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Breaking Away : CAFE EUROPA: Life After Communism. By Slavenka Drakulic . W. W. Norton: 213 pp., $21

February 16, 1997|CHRISTOPHER MERRILL | Christopher Merrill's most recent book is "The Old Bridge: The Third Balkan War and the Age of the Refugee" (Milkweed Editions)

"Life, for the most part, is trivial," Slavenka Drakulic announced in "How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed," her first collection of essays published in English. "But trivia is political." The wit and candor with which she explored in those pages the relationship between political authority and the trivia of daily life in the former Yugoslavia earned her a spirited readership in the West. Here was a fresh and, more important, reliable guide to a land--terra incognita, for many--about to lay claim to the world's attention.

True, the Communist system had fallen apart, but the habits of thinking inculcated in its citizenry persisted, often in the guise of virulent nationalism. When fighting broke out in Yugoslavia, first in Slovenia, then in Croatia and then, most tragically, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Drakulic chronicled "the other, less visible side of war"--the ways in which war changes one's values, perceptions and thinking.

In "The Balkan Express: Fragments From the Other Side of the War," she described, in poignant terms, how the war stripped Yugoslavs of their individuality and plunged the land into ever-accelerating cycles of destruction and despair.

In her latest collection of personal essays, "Cafe Europa: Life After Communism," Drakulic uses a wider lens to focus on the general plight of Eastern Europeans seven years after the revolution. The Croatian writer, newly married to a Swedish journalist, now divides her time between Zagreb and Vienna, and what she discovers shuttling between her homes, as well as in travels to Bucharest, Budapest, London, Prague, Sofia, Stockholm, Tel Aviv and Tirana, is that she can neither escape her past nor pretend that Eastern Europeans are anything other than second-class citizens. Writing in English, in a supple and felicitous manner, Drakulic suggests how very far she and her countrymen have yet to go to create a civil society. "Even I, in my own head, have not made the definite step from 'them' to 'me,' from communism to democracy," she admits.

Civil society, she realizes, will not begin of its own accord. "Individual responsibility, including the responsibility for oneself, is an entirely new concept here," she writes, yet it is crucial to the development of democracy. She illustrates the continuing failure to recognize the connection between individual behavior and democratic ideals in a variety of ways, none more humorously than in her essay on bad teeth: "As absurd as it may sound, in the old days one could blame the Communist Party even for one's bad teeth. Now there is no one to blame, but it takes time to understand that."

Drakulic tells her "short half-stories, half-essays," as she describes her style of reportage, through revelatory details--a hotel clerk's refusal to smile, the number of new businesses with Western names, the amount of mud in the city streets.

In Tirana, for example, once her eye becomes accustomed to the concrete bunkers lining the road--some of the more than 600,000 "pillboxes" built to protect Albanians from a Western invasion--she notices the mangled remains of greenhouses the Albanians wrecked during their revolution. It turns out that they destroyed everything associated with the Communist state--factories, schools, hospitals and monuments to their hated dictator, Enver Hohxa. Drakulic explains their anger as a function of the bunkers, whose "only purpose was to create and perpetuate fear. If you live surrounded by them, when freedom finally comes, that fear turns into hatred and aggression. You could even call it the 'pillbox effect.' "

"Cafe Europa" is full of such insight; and if there is a limitation to Drakulic's method it resides in her occasional refusal to ask the larger questions these insights demand--questions she never ducks when it comes to references to her homeland. For example, though she sympathizes with the Albanians' desire to erase even the material aspects of their past, she is not so forgiving of her countrymen's propensity to rewrite history. To her horror, Croatia's "independent" fascist past is now cause for celebration: Street names are changed to honor members of the Ustasha, the Nazi puppets who committed vicious atrocities during World War II, their crimes against humanity played down or denied. And the Croatian people, she asserts, are engaged in a conspiracy of silence about the ways in which their government "is more or less discreetly establishing a direct link with the 1941-45 period, thus rehabilitating fascism." This is why Drakulic admires the Germans: They at least had the strength not to erase their Nazi past.

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