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Works by Slavenka Drakulic

The Taste of a Man (1997) 144 copies
Frida's Bed (2007) — Author — 117 copies
Marble Skin: A Novel (1989) — Author — 73 copies
Holograms of Fear (1987) 35 copies

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A set of essays written to try to give western readers a sense of what the real experience of life in communist eastern Europe was like. Drakulić likes to build out to political conclusions from banal observations of domestic life — the sociology of communist toilet-paper, the way housing shortages and the inability to move away from your parents makes it more difficult to be a radical, the way the eavesdropping neighbours in the post office queue reflect the phone-tapping operation in the back room, and the way it's difficult to focus on being a feminist in a country that never has feminine hygiene products available in the shops, even when you are living in a culture that supposedly celebrates the equality of men and women.

The treatment is engaging, witty and very sharp, but I kept getting the feeling that she had an excessively rosy idea of western consumerism. Maybe the only westerners she knew were rich American professors and journalists: I'm younger than she is, but I can clearly remember times when clothes were washed by hand and wound through a mangle, irons were heated on a coal range, and grandmothers obsessively collected plastic bags, glass jars, and shoeboxes for re-use. And darned stockings on a wooden mushroom. None of that strikes me as particularly communist — it's simply how people lived who had been through the deprivations of World War II.

Of course, the real elephant in the room of this book is the Balkan war that broke out just after Drakulić finished writing it. We have that in the backs of our minds all the time she is going on about celebrating Tito's birthday, applying for a phone line, or voting in the first free elections. Her editor asked her for an afterword for the second edition, but she clearly wasn't in any mood to try to reduce the political and military situation to a neat essay: she responded with a very moving letter in which she meditates on how difficult it is to come to terms with the idea that one is living in the middle of a full-scale war, something she knows intellectually can't possibly happen in post-WWII Europe. But is happening outside her window.
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thorold | 10 other reviews | Nov 15, 2023 |
This is another book I read years ago, and now cannot recall what it was like.
 
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mykl-s | 11 other reviews | Jul 24, 2023 |
Serious, but funny. Beautifully written.
 
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vdt_melbourne | 10 other reviews | Nov 19, 2022 |
4.5 stars.
Based on real-life testimonies of women held in Bosnian death camps, this single testimonial is unflinching in its "authenticity."
--Dedi Felman

In the book opens, " S.," the protagonist of the story, has just had a baby who is the product of a gang rape. She hates this baby.
"She feels nothing but animosity toward this creature. The first thought that came to her mind when she realized that she was pregnant was death. This child was condemned to death from the start. It lived only because by that time it was already too late for an abortion. She had to carry through her pregnancy to the bitter end, with a swelling stomach that deformed her beyond recognition and made her hate her own body."

S. is filling in for a friend of hers, a teacher on maternity leave, in a little village in bosnia. She and her parents are from Sarajevo. The Serb army swarms into her town, and kidnap all the occupants. The women and children are put on a bus for they do not know where. They end up in a prisoner camp.
Prison conditions here are horrific enough, but after a few weeks S. is taken to the "women's room," where the prettiest and youngest women and girls are kept, to be at the service of soldiers. They never know when they're going to be taken out of their room and gangraped, sometimes tortured. Sometimes they die, sometimes they disappear.
But months into her stay, the Captain of the camp has her brought before him. This is where S. gets lucky. He wants her companionship and her service in bed, but she gets to enjoy Real meals in his quarters, and the luxury of being able to take baths and showers.
"The advantage of being with the Captain becomes more and more obvious to her with each passing day. To survive. To sip wine, eat, sleep in clean sheets, to be safe. The Captain may be her chance of survival. She does not even contemplate freedom, that naive she is not. She simply wants to take advantage of this unexpected opportunity to improve her situation. At this moment, she is not even asking herself whether she is right; good and bad make little sense when it comes to camp life. What is useful to you is good, what is of no use or of direct harm to someone else is bad. S. is certain that her actions are not hurting anyone."

Another woman in the camp, a character named E., kills herself after her daughter is killed by being gangraped. Shortly after S. came to the prison camp, her little box containing her jewelry went missing. Not knowing who stole it, she complained to E. about it being stolen.
The morning of their liberation from the camp, E. is found dead by her own hand. She leaves a note behind for S., asking for her forgiveness for taking her jewelry. She used it to bribe the soldiers to leave her daughter alone.
"... Of course S. would have given her the gold jewelry, if only she had told her, had explained why. Remembering how bitter she was when she discovered the theft, she is now overwhelmed by embarrassment at her own selfishness. How shortsighted she had been. When she had bemoaned the theft, E. had looked down and S., well she remembers, had taken that as a sign of indifference on E.'s part, as a sign that she had reconciled herself to fate. If only E. had given S. some indication, perhaps it would have made it easier for them both. Perhaps they could have helped each other. these thoughts run through as S.'s mind as she sits on the bed next to the dead E."

S. travels to Sweden, where she is granted refugee status.
"S. knows that she is now a refugee but she still does not know what that means exactly. How many other people's shoes and coats, how much more waiting. She still does not know that this waiting is what keeps her going, but there is no other thread connecting the moments and holding them together than this waiting for lunch, for dinner, for their documents, for approval, for news of their families, for the bus, for their departure, for their return. That is why even this camp, while not surrounded by barbed wire, is terrible. They are all waiting for something and that is what their life consists of. A refugee is someone who has been expelled from somewhere but does not go anywhere because they have nowhere to go. It feels that she is now actually existing between two places, in a state of anticipation, in transit between the one and the other. Neither of these places is home. S. is only now becoming accustomed to the fact that this feeling of the transitory is her new situation."

One of the workers helping the refugees in sweden, turns out to be a person that s went to school with. She lived in the same building that S. and her sister and parents lived in in Sarajevo, so now she tells S. some of what happened in the bombing of Sarajevo.
"F. tells her with a smile: imagine, nobody in our building fell ill, even when temperatures dropped to minus 10! Cold and hunger are not the hardest things to bear. The worst thing is that there is no water in the bathroom, then the whole apartment stinks. A stench from which there is no escape, that is the most humiliating thing. S. does not know what to say. She laughs, as if she finds the comment about the bathroom funny, as if one can laugh at such suffering. She remembers the unbearable stench of burning corpses in the wheelie bin. She would like to tell F. a bit about her own experience of humiliation, about the types and degrees of humiliation in the camp, but she abandons the idea. Horrors should not, cannot be compared. They should not even be described. There is little hope that anyone will understand them anyway."

This book is very difficult to read. But it's a very important book, and I commend the author for what must have been a very difficult book to write.
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burritapal | 8 other reviews | Oct 23, 2022 |

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