How to survive communism

how-we-survived-communism_drakulic.jpegEarlier this week I went to a local hairdresser here in Lapad and while getting my haircut I decided to ask her if she can recommend me some Croatian literature. Nothing particularly fancy, just something that is well-known and available in English.

A brief probing of our respective literary tastes established that she likes Coelho and I do not, while I do like to read poetry and she finds it tedious. However, this led us further to a discussion, which ended with me (as the only customer that day) and all three girls of the barbershop tapping the rhythm of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter on the edge of the table with our fingers.

The same night when I passed the shop when walking the dog, she ran out and gave me two books she had fetched from the local library — and said that the third one she borrowed was Shakespeare, for herself. I hope she will like it.

My two books – in fact, one a book and the other a literary magazine from 1992 – were in fact both pretty good. The magazine consisted of four plays with introductions and commentaries. Quality-wise it was a bit of an uneven bunch, but very interesting reading nonetheless — not least because 1992 was the year of Croatian independence and just one year after the brutal war that had shocked the Balkans. The sincere pride and enthusiasm of a newly independent nation was very much evident on the pages, which makes is that much more fascinating.

The other one, a proper book, is a collection of essays by Slavenka Drakulić, titled “How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed” and published in 1991. In the book blurb, Drakulić is referred to as “Simone de Beauvoir of Eastern Europe” and indeed, the book is a collection of 19 short fragments that deal, one way or the other, with women’s predicament under the communist regimes of Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary and Romania. It’s a solid collection and well worth reading, even though much that was in there was not quite as alien and unheard of for me as it was meant to be for the book’s supposed (clearly Western) readership. It is a peculiar account, mostly because while siding with and giving a voice to the voiceless women of Eastern Europe, Drakulić is clearly not one of them. She leads a a globetrotting life, flying from Sofia to New York to give a talk on a feminist conference and attend a few parties, then dashes back to Warsawa with a brief stop-over in Budapest. Although she has experienced much of the same plight than the moving characters in her stories, she can now afford the life and things that is completely out of the reach of those she speaks for. Drakulić is thus suspended between two worlds that are alien to each other — and both her deep sympathy as well as guilt clearly shines through in what she writes. A very thoughtful book that rewards a close reading — and I am thankful for whoever it was in the local library of Dubrovnik that picked it for me based on my hairdresser’s profile (which I would also very much like to hear, by the way).

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