BOOK REVIEW / What an unlovely war: 'Balkan Express' - Slavenka Drakulic Tr. Maja Soljan: Hutchinson, 8.99 pounds

Isabel Hilton
Monday 01 February 1993 00:02 GMT

IN ONE of these essays, Slavenka Drakulic remembers the idea of a 'war for freedom'. It is an idea that lodged in the subconscious of her generation, that of post-war Yugoslavia. And the idea survived, despite the fact that much of the former regime's version of history and reality was recognised and rejected as caricature. Other things came to seem ridiculous, but not that idea of the heroic war, the war that 'was not a futile and senseless bloodletting but on the contrary a heroic and meaningful experience that was worth more than its one million victims'.

That memory now seems like an illusion from an age of innocence, from a time when war was part of a father's past, a mysterious and remote experience that was never really explained or described. How could Drakulic or her daughter, or the young men of her daughter's age who grew up within modern international youth culture, ever have imagined that they would learn at first hand those old truths? These essays are about how they came to learn them.

Written between April 1991 and May 1992, the essays describe the steady encroachment of war into Slavenka Drakulic's life and consciousness. 'War is not a single act,' she writes, 'it is a state of facts and minds, a head-spinning spiral of events and gradual

process of realisation. And even if my father had attempted to explain, it wouldn't have been any help to me now because it seems that everyone has to learn this truth alone . . .'

Inexorably, the war touches and transforms everything. In the end, Drakulic says, she realises that everyone who allows it to happen is guilty, everyone who assents a collaborator.

When a photograph is published of the first war victim, he has a name, an identity. Soon they are too numerous, too commonplace to be worth identifying. She feels a steady loss of control of her own life, despite the illusion of normality in Zagreb. In Bitter Cappuccino, her daughter, packing for an ordinary trip, quietly includes in her suitcase her childhood toy. It is the unspoken just in case, the recognition that she may not return from this ordinary trip. And Drakulic, noticing as she gets on a tram that a fellow passenger has a pistol under his jacket, writes: 'I have the uneasy feeling that my future is in his hands and there is no way to step down from the tram any more.'

There is heroism, too, but the difference between the heroic war that used to inhabit Drakulic's subconscious and the war that has poisoned her life is that heroism does not make this war worth fighting. These are stories of loss, of friends and acquaintances damaged or diminished, images of lives shattered between one mundane moment and another - a house with its roof blown off, the morning's washing still flapping on the line.

Drakulic, in any event, is not one to give herself over to romantic ideas of heroism. When she meets a young hero, she explores the incongruity of the fact that his generation - brought up on Nike sneakers and Spielberg movies - is now absorbed by the passions and grievances of their grand-

fathers, emotions that once felt as distant as a medieval quarrel.

And as for the notion of defending one's homeland, that is dealt with in one of the most painful essays, And the President is drinking coffee on Jelacic Square. The new president of Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, sits in a smart cafe on Duke Jelacic Square; on the other side of the square, there is a protest meeting of survivors and refugees from Vukovar, which had been shelled to ruins in the previous months. The refugees were complaining that the government had not given them the help it had promised.

It was a legal demonstration, but the electricity had been cut off from their sound system, so the speeches were inaudible. The protesters stood in the freezing drizzle; the president sat in the warm cafe, pretending not to notice them. When a woman asked him to come and say a few words, Tudjman refused. 'The fact that the president coudn't even bother to acknowledge them,' Drakulic writes, 'was so painful that they could barely speak.'

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in