by Dubravka Ugresic
254 pages, Saqi Books
Review by Marc Nash
I've bemoaned that I constantly fail to recollect the provenance by which I come to writers new to me. But this one I remember well. I encountered Ugresic via her book in the Cannongate "Myths" series, where she offered an intriguing take on the various Baba Yaga myths from Slavic cultures. Every one of the myriad of ethnicities had its own tweak on the basic Baba Yaga archetype, each the same and yet each subtly different.
The Ministry of Pain book predates it, but the themes are still evident. The narrator Tanja is in exile in Holland, having fled war torn Yugoslavia. A country which no longer exists after its break up into six republics. She is a literature teacher, preserving the inheritance of Yugoslav literature, in the face of political and ideological drives to consign it to amnesia, since each Republic wants to pursue, claim and define its own parochial literature. She is teaching a dead Serbo-Croatian language, despite the fact that each Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Bosnian version of it only differs from the other by about 50 words.
Thus is set in motion a book about language, identity and trying to express yourself in an alien world. She wants to hold on to the innocence of her childhood, when they were all Yugoslavs. She tries to offer this as a healing path for her students, refugees all from the various republics, 'convalescents' as she calls them, uniting them in memories of childhood objects, consumables and dreams. But one of her students reports her top the Dutch University authorities for the shambolic approach to literature this entails. Her process of reconciliation is apparently not one cherished by all.
She has to face up to the demands of being in a new country and to turn her being away from distant associations to home and to this new world. "There's a larger question of whether a language that hasn't learned to depict reality, complex as the inner experience of that reality may be, is capable of doing anything at all - telling stories for instance." Here she is forced to confront the pastoral, idyllic nature of her beloved Yugoslavian literary inheritance, (itself a myth since Yugoslavia was an artificially created country only in existence from 1918-91) being completely unable to cope with describing and shining a light into the dark recesses of human behaviour, as evidenced in modern war, targeting civilians and rape as a weapon of terror. That is reserved for superior, new Balkan writers like Ugresic herself.
Without doubt the book is a stunning piece of literary writing. it portrays the human soul, with crystal precision. What it means to be in pain. To be displaced. To be fragmented and adrift of what constitutes reality and yet perfectly sane. Moreover it never veers into self-indulgence. The language and imagery is beauteous. A huge credit to her translator Michael Heim that this doesn't for one moment read like a book in translation, quite remarkable for one with such rich imagery. English and American writers have a bit of a tendency to underscore the cleverness of their metaphorical powers. Ugresic simply casts one stunning image after another in sentence upon sentence. Each an insight into a psyche. It's like feasting at a chocolate word fountain, having the language melt on your tongue as you lick it.
For me, she represents a quintessential European tradition and approach to writing. And with writers like Nobel Laureate Muller it seems to me this is where the dynamic, creative literature is being written right now. New voices, new languages, freed after the shackles of totalitarianism have been thrown off. In countries with a paralysed literary tradition, still mothballed in folk tales, now given a vicious, modern spin. Truly this book is the first fumbling groping towards the new European man. A mythical one of course, since we are each as divided by what supposedly unites us. The Balkans is a perfect example of that. The 'culture butchers' who split Yugoslavia into six, and Serbo-Croat into different tongues, pull in the opposite direction to the European Union that seeks to glue us together. No wonder we're all schizoid. This is the new schizoid literature, for this is the only identity on offer. To be split from oneself, to have no reality to hold on to. But to pursue it doggedly all the same.
"Our tribe is cursed. Returning to the lands whence we came spells our death; remaining in the lands whither we have come spells defeat". Quite.