Thursday, March 3, 2011

Animal Nature

by Timothy Snyder

The New Republic

March 3, 2011

Slavenka Drakulic revisits and recrafts some of the most frightening moments in modern literature in her new book, seemingly lightening them for a distracted postmodern audience, before bringing home her cheerfully phrased but powerfully voiced song against oblivion. Think, for example, of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”—but from the point of view not of the startled poet, but also of the ebony bird. What terror has the raven seen in the eyes of a man upon that December midnight? Drakulić gives us such a creature, transported in time and place and genre, a raven that has flown through the window of a psychiatrist, having seen (or caused?) the suicide of the Albanian prime minister in December 1981. (“When Comrade Raven asked me to see him privately, I was taken by surprise.”) The suicide, a true historical event, is given to the reader from the case notes of the Albanian psychiatrist, as discussed by her daughter a generation later, which is to say now.

The words “It’s about time!” end that chapter, and also the book. Drakulić’s task in this unusual collection of animal stories is to clarify the filmy confusion of “memory.” Her subject is not the central horrors of central Europe—the Holocaust and Stalinist terror—but rather the lives of the generations that grew up under communism, people of her own generation. Guided Tour is fundamentally the story of the end, of how that system was experienced across the plurality of nations (each animal is in a different post-communist country), of how Stalinism came apart.

Her animals are thus gentler guides, or so it seems at least, than those that we recall from the literature of totalitarianism. Czesław Miłosz, writing of Warsaw in 1943 of a “Poor Christian Looking at the Ghetto” created the enigmatically terrifying figure of the “guardian mole,” which will be able to judge us with certainty by our ashes. Drakulić’s confused and comical scholar mole, at some point decades from now, is delivering a lecture to a learned society about the Berlin Wall. His subject is not the decision of humans to kill humans but their decision to enclose themselves. In her reconstruction of Berlin, Drakulić wants to say that walls of misunderstanding still separate West and East, but more profoundly that the greatest division, in both East and West, is perhaps between the old and the young.