Review: A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism by Slavenka Drakulic
This slim volume is both charming and humorous. In addition it is simultaneously serious and thought-provoking. It takes a tour through a number of East European, former state-socialist countries – Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Romania and Albania – examining their political and social characteristics before the changes of 1989-90, and in many cases afterwards as well.
As the book’s subtitle indicates – Fables from a Mouse, a Parrot, a Bear, a Cat, a Mole, a Pig, a Dog & a Raven – the different stories are told almost exclusively through the mouths of animals. Thus the mouse is Czech, the parrot Yugoslav, the bear Bulgarian and so on. The author cleverly uses this humorous device to discuss a number of issues that might otherwise turn off many readers, due to their serious and sometimes controversial nature.
The Czech mouse, for example, raises the thorny issue of why the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia enjoyed, at least for much of the time, the support – sometimes active, sometimes passive – of vast numbers of Czech and Slovak citizens. Such a question, the type of which naturally applies to other countries in the region as well, is not usually even asked these days, let alone considered, as if nobody ever supported the various ruling parties. The mouse’s monologue breaks through such self-induced amnesia.
The Polish cat tackles something arguably even more controversial by discussing in a fairly sympathetic manner the claim of General Wojciech Jaruzelski that his imposition of martial law in December 1981 was undertaken for patriotic reasons, namely to forestall an invasion of Soviet troops sent by the Kremlin to put an end to the Polish troubles, as they saw it, and the influence of Solidarnosc, Poland’s popular, independent trade union.
The Bulgarian bear addresses another subject. Ostensibly it is the story of a performing bear and his gypsy master in which, after the political changes in Bulgaria, the bear is “liberated” by Western animal-rights activists but the gypsy loses whatever security he had. It’s not difficult to see in it a parable not simply about bears but about social divisions and discrimination in society at large.
The Hungarian tale, as related by a pig, tackles a different, albeit related theme. “From Gulag to Goulash” focuses on the country’s former “goulash economy” but keeps reverting to the recipe for traditional Hungarian beef soup, which at first sight appears entirely non-controversial. It’s only when we read of the many ways in which the dish can be prepared does the hint of a message about variety and tolerance creep in.
And so it goes. Each animal describes its country in a different way, highlighting different issues, and this itself is a reminder of the important fact that whatever the commonalities of these former states, they all had their own specifics – something else that tends to be glossed over these days.
This little book is worth more than its weight in gold. It deserves to be read by anyone wanting to get to grips with some essential aspects of recent East European experience. As such it says more than many a thick tome devoted to political history and political ideology.
Buy the book
A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism – Fables from a Mouse, a Parrot, a Bear, a Cat, a Mole, a Pig, a Dog & a Raven
Paperback, 192 pages