Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Minisitry o Pain - Dubravka Ugrešić

One of the after effect of every great war is that they redraw the geographical boundaries, and give birth to newer nation states. Both world wars created whole lot of newer states even as far as Asia.  The recent Balkan war, post the disintegration of the mighty soviet Union,  too gave us 6 new countries. The separation was bloody and was painful. People who share common culture, history and national agenda,  are now fighting fiercely for their territorial independence.  The once common Yugoslavia split itself into 6 division each declaring independence from the former Communist State.

Tanja Lucic,  having fled Yugoslavia during the war, worked as a care taker for an American Family in Berlin, accepted a temporary assignment as a lecturer in Amsterdam University. She was in charge of teaching "Serbo - Croatian Literature". Her class consists of students from erstwhile Yugoslavia, still coping with the aftereffects of the bloody war. For them this is an escape from their 'refugee' status and the more respectable 'students visa'.  They work "At the Ministry" in their spare time, to earn a living. 'Ministry' as it is known is the factories which makes sex toys and other equipment for the Amsterdam Red light District.  As a community they were never been able to mingle with the alien society they were subject to adapt.
   'The first thing they did when we came was to put us in refugee camps and -- you know the ways of the Dacer folk by now -- give us psychiatrists. Well, our psychiatrist turned out to be one of 'ours', a refugee like us. And you know what she told us ? "Do me a favour, will you, everybody ? Find a little crazy streak in you. Think up a trauma or two if need be. I don't want to lose my job." '
The class, already traumatized by the war, can not see eye to eye ( a cross section of students from Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia among them), is now left with the teacher who still nostalgic about the dreamy past. Her attempt was to bring out the  'Yugo-nostalgia"  among the students. She started off at a wrong side, trying to rekindle their memories which one tries to forget.
"I realized I was walking a tight rope: stimulating the memory was as much a manipulation of the past banning it. The authorities in our former country had pressed the delete button, I the restore button; they were erasing the Yugoslav past, I reviving the past in the form of everyday minutiae that had made up our lives.."
While there were no violent reactions or any vocal protest, students seems to be going along.  There were dissents and strong sentiments in their writing such as "Yugoslavia was a terrible place. Everybody lied. They still lie of course, but now the lie is divided in five, one per country." While every thing seems to be going smoothly until the end of first semester, however depleting the number of students in her class. But the short vacation at the end of the semester, turned hostile. one of the student commits suicide. His father was a Serbian Military leader and was under investigation. There was a complaint to the Head of the University about her way of teaching and she was reprimanded by him.  The situation seems to be moving tense and  she switches her style back to the serious academic study of literature.  Her relation with her students also suffers as a result of this , with some bitter exchange of words at the end
"Tell me , has it occurred to you that all that time you may have been torturing us? Has it occurred to you that the students you forced to remember were yearning to forget ?.,.....and the memory game you forced on us! In a few years all that nostalgia crap is going to be a big moneymaker. "
The style and language is detached and emotionless, suiting to the subject. The sense of loss is all over the book in general it is gloomy.. Tanja on her side looses her home country, her ethnical back ground of Croatian, her boyfriend at Berlin, the trust of her students and her superiors. She takes this also part of the humiliation they were expected to endure. The students, who shares a common culture a while ago are now trying to identify themselves as a new citizen ( a Croat, a Macedonian, a Bosnian) in a distant country of living.  The language is now formed, injecting local dialects and words into the official language. Tanja's attempt to build the past for herself is for the entire diaspora of the migrated populace.

The book gives insights to the effects of Balkan diaspora around the world post the war. While the world continue to debate and try the culprits at the international courts, there is a vast number of common people still living through the memories of the war. Thrown out of their home countries, they wander around the world living the life of a refugee as a second citizen.  Dubravka Ugrešić in thie very cerebral novel, managed to bring out these dilemma of these people pretty effectively. However as a fiction, this is far too complex and do not justify the billing.

The Ministry of Pain   (2005)

Dubravka Ugrešić  ( translated from Croatian by Michael Henry Heim 2006)

Harper Perenniel

257 Pages
More reads : Complete Review , Independent, Booksqwak

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