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Animal Nature

SLAVENKA DRAKULIC REVISITS and recrafts some of the most frightening moments in modern literature in her new book, seemingly lightening them for a distracted postmodern audience, before bringing home her cheerfully phrased but powerfully voiced song against oblivion. Think, for example, of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”—but from the point of view not of the startled poet, but also of the ebony bird. What terror has the raven seen in the eyes of a man upon that December midnight? Drakulić gives us such a creature, transported in time and place and genre, a raven that has flown through the window of a psychiatrist, having seen (or caused?) the suicide of the Albanian prime minister in December 1981. (“When Comrade Raven asked me to see him privately, I was taken by surprise.”) The suicide, a true historical event, is given to the reader from the case notes of the Albanian psychiatrist, as discussed by her daughter a generation later, which is to say now.

The words “It’s about time!” end that chapter, and also the book. Drakulić’s task in this unusual collection of animal stories is to clarify the filmy confusion of “memory.” Her subject is not the central horrors of central Europe—the Holocaust and Stalinist terror—but rather the lives of the generations that grew up under communism, people of her own generation. Guided Tour is fundamentally the story of the end, of how that system was experienced across the plurality of nations (each animal is in a different post-communist country), of how Stalinism came apart.

Her animals are thus gentler guides, or so it seems at least, than those that we recall from the literature of totalitarianism. Czesław Miłosz, writing of Warsaw in 1943 of a “Poor Christian Looking at the Ghetto” created the enigmatically terrifying figure of the “guardian mole,” which will be able to judge us with certainty by our ashes. Drakulić’s confused and comical scholar mole, at some point decades from now, is delivering a lecture to a learned society about the Berlin Wall. His subject is not the decision of humans to kill humans but their decision to enclose themselves. In her reconstruction of Berlin, Drakulić wants to say that walls of misunderstanding still separate West and East, but more profoundly that the greatest division, in both East and West, is perhaps between the old and the young.

References to Orwell abound—for example, in the chapter about Poland. The Polish communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelski, in one chapter, has a cat and a dog. Jaruzelski is the man who declared martial law in Poland the same month that the Albanian prime minister committed suicide. Here Jaruzelski’s cat writes a letter to the judicial authorities of today, mentioning Jaruzelski’s faithful dog “Napoleon.” The reference to Bonaparte might be a martial one, of course; but it is hard not to think of the name of the Stalin-pig in Orwell’s Animal Farm. In another chapter, a Hungarian pig gourmet recalls the plot of Animal Farm, in which Napoleon/Stalin purges his former friends and allies: “Yes, the communist revolution did eat its children after all. We pigs could bear witness to that.” A Romanian dog modifies one of the most famous Orwellian lines, noting that under capitalism everyone is unequal “but some are more unequal than others.”

Drakulić is one of the cleverest and most subtle of East European writers, and her moralism is impossible to reduce to maxims. When we listen to the recollections of Tito’s parrot, we understand that leaders can be several things at once. The mouse leading us through the “museum of communism” in Prague explains that, according to Havel, the line between victim and oppressor in late communism runs through each person. “In the museum,” the mouse instructs a German tourist, “you won’t see the shades of gray.” A bear liberated from its trainer in Bulgaria explains to an animal rights activist how oppression is internalized: “a hot metal training plate” which burns bears’ hind paws so that they learn to dance, “had been installed in my brain forever.”

Drakulić is determined to portray life in late communism, in the 1960s through the 1980s, as full of the same conundrums as life today, only more so. The Hungarian pig is a trained political scientist, who wishes, in an introduction to a cookbook, to explain the difference between Gulag and goulash. Punishment was real, but so was pleasure. As that parrot adds, inviting us into Tito’s kitchen in a typical Drakulician flourish, “the thing about Sophia [Loren], besides her long legs, small waist, and big boobs, was that she could cook.”

In Animal Farm, of course, the pleasures of the flesh, and especially the pleasures of the table, were a sign of the corruption of the new (Stalinist-pig) elite. In late communism, consumerism was a last-ditch effort, cleverly deployed but perhaps doomed from the outset, to maintain loyalty or its outward appearance. As the museum-guide mouse reminds us, communism in the end “could not produce the basic things that people needed.” Animal Farm was an allegorical fable about history, or rather History, that had gone wrong. The pigs were clearly Stalin and Trotsky and Kamenev and so on, the events were events in Soviet history of the 1920s and 1930s, and the outcome was the rise of a tyrant.

The animals of Drakulić’s stories, by contrast, are emancipated: they are not stand-ins for human beings. Guided Tour combines a beguiling array of genres: the lecture of a museum guide, the instruction of a tourist in a pleasure spot, a complaint to a young activist, a letter to a procurator general, a lecture to a learned society, an introduction to a cookbook, and the case notes of a psychiatrist. Animals figure in all of these genres, but usually as the putative authors. Thus these stories are not really fables (despite the subtitle’s promise) because the animals do not reveal the problems of human nature through their own actions, foolish or wise. Instead they are there to instruct us, and what they are all saying, in their different ways, is: remember. At bottom this book is the work of a very gifted novelist who is using every imaginable trick, and some fairly unimaginable ones, to help us recall what seems like the very recent past.

Orwell taught that a satirical fable could introduce us to Stalinism. For our own post-communist age, Slavenka Drakulić summons her own group of animals, each with its own literary genre, and each with a story to tell about life in a communist country. The mouse and the mole, the pig and the parrot, the raven and the bear, the cat and the dog, all seek and find ways to remind us of a time and place, and to teach us the difference between our habitually stale commemoration of the graying past and the warmth and wetness and dread and darkness of life truly and bravely recalled. This daring triumph of literary style transforms a receding epoch into the eternal present, beautifully rendering the dilemmas of life under communism as sharp instances of moral tragedy and poignant examples of the limits of self-knowledge. Literature here is an aide de mémoire of why we choose to forget.

Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University and the author, most recently, of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.