would upset the world of make-believe.
An Interview with the oldest dog in Bucharest is a take on Ceausesceu’s Romania that was overrun by “three hundred thousand stray dogs” in Bucharest alone. Ms Drakulic lets the dog tell the story of how his species were victims of communism, which is an allusion to the explosion of infants born and abandoned after the 1989 revolution.
These stories are a vast satire on the theory and practice of communism in the typically east European genre.