Of Mice and Despots

Slavenka Drakulić
A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism
(Penguin, 2011)

Prague’s Museum of Communism offers a tour of Communist-era artifacts, in which (according to its English website) “factories, a historical schoolroom, an Interrogation Room…are all part of the experience.” This miniature presentation of recent Czech history is, appropriately, the setting of the title essay in Slavenka Drakulić’s new collection of “Fables from a Mouse, a Parrot, a Bear, a Cat, a Mole, a Pig, a Dog, and a Raven.” Entering Drakulić’s animal kingdom, we meet with the mouse residing in the titular museum. He explains its artifacts and their attendant human accomplishment and folly to his foreign cousin—and outsider. The essays that follow are made up of interviews and correspondence from the savvy wildlife of eight ex-Soviet countries.

Openly referencing Orwell more than once, Drakulić often uses the same simple prose as Animal Farm in an attempt to enlighten a generation for whom “Communism is something that died out…before they were born.” Drakulić’s angle, however, should not be compared to Orwell’s. This is no simple parable of well-known events; it is a fantastic fictionalization of individual lives under various regimes. The author of Cafe Europa and How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, Drakulić has her animal narrators deliver nuanced reporting, entreating foreigners and young people to recall events from ground level, rather than the rewrites of history or conjectures of pundits.

Unlike other Orwell send-ups, like Snowball’s Chance by the Rail’s own Books Editor, John Reed, Drakulić’s essays are too openly self-aware to be straight-up parody. They are not entirely fables, as claimed: the animals are not precise stand-ins for human figures, but participants in real-life historical events. Their problems are parallel—a Bulgarian dancing bear describing internalized oppression to an animal rights activist, a Romanian dog discussing the causes of stray overpopulation in post-Ceausescu Bucharest—but they are presented as correlated with, not substituting for, the suffering of their human neighbors.

It is an effective tactic. Drakulić’s critters are cute and readable, sometimes to a fault. Each animal systematically introduces itself, its setting, and its relationship to the post-Communist analysis it is about to provide. A Hungarian intellectual pig writing a cookbook, speaking at length on the difference between gulag and goulash, overreaches for believability. The Polish cat, arguing the appropriateness of the public trial of her companion “the General,” expounds unnecessarily on her qualifications as an expert in psychology. Drakulić spends gratuitous time having her narrators justify their presence, often well into the book when she need not waste space further suspending our disbelief. To the more literal reader this may be needed, but as the book is set up as “fable” from the title page, it’s tempting to skim the explanations.

To say A Guided Tour is a Sesame Street-style recapping of the reign and aftermath of Communism in Eastern Europe does no disservice to its seriousness or intent. Sesame Street was viable on multiple levels, and so is this. Particular attention is paid to instruction; narrators strive to explain the difference between shortages and poverty, the cruel advantages of party membership, the utter uselessness of wall-building along borders. Between Tito’s former pet parrot in his Adriatic villa-turned-tourist attraction and moles living beneath Berlin, a piece of each nation’s story is told with panache, aimed to entertain while somehow managing to convey complexity. After decades of covering the region for international publications, Drakulić is rightfully insistent on the complicated nature of human ideology and its casualties. The book is on one level a protest against the oversimplification of history in black-and-white terms, yet told in surprisingly simple prose. Coming from her charming creatures, these lessons are effective and Millennial-friendly, even for a generation of Animal Farm-indoctrinates.

Contributor

Hope E. Ewing

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