#231. SURVIVING. If you’ve ever had the quixotic urge to stand with the proletariat and defeat the evils of capitalism by moving to a communist country (or what’s left of them), I would suggest you read Slavenka Drakulic’s book How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (Norton, 1992) and call me in the morning. Drakulic comments on the odd and misleading title in her preface--did the publisher stick her with it? If anyone in these essays about life at the end of the Yugoslavian breakup is having a jolly, I certainly missed it. We are accustomed by now to stories about life under Communist rule being about people constantly at threat: labor camps, dissidents who get disappeared, the heaviest forms of oppression. Drakulic instead personalizes the issue; what she gives us is the continuous grind of meanness and dreariness and poverty, the discomfort, the cramped living spaces and want of privacy, the depressive sense that this would never, never change or end. She captures the endless cadging, the stores with half-empty shelves, the phones that don’t work, the shortages of things like feminine hygiene products, the tatty clothing—a whole culture of cringe, with the added occasional galling glimpses of Western countries who have fashion, makeup, beauty and magazines whose paper is shinier, silkier, better than what you use in the bathroom. (After reading through Tony Hoagland’s poetry recently, so often appalled by the spangled excesses of American wealth, it was a shock to be shown the flip side of that experience.) Communism starts to feel like an insult as much as an injury: a people forced to live at an awful distance from optimism, ease and cheer. She captures the sense of being up against a massive, immobile bureaucracy and, in the six pages of “A Chat With My Censor,” how gently and subtly a writer may be nudged into a frightened self-censorship. The essays are sharp, short, and full of dismaying surprises. How We Survived Communism is an invitation to living under Communism the way “Boys Don’t Cry” is a come-on for living in Nebraska: you leave them profoundly thankful to be wherever else you are.
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