Although her publishers categorize A Guided Tour through the Museum of Communism as fiction, Slavenka Drakuli?’s book is, more accurately, a series of satirical essays, narrated by six animals and two birds. Shades of Animal Farm, with all the hindsight of writing after the fall of Communism?wicked essays by a writer most famous for her novel S. That wrenching story was set to the background of Yugoslavia’s implosion?war, rape, unspeakable crimes?by a writer born in 1949, in Croatia.
The “museum” of the title of Drakuli?’s book is not a literal museum at a specific location but a series of places, in different countries that were once Communist, highlighting aspects of their contribution to the Soviet empire, using creatures that have some connection to national cultures, and replete with literary references to important writers and their works. The opening chapter (with the same title as the book) is set in Prague and written from the perspective of a mouse, smart enough you’d think he has a Ph.D. Although some of the insights are intended to be witty, they are also astute observations about the failures of individual Communist regimes.
The mouse observes, “Almost anything that was produced under Communism anywhere?from apartment buildings to clothes, from furniture to pots and pans?is considered to be ugly.” Utilitarian without the aesthetics. Taking that observation a step further, the mouse concludes, “In order to understand why Communism failed, one has to know that it could not produce the basic things people needed. Or, perhaps, not enough of them.” The opening essay becomes a platform for all the later observations by other creatures.
Koki, the talking parrot living with Marshall Tito, introduces the more ominous realities of life under a Communist regime: it was much better to be a talking bird than a talking person. If he had been a human being, “his words might have landed him in prison.” Tito’s “attitude toward the future was reflected in his perception of himself as being irreplaceable.” Koki’s position was “conversationalist and entertainer of movie stars and statesmen, of queens and dictators,” privileged as he was, residing in Tito’s palace.
A cat called Gorby, who narrates the next chapter from his perspective in Warsaw, builds on earlier comments by the other creatures: Communism could not be reformed, hence it collapsed. Mikhail Gorbachev, the cat’s namesake, tried to make that reform, achieving the exact opposite of what he intended.
By far the most playful section of the book is “The Legend of the Berlin Wall?As Presented by a Mole.” First, the mole tells us that the entire concept of the wall is a construct of people in the Overland, since moles cannot be confined to one side or the other of a wall. “I find it particularly interesting that Men used to dig tunnels under this very Wall, as if they were Moles themselves.” “The Legend of the Berlin wall,” he tells us, “lives on because we Moles remembered it and passed it on to our children as a cautionary tale about how strangely Men could behave?” Then one day he figures it out, and the key to understanding the wall is bananas. People “either had bananas or ‘socialism’; the two of them didn’t grow together.” Men on the “nonbanana side of the Wall?did everything in their limited power to reach the banana side.” Ergo, freedom was having bananas; socialism/Communism was living without them, which loops us back to the observations that the mouse made about having and not having.
There are other chapters devoted to the observations of a pig and a raven, but by far the most engaging is the wisdom of the oldest dog in Bucharest. In a city of two million people with three hundred thousand dogs, with “up to fifty incidents of biting per day,” how does it happen that the people got rid of the dictator Nicolae Ceausecu but left the dogs to run astray? Turns out there is a perfectly logical explanation: the result of the displacement of people from their property and the denial of leaving with their dogs. So what’s the solution to cull the dog packs today? “Remember how Westerners were crazy about adopting our children from orphanages?” Dog tourism. Spend a weekend in Bucharest and take a dog home with you. It’s either that or sell them to the Koreans who will eat them.
A Guided Tour through the Museum of Communism is a delightful romp through some of Eastern Europe’s major cities, still recovering from years of Communist mismanagement.
A Guided Tour through the Museum of Communism
By Slavenka Drakuli?
Penguin, 192 pp., $14.00
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.