Face to face with a writer who has lived, worked, survived and chronicled decades of sweeping changes in Europe, GERALDINE SWEENEY takes a trip through time with Slavenka Drakulic and examines what her experiences reveal about our future.
A soft rain begins to fall as I follow the winding street of Mala Stupartska to the Big Ben bookstore, where I am scheduled to meet Yugoslav Slavenka Drakulic for an interview. The friendly staff points me to the pub next door, a popular spot for the expats and tourists alike, where Drakulic is finishing lunch.
Inside the dark paneled pub, I see Drakulic speaking with a reporter by the open doors that look out onto the narrow cobblestone street. At a nearby table sits Tariq Ali, the political activist, novelist and historian whom I had met the night before. He smiles and welcomes me to his group, where a conversation is underway about the current political situation, or lack thereof, in Pakistan.
We chat amicably while I wait for Drakulic to finish. She looks over and smiles, indicating that she won’t be too long. I’m not surprised that Drakulic is in demand at this festival as she lends a sensitivity and insight into the new Europe that is still being defined because she spent the better part of her life growing up and writing about the effects of Communism on the individual, and especially on women: I was curious to know her thoughts on these subjects.
Eager to discuss her experience, I began our conversation with Europe and the differences today: the old versus new, East verses West, the insecurity felt by many East Europeans since the fall of Communism. Drakulic tells me that essential differences are still intact, stemming from the fact that we all come from “different pasts,” and that Communism left its stamp on this society (Eastern Europe), leading people to “think” and “do things” differently.
So while she believes that the Velvet Revolution was “good and great and fantastic,” what is gone is the “dream of Europe.” During those long years behind the iron curtain, most Eastern Europeans dreamed about the ideal of Europe, believing it represented “freedom, and abundance and a kind of paradise—a naive idea of a paradise.” Now she says, “twenty years later people question: well, where is this paradise?—there is no paradise.”
After the Velvet Revolution, she tells me that two things happened in parallel one was the introduction of very brutal “cowboy capitalism” and the other was “democracy.” Both hit people “very very hard” because suddenly there was a big gap between those who “have” and those who “have not,” adding that “people are not used to this,” since during the Communist era such basic essentials as housing, education and healthcare were taken care of for them. Now, after being a part of the European Union for several years, there is the sense that people are getting disappointed and anxious about their future because there are no longer any guarantees for the basic necessities they enjoyed under Communism: She explains “There are many disappointments which reflect in the people because of course their dream of Europe couldn’t be fulfilled.”
Next topic is today’s generation and I ask if she thinks this dream of Europe might be different for them. Yes, she replies, “especially those who grew up in this era and are now of age—18 years old, although they probably have absolutely no clue about Communism, and they should know their past.” She believes that this is good because “they are totally adjusted to this new situation,” but feels that it is too late for her generation to adjust, and wonders how long it will take until there is a democratic and capitalist system, which is not “so brutal”.
When I ask what she felt by “Cowboy Capitalism,” she informs me that it is capitalism that is “unregulated by the state,” by which she means “only for profit with enormous elements of corruption”—so “deregulated capitalism in combination with corruption.” This form of capitalism is prominent in former Communist countries, claims DraKulic, adding, “of course, you will find cases of corruption in France as well as Britain and Germany, but corruption is a system that you absolutely cannot avoid in former Communist countries.”
We wonder about the political shifts currently shaping the European Union as more countries join, and what Europe may look like in another fifty years. Drakulic believes that the EU cannot exist simply as a “monetary union” and that “it has to have some other glue,” which she sees as culture, and tells me that “this is the glue that nobody pays any attention to and where the least of the money goes, and this is actually the cheapest glue that you can imagine, so its foolish politics.”
Staying with Eastern Europe, I remind Drakulic of a story she published in her collection in Café Europa entitled “Why I Never Visited Moscow,” in which she tells about attending a book fair in England with other Eastern European writers. She becomes dismayed when people at the Fair identify her only as an “Eastern European” writer. I ask if this has changed. “No, it didn’t change,” she tells me fervently, “it absolutely didn’t—look now, look at this place now [Prague], did it change? No. Everybody is talking to the Western writers and the Eastern European writers are like Who cares about them?”
At this I am surprised, while Drakulic continues: “And it also has to do with the system of stars, you know.” She informs me that anything or anyone coming from the West is “highly commercial, highly advertised, highly popular, highly looked up to,” and that the opposite is true for Eastern European writers. She finds this interesting because the Czech Republic is one of the countries with a “fantastic literary tradition, and Czech writers are the ideal, and some really have no reason to look to the West.”
When we discuss present-day Prague and its recent commercialization, I tell her that I find the city awash in logos with stores encouraging people to buy, buy, buy. And I ask: Who is buying all of these good—Are these for the tourists or the local people who work here?
She nods in agreement and tells me: “Oh it’s the local people who then collect debt because they want to have everything. They are hungry for everything or they’d die. The capitalists wouldn’t come here if they couldn’t get money out of it, so they are getting money out of it. No, no, no, this is for the locals and they are buying, and they’re hungry for it.”
When I suggest that many countries have gone from one extreme to the other—from Communism to an aggressive form of consumerism—Drakulic agrees, noting, “It’s extreme deprivation on one hand and its extreme choice on the other, but there is also some force with that choice, because they are forcing you to buy in a way. You cannot not buy because the pervading idea is that you have to buy. So you are literally enslaved because you can never make as much money as you need to buy. There are always better cars, there is always a better apartment, there are always better shoes, there is always better everything. Because this is what capitalism is all about, it doesn’t end.”
After we pondered this for a moment, she offers Sweden as a good example of a welfare state, where people’s basic needs are covered: “a good education, good medical insurance, and everybody gets some kind of social health if they need it—so it’s possible to achieve,” she concludes.
Returning to 1968, I ask Drakulic how the events of that year affected her in Yugoslavia. She answers that she wasn’t involved in politics at all because there wasn’t much political engagement or movement encouraged in Yugoslavia because Tito (the leader of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1945 until his death in 1980) dealt swiftly with any disturbances. Furthermore, she reminded me that since Yugoslavia wasn’t under occupation they couldn’t react like the Czechs.“The Russians never sent the tanks, and any criticisms of the government were quickly and effectively dealt with, such as the time in 1968 (known as the Yugoslavia Spring) when a couple thousand students marched in Belgrade and then Tito gave a speech saying ‘I’m on the side of the students,’ and then the students were dancing in the streets. Finito. End of story.”
Yugoslavia was different, she tells me, because “her generation believed in Communism”. Furthermore, Yugoslavia was not in the Soviet bloc, and having a Yugoslav passport also meant that they were free to travel, free to buy things from the East and West.
I wonder aloud about lessons learned and the lasting legacies. Drakulic believes that there are many lasting legacies, “in terms of general change in the viewpoint, in values,” and 1968 in Prague demonstrated that Communism had failed.
Today, Drakulic believes that people are not as engaged as they could be, and sees people “living their individual lives to the maximum” and as a result they don’t see their common interests, and “the common interests being from ecological to political, or from political to ecological.” She asserts that “consumerism and capitalism have been absolutely successful in destroying any common cause,” and there is no “common platform where people could come together and do something.”
“So that’s very sad,” she tells me, ”but this is how it is and I’m really curious to see how far it is going to go.” Concerning the environment, I ask if she thinks it will take something big before people will wake up. “Yes, it always takes a catastrophe,” she replies. “We are going to hit the wall and see what we are left with. I mean, I cannot predict, I am not looking into the crystal ball, I don’t know, and at the moment I don’t see very much of a solution. I think that people are very good at self–destruction so we’ll see if somehow they’ll come to their senses.”
One of Europe’s most influential novelists, Slavenka Drakulic was born in 1949 in Rijeka, Yugoslavia. Her prose has been compared to that of Duras, Beckett and Camus—though it was her reportage in Start, The New York Times,The Nation, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Dagend Nyheter and La Stampa which brought her international recognition.
Slavenka Drakulic´s non-fiction—How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, The Balkan Express, Café Europa, and They Would Never Hurt a Fly—blends “provocative analysis with the texture of everyday life”. Drakulic´s fiction—Holograms of Fear, Marble Skin, The Taste of a Man, As If I Am Not There and Frida’s Bed—are the gifts of an unwavering, role-conscious sensibility.
Slavenka Drakulic resides in Stockholm, Zagreb and Vienna.