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Drakulic Again Considers Everyday Life in Eastern Europe
on May 13, 1999
Drakulic delivers another series of short essays, in the style of her earlier "How We Survived Communism". In "Café Europa", the reader is carried from Croatia across western Europe during the few short years since Croatia emerged from war as an independent state, caught somewhere between its Balkan history and its European ambitions. She ruminates on subjects as far afield as her distaste for the word "we" because of its communist overtones, which leads to the verdict that the western concept of "I", of self-reliance and modernity in a civil state, is a notion still to be embraced in eastern Europe. It is for precisely the same reason that she admires Americans their fetish for perfect teeth, because they represent self-respect and independence from shoddy state-sponsored dental care.
Many of the essays in the book deal with the peculiar talent in eastern Europe for hiding and forgetting the past, thereby evading responsibility and missing the opportunity to learn from it. This flair for forgetfulness causes Drakulic's mother to fear for the sanctity of her husband's grave, marked by a communist star vulnerable to those who would destroy symbols of forty years of communism. It is this same talent that allows fascist "Ustasha" symbols from the 1940s to be revived in the 1990s under the guise of nationalism. The same phenomenon that impels each generation of politicians to rename streets and plazas in order to avoid any public recognition of historical figures whose views place them, at least temporarily, on the wrong side of today's political fences. It is this same failure of history that forces a Croatian journalist to mince words and ask facile questions during an exclusive interview with Dinko Sakic, the notorious concentration camp commander.
Drakulic is a bit exasperated when, on a visit to Israel, she is barraged with questions about Croatia's fascist role during World War II. "To grow up under communism means to live forever in the present. Once the final social order had been established, there was no need to look backwards - or forwards, for that matter.... Perhaps this is the reason why we are now, with this recent war, sentenced to live in the past. Sometimes I ask myself whether this is the punishment for our lack of interest in history, for our fear, silence and irresponsibility towards ourselves. For our ingnorance." She realizes that Croatia as a society has failed to examine and integrate the lessons of its fascist period, and this failure, this willful forgetfulness, is itself a type of evil complicity perpetually spawning new crises, including the high-tension ethnic conflicts that yielded the 1991-1995 wars.
The only jarring note is the essay titled "Why I Never Visited Moscow", in which Drakulic bemoans the fact that she has been categorized as an eastern European writer. This seems a bit hypocritical given that all of "Café Europa" including the very cover blurbs, much like her previous books, is premised on the fact that she is a particularly talented eastern European writer and astute social critic who has interesting and insightful things to say about the region. Perhaps Drakulic, who has won awards, fame, and money with her admirable accounts of eastern Europe, is being a bit self-righteous when she complains about being viewed as an eastern European writer.