February 17, 2011


A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism: Fables from a Mouse, a Parrot, a Bear, a Cat, a Mole, a Pig, a Dog, & a Raven. By Slavenka Drakulić. Penguin. $14.

A Dazzling Display of Dogs. By Betsy Franco. Illustrations by Michael Wertz. Tricycle Press/Random House. $16.99.

Dear Tabby. By Carolyn Crimi. Illustrated by David Roberts. Harper. $16.99.

     George Orwell wrote the book on animals as meaningful political and societal commentators: Animal Farm. Although far from the first work to use animals as stand-ins for people – Aesop’s fables predate it by some two thousand years – it was Orwell’s book, first published in 1946, that cemented the notion of animal commentators for modern readers, as well as giving the world the inimitable epigram, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." This was Orwell’s encapsulation of Communism, the system that Animal Farm was meant to satirize, and the characterization has stood up so well because it was so apt (and so applicable to other human-designed systems, too, not necessarily excluding the pseudo-equality of democracy). Now, decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the scattering of its satellite states into post-Communist worlds of their own, Croatian author Slavenka Drakulić has returned to the notion of animal stand-ins to present her decidedly skewed, highly pointed and often surprisingly moving eight-part study, A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism. A mouse in Prague, a parrot from the shattered country that used to be Yugoslavia, a Bulgarian bear, a cat from Warsaw, an East German mole (an especially apt choice), a Hungarian pig, a dog from Bucharest and an Albanian raven explore life under Communism and wonder whether the post-Communist world in which they now live is really better or merely different. Exploring notions of social justice and the gulf between high-minded ideals and gritty reality, the animal philosophers present thoughtful, if skewed, analyses of their nations and the world. The book is largely about memory and how to integrate the past into the present, as in Tosho the Dancing Bear’s comment: “Ah, it is perhaps useless to try to tell new kids what it was like to live before, to dance while somebody else yanks your chain.” Or that of Koki, the talking and cursing parrot, speaking to a tourist: “Koki used to be part of the Marshal’s zoo here on one of the fourteen islands in the Brioni archipelago that he used as his summer residence during his reign. At that time, of course, Koki did not need to entertain people like you. Oh no! You bloody tourists could not get anywhere near this place.” Or the remarks to the state prosecutor by Gorby the cat, regarding the planned trial of an ex-leader: “The main question is, What is the purpose of this trial? Is it to achieve symbolic justice, or is it a case of belated retribution? Is he being tried as a person or as a symbol?” The entire book is full of symbols – the animals themselves, of course, prominent among them – and filled also with a kind of wistfulness for the Communist era that never quite slips into nostalgia. The animals do not pretend that things were wonderful under the old dictatorships; quite the contrary. But then, at least, they (and by extension the humans among whom they lived) knew where they stood, what their limits were. The fall of Communism brought with it the liberties but also the confusions of democracy (or at least of post-Communist society); and these can be distinctly difficult to navigate, if not perhaps as imminently deadly as the ins and outs of the Communist worlds they displaced. Drakulić is well aware that she is treading in Orwell’s footsteps with this book: she opens it with a quotation from him. And some of her animals’ observations approach the Orwellian, like one from “Karl, called Charlie,” the oldest dog in Bucharest: “What do you do when there’s not even an idea of a common interest, a common good? In a society like ours it needs to be created. The lack of it means that one day we’ll wake up to a decision of someone high up that dogs finally have to go. In the name of the EU we’ll be swept away for good. Then there will be a short outrage; the party in charge will perhaps lose a few votes. So what?, one may think. But, permit me to say these harsh words: The question is, Who will be next? Gypsies, perhaps? Jews? And why not people with glasses?” Drakulić’s book will not be easy reading for many Americans: it does require some familiarity for Eastern Europe in particular as well as Communism in general; and it lacks the surface lightness of tone that Orwell brought to Animal Farm, although its wry humor is in its own way quite effective. But A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism is an unusually thoughtful look at where an important part of the world stands today – more proof that out of the mouths of babes, and animals, there can come much wisdom.

     A Dazzling Display of Dogs is unusual, too, although far more lighthearted – no surprise in a book intended not for adults but for children ages 8-12. Betsy Franco here produces nearly three dozen concrete poems featuring dogs of all kinds. “Pug Appeal,” for example, runs, in its entirety, “It’s almost impossible/ Not to hug/ And say something silly/ To Frank the Pug.” But the words are only part of the poem. The illustrations by Michael Wertz, which are pencil drawings colored and then modified using Adobe Photoshop, fit the poetry very well indeed (there is no attempt to keep their colors realistic); and the poems run into, around and through the pictures – the word “pug” becomes Frank’s eye (p) and nose (u), plus something in his mouth (g). Then there is the acrostic called “Misleading Sign,” in which the horizontal part of a fence says “Beware of Dog,” but different words run down the white pickets from specific letters to form the sentence, “But Willy Rarely Ever Growls.” And there is “Emmett’s Ode to His Tennis Ball,” in which the ball-shaped poem is contained within the dog’s mouth – and begins with the words, “Slobbery, sloppy, slimy sphere.” There are also two “Circling Poems,” one about play and one about finding just the right spot to sleep. And there is “Pierre Peeks Out,” in which a small dog rides in a bicyclist’s backpack – which is made of the poem’s words. A Dazzling Display of Dogs is a visual delight as well as a verbal one, and a celebration of pretty much all things canine.

     Over on the feline side of things is Dear Tabby, which is intended for even younger readers (ages 4-8) and is, in its own very different way, just as much fun. It is obvious from Carolyn Crimi’s title that this will be an “advice” book (or will be obvious to adults, anyway) – and indeed it is, but with a decidedly catlike approach. Tabby D. Cat, who exchanges advice for table scraps from her office at the “Dumpster with the Dented Top” in Critterville, Illinois, puts the feline spin on all animals’ problems, responding to a parrot, a groundhog and others. Even a dog (Manfred, a mournful-looking basset hound who wants to know what the key to happiness is). Tabby’s replies to animals from Stanky the skunk to Fizzy the hamster are delightful (to the latter, whose inquiry comes in the shape of an exercise wheel, Tabby writes, “Think outside the circle!”). Tabby even finds time to do a good deed for Betty the bike-riding bear, who has run away from a circus but really wants to go back. David Roberts’ illustrations are a hoot – his sunglasses-wearing groundhog is hysterical – and Crimi manages the surprising accomplishment, in a short picture book, of weaving an actual story line through the amusement, resulting in a happy ending for Tabby as well as some good advice dispensed all around. Dear Tabby is one of those books that just make you want to sit back and purr after you finish reading.

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