30.8.2004

An exile from nationalism

By Tapani Lausti

Dubravka Ugresic, Thank You for Not Reading: Essays on Literary Trivia. Dalkey Archive Press 2003.

There is an interesting paradox in the breakup of Yugoslavia. Practically everyone in Europe was declaring how they had "always" thought that Yugoslavia was an artificial creation. Yet, what took its place was a group of small nations which created a most artificial form of nationalism. With almost childish zeal many intellectuals started babbling on about their homeland, inventing history anew and turning aggressively against anyone who didn't share this newly-found image of their nation.

Dubravka Ugresic finds this all disturbing. In her earlier collection of essays, The Culture of Lies (Phoenix 1996), she points out that during the Yugoslav years of "soft totalitarianism" intellectuals didn't need to emigrate. In the atmosphere of the new aggressive nationalism, however, many intellectuals have found it impossible to adapt to the demands of stifling conformism. Those who do adapt become almost comical comissars of an artificial nationalistic ideology.

In her new book, Ugresic says that she left because she "could not adapt to the permanent terror of lies in public, political, cultural, and everyday life". (p. 136) Yet her exile has often been greeted with incomprehension. Once, in a conference, someone said that her exile was not true exile, because she had a passport and was free to return to her country, Croatia.

"Another participant, a Czech, shouted that he had fled to Germany from communism, while, by all accounts, I had run away from post-communism, from democracy. I should not discredit the honorable tradition of East European exiles." (p. 134-135)

Ugresic comments wryly that the "impossibility of returning to their homeland gave the Cold War East Europeans an aura of tragedy. The possibility of return deprives Yugoslav exiles of this aura". (p. 136)

Furthermore, her unwillingness to be "a Croatian writer" is not accepted. Readers, critics and publishers don't seem to be able to live without national labels. So Ugresic is now seen as even more Croatian than before. It is difficult to be a-national: "Even Western Europe will not tolerate the nationally indifferent: the proud West European ideology of multiculturalism wants declared ethnic cultural identities in order to generously grant them the freedom of self-realization." (p. 137)

Having observed cultural life in the new Europe, Ugresic has seen the limits of imagination when it comes to diversity. The language of European unification is really stereotyping: "The favorite European slogan — 'unity through diversity' — treats European 'diversity' as a repertoire of cultural stereotypes. It turns out that stereotypes are in fact national and ethnic identity, that it is precisely through stereotypes that the right to difference is realized. But this also means the reverse: that national identity is nothing other than a package of stereotypes." (p. 189)

Ugresic is critical of Western European cultural trends and the way the market stultifies creative impulses: "The contemporary colonizer is the market. The market vacuums up every resistance, takes into account every criticism and even anticipates it, turning it to its own profit. The market colonizes us without our being aware of it and does so with our own values, whether they are called identity, ethnicity, the right of difference, or anything else. It is hard to imagine effective resistance to money, media potentates, conglomerates, the monopoly of distribution chains, or 'market fundamentalism' as such." (p. 193)


See also:

Dubravka Ugresic, The Ministry of Pain. Translated from Croatian by Michael Henry Heim. Saqi 2005.

Balkan pages of the archive

[home] [archive] [focus]