Friday, May 28, 2010

Slavenka Drakulic, "Two Underdogs and a Cat: Three Reflections on Communism"

(Seagull Books, 2009)

The four title Seagull Books series "What was Communism?" risks giving something of a wrong impression of its editor. Tariq Ali remains an "inveterate socialist", and this would suggest that the backward-looking orientation of the series cannot be the last word. As Devin pointed out in his review of Ali's own contribution to the series, one is left wanting a "What is Communism", or even "What will Communism Be?" Despite the pitfalls of a backward-looking emphasis, I recommend all four books in the series for their clarity, breadth of scope, concise delivery and - the bibliophile in me can't resist! - the excellent graphics and packaging. I'll only speak here of the fourth installment, Drakulic's Two Underdogs and a Cat.

Whereas the first three titles in the series are straight-up assessments of the history of communism, Drakulic delivers her reflections on communism in eastern and central Europe by using a time-honoured ploy: speaking from the perspective of animal characters. She invokes Orwell of course, but one is also reminded in places of the magical realism of Mikhail Bulgakov. This makes Drakulic's book the most fun of the series, but despite employing this whimsical literary device she has much to teach the reader about real historical conditions (and with a surprising degree of subtlety). Animals, because of their unique subject positions within any given society, would be in a privileged position to explain much of what goes unnoticed in everyday life if they only had a voice. Drakulic indulges in imagining what they would say if they had this voice; in the case of the first two chapters at least, her gesture amounts to constructing a history from below - way below.

The book is divided into three first-person narratives: a mouse living in the Czech Museum of Communism tells a visitor about life under a Soviet proxy government, and the failed hope of a genuine Czechoslovak socialism; an old dog in Bucharest traces the hundreds of thousands of stray dogs roaming about the city to the urban policies of Ceaucescu; finally, the house cat of divisive polish general Wojciech Jaruzelski writes a letter to the courts explaining the extenuating circumstances and character traits which led her owner to declare martial law in 1981. Drakulic manages to deliver history lessons through the mouths of her protagonists without overlooking the many grey areas of life under actually existing communism. To say that her book is an indictment of the communist system in eastern and central Europe would be too simplistic; she rightly points out that the complicity of citizens under such regimes was not solely the result of state terror but also because of the very real securities that the regimes could afford. Post-communism is rightly portrayed by Drakulic as at best a mixed blessing, and at worst a major regression for the vast majority of citizens.

Readers could probably polish this book off in an hour or two. It gets my stamp of approval for making history - even the dreary history of communist satellite states - at once humorous, serious, thought-provoking and digestable.

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