"Cafe Europe: Life After Communism," by Slavenka Drakulic. Norton & Co. 192 pages. $21.
Grandiose abstractions, both communist and nationalist, have brought incalculable misery to Eastern Europe. So it is apt that Slavenka Drakulic describes its unsettled present with the casual intimacy of a cafe conversation, drawing her symbols from the domestic: salesclerks' smiles, bathroom fixtures, dental work, a photograph from 1945, ethnic cooking.
The title of this eminently readable collection of essays is gently ironic. Every Eastern European city has a cafe, she says, which by self-consciously insisting on its Western-ness unwittingly emphasizes its Eastern-ness. At the Cafe Europa in Tirana, the "plastic seats, which would in the West be thought in bad taste, are considered both elegant and exotic in Albania, since such furniture was neither produced nor even seen in the country until recently."
What may at first sound like snobbery from Drakulic, a Croatian who spends much of her time in Vienna and Stockholm and is married to a Swede, builds into a subtle portrait of the East and particularly the Balkan countries she knows best. By focusing minutely on habits of daily life, Drakulic explains why the integration of the Eastern countries into Europe has turned out to be far more complex than merely lifting the Soviet yoke, privatizing businesses and holding elections.
Drakulic, born in 1949, is the author of two earlier collections, "The Balkan Express" and "How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed," as well as two novels. But "Cafe Europa" requires no specialized knowledge of the region, and any reader will find Drakulic an engaging companion in pondering just how the dissolution of communism gave way to war and genocide in Europe a half-century after Hitler.
Her eye is sharp for details that reveal the essence of a culture. She has Joan Didion's gift for working her way patiently from seemingly trivial details toward a conclusion that seems inevitable when it arrives.
"I peed in her pink toilet" is the arresting opening of her account of a tour of the Bucharest villa of the Ceausescu family of Romania. The garish bathroom of the dictator's daughter, Zoe, "was a statement of the ultimate luxury, primarily because it functioned and was equipped with hot water, soap and toilet paper. It was the exception in Romania, which marked it as luxury." Six pages later, you are almost ready to buy her argument that decent bathrooms are a prerequisite for democracy.
When Drakulic explores her mixed feelings about the communist past, she starts at home, in a brilliant essay entitled, "My Father's Guilt." She is surprised by her own reaction at seeing her mother carefully place a wreath so as to cover the communist star on her father's gravestone.
"A feeling of fury overwhelmed me: standing in the graveyard I could see that someone was stealing the past away from my father, from me, from all of us, and we were just letting it happen," she writes. "We thought that we could change the color of our skin like a chameleon."
Clear-eyed, Drakulic gives a frightening account of how the shedding of communism has been accompanied by the gradual rehabilitation of the fascist Croatian regime of World War II.
"To forget, how sweet it must be to be able to really forget," she muses. "Perhaps that's how eternity feels."
Scott Shane is a reporter for The Sun. He was Moscow correspondent from 1988 to 1991 and is the author of "Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union."
Pub Date: 2/09/97