Seagull Books

Extract from ‘Two Underdogs and a Cat’, by Slavenka Drakulic

From the first story: ‘A Guided Tour through the Museum of Communism’.

Come in, come in, please! Don’t worry, this is only a museum of Communism—not the real thing!

I can tell you that the more time I spend here, the more I realize how important the Museum is. I remember Professor Perlik’s words: ‘A time will soon come when kids will ask, “Communism, what’s that? A religion? Maybe a car manufacturer?” ’ and from the things I heard him say, that’s simply not right. Communism shouldn’t be remembered just by the likes of the Professor, or Milena who survived it—it should be remembered for its bad sides and its good. There must be something good one can say about it, although that’s not a popular view to hold these days, I gather. For example, people could get a solid education, they say. Or there’s the fact that Communist USSR fought against the Nazis inthe second World War. Yet Milena says that, after watching Hollywood movies, one gets the impression that it was the Americans who won it all on their own!

Some visitors don’t care at all about such facts. They just buy posters, stamps, t-shirts and soviet army caps, along with candles shaped like Stalin, Marx and Lenin.They are the most popular items sold in the shop. Maybe because they are the cheapest. I admit I can hardly imagine the excitement of watching Stalin slowly melt into a puddle of wax, but there are people who enjoy such symbolic acts.

As you come in, you inevitably notice the busts and statues of Marx, Lenin, Stalin. A young man, a Czech, was here recently. Looking at Marx, he said: ‘Is that some Orthodox priest?’ I suppose Marx, with his beard, does indeed look like one. You could also say that he was rather orthodox in his views, and, in some ways, quite like a priest, preaching his doctrine. But even I was astonished by the young man’s ignorance. What would Professor Perlik have made of his question? He would wonder what they teach in history class nowadays and would probably tell the boy: ‘Well, read about him, you durak!’ that’s ‘stupid’ in Russian, which he also taught, but they don’t teach anybody Russian any more. Sad, but true.

You know, sometimes, when visitors come to this room with its paintings from the soviet school of socialist realism, with the busts and a space shuttle and a school class and a workshop—all in one room!—I can see how disappointed they are. I peek out at them and they look to me like those people who love to visit freak shows with two-headed goats or bearded women. Of course, I can see why they are disappointed—there is no Stalin in a cage, not even a mummy of Lenin! Only a heap of old things here, more like a junkyard, which in fact it is. The exhibits here are from flea markets, all kinds of garage sales, even out of dustbins.

I realized that it is not without reason that the history of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia is written on a single scroll and, glued to the wall, almost as if it is not intended to be read. I guess what I’m trying to explain is that I learned how the most important things about Communism are the invisible ones. And that, in here, in the Museum, you won’t see the shades of grey that prevailed in everyday life. That is why such a museum reaches only so deep— this criticism comes from a very learned man who was here, perhaps a curator in another museum, perhaps some kind of critic. According to him, the Museum does not—and cannot—show you the full depth of what the people endured. ‘There is no personal history given here, no individual destiny,’ he said. On the other hand, perhaps no museum of Communism is capable of doing that. And you know what I think? Not that the opinion of someone like me counts at all, nevertheless I tell you that maybe the Museum’s got it right! Maybe the absence of individual stories is the best illustration of the fact that individualism was the biggest sin one could commit.

Our visitors usually want to take photos in this room. For example, if they stand here, where I am standing, they can take a photo of this beautiful nineteenth-century chandelier. Indeed, they can get it in the same frame as the hammer and sickle—a really nice souvenir! By the way, this chandelier is widely considered by our visitors to be the Museum’s only beautiful item. Although not intended as an exhibit, you could still say—as I have heard them say—that it symbolizes the life of the bourgeoisie, the class enemy. As does this whole spacious apartment. ‘Look, a beautiful bourgeois apartment full of ugly things produced during Communism !’ I seem to like the fact that this is a museum of ugly things. By the time visitors like you arrive here, they have had their fill of beautiful buildings in the neighbourhood. Almost anything produced under Communism anywhere—from apartment buildings to clothes, from furniture to potsand pans—is considered ugly.

‘What did the change bring me?’ Milena says. ‘I’ve lost my job. I have less money. My husband drinks. Freedom? What freedom? We can’t travel anywhere, we can’t buy things. We don’t even have a car now, can’t afford to keep it,’ she laments to Dasha, who can only share her feelings. I sometimes feel sorry for them; they are obviously among the losers. These two ladies are perhaps not the best advertisement for democracy and capitalism, I’d say. The change happened too late for them. Indeed, how frustrating it must be to finally live in an age of plenty but not be able to enjoy it, don’t you think, Hans?

I hope you found the Museum interesting. I’m afraid that you probably find me not competent enough as a guide. But I couldn’t tell how much you know about Communism and I wanted you to get a grasp of it. Remember, I’m only an amateur guide!

Anyway, Professor Perlik would say, ‘What is important is what you do not see—the fear, the complicity and the hypocrisy of life under Communism.’ However modest and superficial the Museum may look to you, the importance of it is that it exists. That, in itself, is a miracle! Because, tell me, who would have ever thought, twenty years ago, that Communism would end up like this—in a museum?

Or, for that matter, that you would visit me here, and that I would be your guide?

So long! And have a nice holiday in Paris!

******************

Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic here presents an unorthodox, imaginative take on the transition from Communism to capitalism in the former Soviet Union. Three characters—a dog, an underdog, and a cat—offer the reader narratives that reflect on life under Communism and what has followed in its wake.

The first, “An Interview with the Oldest Dog in Bucharest,” is about a dog named Charlie, whose mother, Mimi, together with thousands of other pets, was thrown out into the street during the Ceausescu regime. In this interview, Charlie describes how not only people but animals, too, became victims during the destruction of downtown neighborhoods in Bucharest in order to build a pyramid-like “Palace of the People.” In “A Guided Tour of the Museum of Communism,” a sixty-year-old souvenir vendor-cum-cleaning woman in Prague reflects upon the meaning of such a museum and concludes wryly that she herself is possibly the museum’s best exhibit. Finally, “A Cat-keeper in Warsaw” describes an encounter with a person “of feline origin” who claims to be in possession of the cat-keeper called “General” who declared martial law in Poland on December 13, 1981.

The three stories are unified by powerful, but troubling questions: Are democracy and capitalism really a change for the better? Is the idea of social justice lost forever? Is there such a thing as collective responsibility? And how do we remember and understand our past?

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