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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

June 20, 1993|CHRIS GOODRICH

BALKAN EXPRESS: Fragments from the Other Side of the War by Slavenka Drakulic (W.W. Norton: $19.95; 208 pp.). It's one of the $64,000 questions of the post-Communist era: Is there a reason that the most virulent civil unrest among the formerly Communist nations should have taken place in Yugoslavia, for years the most liberal Communist state? Slavenka Drakulic says there is--the fact that state repression was insufficiently severe to produce the need for an underground shadow government, ready to take over when the idols fell. "We traded our freedom for Italian shoes," writes Drakulic, who finds the explanation "so simple that I'm almost ashamed of it." Drakulic, a Croatian journalist and novelist whose work often appears in U.S. weeklies, is more of a personal essayist than a political reporter, and that's what makes "Balkan Express" striking: She is preoccupied by the effects of war on the human soul, and shows them to be devastating. She tells the story of a Croatian actress attacked, repudiated and eventually exiled for performing at a Serb-run theater festival; of a young acquaintance who uses Zagreb's tinderbox political climate to rationalize the appropriation of an apartment she had been house-sitting; of one friend's need to wear high heels during wartime; of her own terror at being reduced in others' eyes to a single characteristic--being Croat. Serbs and Croats, once friends perhaps, now find "the war speaking through our mouths, accusing us, reducing us to two opposing sides, forcing us to justify ourselves." The essays in Balkan Express are very much reports from the civilian front, full of frightening immediacy and holding out little hope for peace. The war has been internalized, to the point that Drakulic feels "the creation of prejudice within me," a prejudice that can be as easy to slip into as "a familiar pair of warm slippers."

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