Review: Cafe Europa by Slavenka Drakulić

Slavenka Drakulić continues her look at life after communism in the book Cafe Europa her sequel to How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed. It’s a great read and an honest read from the 1990s that rings true close to twenty years after she wrote it.

If you think regular consumers in the West sometimes have trouble recognizing that TV advertisements and media showcase a fantasy, unobtainable lifestyle, imagine how hard it was for people exiting 40 years of communism to know what’s real and what isn’t.

Croatian novelist and essayist Slavenka Drakulić says that every Eastern and Central European formerly-communist capital expresses their longing for the perfect Europe of their imagination with a Cafe Europa. There’s one in all the major capitals; indeed, the one in Prague, for example, is spectacular.

One of the most powerful parts of her book discusses the complicity that citizens of fascist/communist countries feel having worked to sustain a system that is now on the dust heap of history. As countries like Croatia tossed aside old street names, square names, and place names to reflect the change in power from communism to democracy, citizens saw their own personal history erased at the same time as everyone glossed over how they participated. She discovers that nations as a whole, don’t look back with probing insight. When the author went to Israel and was questioned by the citizens there about Croatia’s role in the Holocaust, Ms. Drakulić realized with shock that people there were asking her questions about history that went unexamined back home. It’s hard to take responsibility, on a personal and a civic level if that isn’t part of the civic culture.

I enjoyed this book because the author beautifully explains that many of the emerging democracies infantilized under communism are actually stuck in feudal behavior as much as communist behavior. The political system may have changed for the better, but the author felt it will be years until citizens know how to work the system, rather than subvert the system (the old way of surviving) and also how to look to themselves as personally responsible.

by Karen Van Drie

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