Book Review: Cafe Europa, by Slavenka Drakulic

Slavenka Drakulic joins two-dozen Balkan writers for the festival “Jugoslavija Revisited,” Nov. 5-7, at the Odeon

TVR Books | Dardis McNamee | November 2010

Witness for the West

In the early years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was very little insider reporting available to English-speaking readers about life in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. There were some very able Western reporters, like Laura Silber and Alan Little, who were close to their subject, and some Central Europeans available in translation.

But through all this, Croatian expatriate writer Slavenka Drakulic stood nearly alone in being so truly a part of both worlds. A regular contributor to The Nation and The New Republic in the U.S. and The Independent in the U.K., she wrote about post-communist Central Europe and the human truths of war, in a voice that made this world real to the Anglo-American West.

Almost two decades later, her essay collections, particularly Balkan Express and Café Europa, hold up as front-line reporting on societies in transition, rich in details, thoughtful and honest – in their intimacy and candor, like letters from a friend – a re-enactment of the collisions of contradiction, confusion and change that so characterized the time.

When these two collections were written, Drakulic was dividing her time between Sweden, Croatia and Vienna, and the sensibility of this city is infused in much of her writing – for example, the idea of the Viennese coffee house.

In Vienna, even today, a Kaffeehaus is a part of life, a place where people go to meet friends, to read or write, have a meeting or do a little work, a place where you can go to spend unhurried time, where one cup of coffee buys you a table for as long as you want to stay. Now, as in decades past, it is also a place for round table discussions of politics, of literature and ideas, perhaps also music. In short, of civilization.

So it wasn’t all that surprising that in every capital city of post-communist Central Europe in the early 1990s, writer Slavenka Drakulic would find a Café Wien, or Café Paris, or most likely, Café Europa. There, coffee might be served in a pleasing porcelain cup with a little glass of water, a spoon and a caramelized biscuit. Or it might just be in a mug, served with some bottled half and half and smelling of chicory. But it didn’t matter really; it was the idea that counted, of imagining you were in that mythic place called "Europe," the place you dreamed of being, and the person you wanted in your deepest heart to become.

"Simply by using such a name, you were presenting not only an image, but a whole system of values," Drakulic wrote. The cafés "also reveal a longing, a desire to belong to a preconceived idea of Western Europe," and a barrier against the pull of the old communist past – as if to say, "Can’t you see that we belong to the West too?"

The title essay of Drakulic’s fine collection Café Europa is characteristic – an encounter or observed detail that becomes a fixed color in the kaleidoscope of change in those turbulent early years after 1989, a window through which a world of colliding values can be seen more clearly and for Western readers, a rare chance to feel the reality of these wrenching shifts from the inside.  Some of this I experienced first hand in Slovakia in 1994-95 – making her observations like the opening of hidden doors in the house of my memory, each leading to vast rooms that I may have dimly sensed but now enter, fascinated.

Other essays take on other assumptions of the early post-communist years, like a sense of entitlement springing from years of deprivation ("to Have and have Not"), or the paralysis that came with finally having money ("The Trouble With Sales") – with subsistence wages, saving was impossible and one spent without guilt. Affluence demands planning, and the idea of a future.

Several central eurpean countries  reached back to their pre-communist history and dreamed of reestablishing a monarchy, ironically more like the communist feudalism than the democratic West ("A King for the Blakans").

And the Hall of Mirrors quality of the re-"Balkanized" world, where going from Buzet to Trieste, you had to show your passport four times in the course of a journey that took an hour and a half ("People from the Three Borders").

Drakulic’s earlier collection, Balkan Express, describing the paralyzing presence of war in the former Yugoslavia, is a lot harder work: her puzzlement at the habits of consensus unraveling around her, turning to dismay as she realizes that the full range of social agreements have been shredded.

"War is not only a state of affairs, but a process of gradual realization," she wrote in the essay "A Bitter Cappuccino." "First one has to get used to the idea of it. The idea then has to become part of everyday life. Then the rules change, rules of behavior, of language, of expectations…"

They had all assumed it wouldn’t happen in Zagreb, that they would somehow be immune: It can’t happen here…  She hears a woman reading a long shopping list of staples: 16 litres of oil, 20 kilos of flour, 20 kilos of sugar, 10 kilos of salt, canned beans, rice. Are these measurements of how long the war is going to last? With a pretense of normality, she buys bread, fruit, milk. And then, when she gets home, calls her mother. What should one stock up for a war?

"My mother hesitates, not because she doesn’t remember – she does – but because the precise question confronts her with the new reality of our lives." In this new world of war, "there is no room for dialogue anymore, but only for opposing sides to issue warnings, threats, conditions…"

The essays in this collection are remarkable in part because of her mastery of the everyday reality of war, a friend arriving for dinner with a bag of all her documents, some biscuits and a bottle of water – for emergencies, as instructed by the Territorial Defense Authority. She thinks it’s funny, until an air raid siren slices into the serenity of the evening. Instead of fear, she feels nothing, as a mental slide show of bomb-torn houses and shattered lives, runs through her head.

Less than a generation later, these experiences have already faded from our memories and fallen out of our conversations. It’s time to take another look, to spend time with them again to understand what gave birth to the challenges of the shared lives we are living today. An enormous amount has happened since the Cold War, some of it good…but only some of it. And we need to understood where each of us has been.


Cafe Europa: Life After Communism

by Slavenka Drakulic

Penguin (Non-Classics), 1999

Shakespeare & Company Booksellers

1., Sterngasse 2

(01) 535 5053

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    the vienna review November 2010