Book review: Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism, by Slavenka Drakulic
What a weird day to be writing about a book on democracy in Europe, as it teeters precariously in the United States. But I think Americans would do well to consider democratic processes and totalitarian histories in Europe, because it’s abundantly clear that we don’t have a good grasp on what democracy actually is. It’s not throwing a dangerous fit when you don’t get what you want — Democrats didn’t do that in 2016. Democracy is imperfect, it has fits and starts and stumbles. Examining and learning from errors and missteps is how you build a better democracy, and ensure that you keep it in the first place. Not with domestic terrorism.
Despite transitioning from Communism to democracy in 1989, many countries in Eastern Europe continue to falter in their connection to Western Europe and roles in the European Union. Croatian journalist and author Slavenka Drakulic wrote Café Europa: Life After Communism in 1997, a collection of pieces based in the immediate years following these major political and social changes on the continent.
In the 15 essays of Café Europa Revisited, she returns to similar topics from the perspective of more than two decades passed since totalitarianism fell and democracy was instated. Yet implementation of democracy has yet to be entirely successful or transformative in Eastern Europe. Even Western Europe was challenged, plagued by controversy and ugly behavior around immigration in 2014-2015, as waves of Middle Eastern refugees forced Europeans to consider their stance on immigration — a thorny topic even for many who had benefited from the EU’s open borders and policies themselves in the aftermath of Communism’s demise. And, of course, Brexit, with all it says about European unity and identity or lack thereof.
Drakulic looks at the refugee crisis and brilliantly analyzes Angela Merkel and her role, positing that Merkel’s openness towards accepting refugees in Germany may have contributed to her decrease in popularity. I love any portrait of Merkel because she’s such an interesting figure, and one of the most pivotal politicians of the modern era. She reminds Drakulic of her aunt, and in the hilariously titled essay “When Aunt Angela Met Donald Trump,” she examines similarities between Merkel and an Eastern European mother-figure, while deftly analyzing Trump’s rudeness and overt disrespect towards Merkel, in part because she’s a woman he’s not attracted to who wields a great deal of power.
Questions of assimilation are a major topic, including how assimilated any immigrant can ever be, using as an example a seemingly well-integrated Serbian shopkeeper in Sweden. Drakulic is especially adept at using such highly specific, personal stories as representations of greater issues and themes, and nowhere is this more effective than in humanizing the faces of immigrants and refugees and the particular challenges these groups face.
It’s also interesting because I think many non-Europeans tend to believe that immigration within Europe isn’t so massively different as moving outside of it, but any observation of the distinct cultures and understanding of what it’s taken, especially in the decades of the 21st century, to create a united European continent, however it currently looks, should put paid to this notion.
Some of the essays flagged a bit, like one about property inheritance in Croatia, but when they’re good, they’re fantastic — incisive and well argued, and revealing not only of cracks within Europe but on a far broader and troubling scale. It’s also an informative look at issues of equality within the EU, including how much is tied to ideas of national identity (not to mention the growing trend towards nationalism — see Brexit again).
For example, one standout piece covers suspicions of whether food products of lesser quality from the same major brands (Nutella, Leibniz cookies, Coca-Cola) are intended for the markets of Eastern European countries like Poland and Bulgaria, while western nations like Austria and Italy receive higher quality ones — more hazelnuts in the Nutella, more strawberries in the yogurt and fish in the fish sticks. This all seemed like weird speculation until an official investigation proved it.
Integration or lack thereof, feelings of nationalism that either linger or grow stronger, suspicion of outsiders or “others” and elements that are strongly tied to very recent history all crop up in these pieces. Drakulic’s writing is stellar and such a wise voice from the Croatian diaspora is a unique and welcome one.
Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism
by Slavenka Drakulic
published January 5, 2021 by Penguin
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.