10 February 2006

Exiles from Nowhere

By Tapani Lausti

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

"Yugoslavia, the country where they'd been born, where they'd come from, no longer existed. They did their best to deal with it by steering clear of the name, shortening it to Yuga (as the Gastarbeiter, the migrant workers in Germany, had done before them) and thus 'the former Yugoslavia' to 'the former Yuga or playfully transforming it into Titoland or The Titanic. As for its inhabitants, they became Yugos or, more often, simply 'our people'. The possessive pronoun also came in handy when referring to the language they spoke together (none of them being Slovenian, Macedonian or Albanian): to avoid its former, now politically incorrect name of Serbo-Croatian, they called it simply 'our language'." (p. 19)

"They" in this description are a group of immigrants from ex-Yugoslavia whom Dubravka Ugresic describes in her novel. They live in Amsterdam. Their reasons for having left their country vary but in the background there is an awareness of the awful events in that country: "'Our people' had an invisible slap on their faces. They had that sideways, rabbit-like look, that special tension in the body, that animal instinct of sniffing the air to tell which direction danger is coming from." (p. 20)

The exiles' self-image is confused. Their identity has become obscure in a world which is fascinated by identities. There is a high degree of aimlessness and lack of purpose in their lives. The novel's group is held together by their participation in a class at a university department. Their teacher Tanja Lucic — the narrator in the novel — is called "Comrade", as children used to call their teachers in Yugoslavia in the 50s and early 60s. She teaches a language which does not exist anymore: Serbo-Croatian. "[T]he language that had been spoken in Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro had now, like the country in which it had been spoken, been divided into discrete units; it had become three official languages: Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian." (p. 40)

The life of exiles is viewed through the experiences of Comrade's students. The narrator describes their plight as people who have lost a country and cannot adapt to the reality of the Balkans of today: "The break-up of our country, the war, the repression of memory, the 'phantom limb syndrome', the general schizophrenia and then exile — these, I was certain, were the reasons for my students' emotional and linguistic problems. We were all in chaos. None of us was sure who or what we were, to say nothing of who or what we wanted to be. At home my students resented being typecast as Yugonostalgiacs, that is dinosaurs, but they felt little affinity with the pre-packed retrofuture of the newly minted states. And here in Holland they were stigmatized as 'the beneficiaries of political asylum', 'refugees' or 'foreigners', as 'children of post-communism', 'the fall-out of Balkanization', or 'savages'. The country we came from was our common trauma." (pp. 57-58)

The sadness of the events in the Balkans is constantly present in the novel. The narrator pensively wonders about the guilt of various actors in the Balkan tragedy: "I wondered how things stood with the hundreds of thousands of nameless people without whose fervid support there could have been no war. Did they feel guilty? And what about that herd of foreign politicians, diplomats, envoys and military personnel who had stampeded through the country? Not only had they been liberally paid: they had earned the epithet of saviour to say nothing of promotions in the UN or whatever institutional hierarchy they chanced to represent. (...) Did they feel guilty?" (pp. 139-140)

In her alienation from life in ex-Yugoslavia, Holland and Europe, the narrator — approaching a mental breakdown — realises that she and her students will end up in failure. There is another world emerging which they are not part of: "Any minute now, any second, a new, completely different tribe will arise from the post-Communist underbrush bearing doctoral dissertations with telling titles like Understanding the Past as a Means of Looking Ahead. (...) They will form a vibrant young contingent of specialists, organizers, operators and, above all, managers, experts in business management, cultural management, disaster management — the management of life. (...) They will always write the word Enlargement with capital E, because for them it heralds a new era, a new humanism, Renaissance and Enlightenment rolled into one. The buzzwords will be management, negotiation technology, income, profit, investment, expenses, hidden communication, and the like." (pp. 228-230)

This is the new Europe which could drive anyone mad.

See also:

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

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