Three and a half stars, read in August 2018.
Though I don’t know what the author’s intent was for her readers, I wish I’d had more background knowledge of how communism and socialism were implemented throughout Central Europe before reading this book. The format—eight fables, each told by an animal from a different country—makes for great social commentary, but I can guarantee I missed a lot of the implications and allusions that make up that commentary.
The book is introduced by a mouse who lives in the titular museum in the Czech Republic, and who explains why the museum “reaches only so deep,” and is unable to depict what life was really like under Communism (capital C).
This criticism comes from a very learned man who was here . . . According to him, the museum does not—and cannot—show you the full depth of what people lived through. “There is no personal history given here, no individual destiny,” the man said. On the other hand . . . maybe the absence of individual stories is the best illustration of the fact that individualism was the biggest sin one could commit.
The second fable is perhaps my favorite for the fact that its first words are, “And who the fuck are you?” It’s told by a Croatian parrot who lives in the (former) house of “the Marshal, the former president of the former Yugoslavia.” Koki misses the glamour of that life, but his musing provides commentary on the merging of style and substance in the Communist leadership.
Like every autocrat, the Marshal ruled by fear . . . The big boss in uniform with rows of decorations, that’s what [people] wanted to see. Symbols are important to them . . . You have to show that you are important, otherwise people won’t believe you. You must show that you are above them; otherwise, why should they listen to an ordinary person like themselves?
The third fable takes us to Bulgaria, told by a dancing bear who considers the concept of Stockholm Syndrome and the relationship between freedom and security. He tells the story of Lyudmila Zhivkova, a high-ranking Communist Party member and daughter of the Communist leader of Bulgaria.
Why, then, did we animals see in Lyudmila the possibility of salvation at all? I think we believed that, if she understood art and beauty and their importance in life, there was hope for this society and its primitive treatment of animals . . . I naively imagined how, for example, she could have given the order to ban the capture and torture of wild bears. Or, for that matter, to let people travel abroad and then decide for themselves what beauty and light and harmony are. But this would have required much more from her than grand words. It would also have been more dangerous to deal with human than with animal rights . . . Our princess fled to the safe sphere of the spirit and light. When she spoke, it was in the lofty language of symbols and poetic metaphors. There was no real change; there could not be any.
The fourth fable is shared by a psychiatrist cat from Poland, who writes a letter to the state prosecutor about her human owner’s ongoing trial for, among other things, declaring martial law and becoming a dictator.
The main question is, what is the purpose of this trial? Is it to achieve symbolic justice, or is it a case of belated retribution? Is he being tried as a person or as a symbol? Formally he was put on trial for illegally imposing martial law. It is expected to be a ritual of exorcising the evil spirit of Communism and, as such, to help society mentally step out of its past. In that sense, perhaps it would be wise to hold a trial. But if you are honest, you must admit that, so far, this looks like an act of revenge for decades of Communist rule, no more and no less. Vengeance, however, is a bad motive. Your office should not take part in something like that. What would you achieve? Are you sure that you are not looking for a scapegoat, not knowing how to deal with the problematic past?
In Germany, a mole tells us the about the Berlin Wall and explores the separation between East and West Berlin via a highly confusing banana analogy.
It seemed that Men on the nonbanana side of the Wall . . . did everything in their rather limited power to reach the banana side. To achieve that aim they had to fight both an internal enemy, such as fear, as well as external ones, i.e., guards and the Stasi . . . If I were to pursue a Mole’s line of reasoning, I would have to conclude that Men built the Wall(s) in order to protect themselves from that pestilence called socialism that was on the Eastern side. But the Legend tells us just the opposite! Those who built the Wall(s) were those marked by pestilence and the lack of bananas—so what were they protecting? . . . Isn’t it bizarre that prisoners on the banana side claimed that they were free, while those on the nonbanana side tried to jump over the Wall(s), or crawl under them, just because of their wish to move and eat freely within the prison?
And in Hungary, a feminist pig nicknamed after Miss Piggy (but who insists on Ms. for herself) explains why cooking is political, and how goulash and the gulag—two words which are easily confused, though they refer to completely different things—actually are connected.
[Prime Minister János Kádár] knew that the whole of Soviet-style socialism was hated, and he needed to introduce compromises in order to keep socialism going. And Hungarians knew that Kádár knew, and he knew that they knew that he knew. When he introduced the new economic plan, Kádár was confronted with the same question of ingredients: How far could one go in introducing various additions and changes—and still call it socialism? . . . Obviously, he decided that it was better to offer a meager goulash—with somewhat unconventional ingredients—than the gulag.
In the seventh fable, in Romania, an unseen character interviews the oldest dog in Bucharest to find out why there are so many stray dogs in that city.
You now ask me, How come the same people who got rid of a dictator like Nicolai Ceausecu seem not to be able to deal with dogs? A legitimate question, indeed, and one that I expected. What didn’t occur to you is that perhaps people here don’t want to deal with dogs. In a way, you see, this whole thing is Ceausecu’s legacy, one of many, I might add. How did it all happen? How did he, of all people, let dogs free? Because, as you say, to imagine that he would let anyone free, even dogs, is quite difficult . . . I suggest you think about something else, about people who obediently abandoned these noble creatures, their best friends (because we’re talking here about house pets) to life on the street, to the cruel struggle of survival. Doesn’t that tell you something about those who didn’t have the courage to defend their own homes?
Finally we go to Albania, where a writer talks to her friend and publisher about her mother’s diaries. This fable differs from the others in that the narrator is human, and the personified animal—a raven—appears to be her mother’s way of disguising someone’s identity.
I realized that she must have written about this case in a coded language. Raven was his code name in the diary; she never mentions his real name, or any other particular characteristic of his looks or profession, except for his symptoms. If discovered, she could have claimed that the man required therapy and had been referred to her just because, in his severe state of acute psychosis, he identified himself with a raven. However, the question remains—and I can see it in your eyes—why that particular bird, why a raven? I intuitively sensed that this name held the secret of the story, the secret of the person. I remember from my school days—as you surely do, too—that in Albanian mythology a raven is the bearer of bad news. Often it symbolizes death. It could also be a witness to something horrible. Was the name chosen as an indication she wanted to give to a future reader, to me? As if, by choosing this name for her patient she wanted to prepare me for the kind of problem she had to deal with? Yes, I believe she was trying to warn me that what I was about to read was a dark, dangerous, perhaps mortally dangerous, story. And yes, she wanted me to read it only after she had gone.
Again, this is a book I chose because it was available at my public library, and there weren’t many other options for Croatian writers. Again, I’m glad I read it. Even through the filters of allegory and my near-total ignorance of the details of Communism in any place besides Russia, I learned a lot about each of these countries and the particular dynamics of their history. It was a fun added element that this book, rather than taking place solely in Croatia, visited almost every other country I’ve been to on this backpacking tour. The fable format wasn’t my favorite, but I would very much like to read something else by Slavenka Drakulić at some point.