the complete review Quarterly
Volume VII, Issue 2   --   May, 2006

An interview with Dubravka Ugresic


Amsterdam: "Thank God, I didn't get tired and desperate in Albania."
Language issues: "I experienced something which I didn't believe before, that things really could change within ten years, and you can manipulate people and people's ability to remember in just ten years"
Translation, reception, ... and rebellion: "How somebody whose books are sold in all the airports of the world could be subversive ..."
Exile/Nation: "Why do the Serbs need a state when they can be a branch of Ikea ?"
Writing and reading: "Fiction has to really surprise me"



       Dubravka Ugresic was recently in New York, participating in the 2006 PEN World Voices festival, and launching the American edition of her novel The Ministry of Pain.
       I had the opportunity to speak with her on 26 April, 2006.

       I have re-organized the conversation slightly, by subject matter, and also removed some of my direct questions (and annoying interjections), replacing them with introductory commentary which I hope better offers context. I have tried to leave as much as possible of Dubravka Ugresic's responses verbatim, but occasionally simplified or reorganized the flow of conversation to make it more readable. On a few occasions expressions she used have also been anglicized ("branch of Ikea" for her "Ikea filiale", for example) but most of the idiomatic expressions have been retained; some of the grammar has been also tidied up.
       The written record does not, of course, adequately convey inflection, etc. so some of what was vocally conveyed does not come across as readily (and as meant) on the page. Irony and the like are easily lost this way -- and there certainly is a good deal of irony to her commentary. And so also, obviously, statements such as mention of "disgusting, ugly Serbs" are not to be taken literally. (I do think it's obvious, but it bears repeating.)

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       [Dubravka Ugresic left Croatia in 1993 and currently lives in Amsterdam; The Ministry of Pain, is also set there. Preparing for my interview with her, it struck me that Amsterdam seemed to have become a cross-cultural literary magnet: among the other participants at the PEN festival were Moses Isegawa -- from Uganda, but a longtime Dutch resident (who writes in English) --, Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali (now a Dutch MP), and English-writing Ian Buruma. And I had recently read a book by Iranian exile Kader Abdolah (who actually writes in Dutch).
       The appearance -- to me, based on this limited evidence -- was of a city particularly appealing to the contemporary trans-national writer, an environment conducive to tackling the issues of our day. Dubravka Ugresic quickly disabused me of this notion (noting that each of these authors was in a unique and different situation), and explained her own choice of Amsterdam -- emphasizing that the personal choice (to live there) and the literary choice (to set her novel there) were made for entirely different reasons.]

Dubravka Ugresic : So first the personal reason. Somehow when you find yourself in exile -- I hate this word, can we get any better word ? -- people think that it is a rational thing, that there is a plan, that there is this route and then highway and that you drive and you know where you will stop and what you will do, but it's nothing like that.
    I left Croatia, I left my job -- I worked for twenty years at the university -- spontaneously. I was so angry and so offended and so desperate that I simply quit my job and I left the country, not knowing what would happen. I did that at an age where normal people don't do that. Normal people, they think: 'How should I retire in ten years ?' They don't think about exile.
    It is true that when I self-catapulted that I landed somehow softly, because what was waiting for me in a few months was a grant in Berlin, a DAAD grant for the writers and so on.

M.A.Orthofer: This was the time of The Museum of Unconditional Surrender ... ?

Dubravka Ugresic : Yes, so that was in 1994.
    And why Amsterdam ?
    First I was in Berlin, then I was in the States, then I was invited to spend the year in Amsterdam. By that time I got quite tired of traveling and renting places and not knowing, so I thought maybe I should at least keep the place I am renting, as a kind of a permanent, more stable address. Then I went back to Germany and then I went back to the United States and in 1999 when I came back to Amsterdam I simply was so tired and somehow desperate of all of that that I thought maybe I should make this town my home.
    So that is why.
    Thank God, I didn't get tired and desperate in Albania.

M.A.Orthofer: You think that could have happened ?

Dubravka Ugresic : Probably.
    When that time is so deep you just drop your luggage and say: 'I'm going to stay.'
    But I'm not integrated. Though I love Holland, I'm somehow not concerned to be a part of that literary milieu. I don't know why that's so, I can't rationalize that situation, but that's how it is.

M.A.Orthofer: And the choice to set The Ministry of Pain in Amsterdam ?

Dubravka Ugresic : Of course you can find those autobiographical matches: yes, I was in Berlin 1994, yes, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender is about that. Yes, of course, I was in Amsterdam, I even taught for a year at Amsterdam University. Otherwise how I would I know about those details ?
    But I think that this autobiographical approach does not lead us anywhere. If I say: yes, this is autobiography -- so what ? If I say: no, this is not autobiography -- again, so what ? I mean, it is senseless. The only approach I do not understand -- I can't appreciate its value -- it is this so-called: autobiography or not ?

    Okay, but there is something else which is important, and this is the opposition between the two towns which serve as metaphors in the novels, and the opposition between two completely different narrative procedures.
    Let us talk only about towns. Berlin, in 1994, was a perfect match with what the narrator there experiences. It was a chopped up city, not only divided into two halves, meaning west Berlin and east Berlin and the Wall, but also a lot of history. Physically Berlin is built on bones and debris and ruins, and I am writing about that in the novel [The Museum of Unconditional Surrender]. About those bergs, about Teufelsberg and about how you walk on that. History is very alive there, everything is visible: all those scars and the Wall, it was all visible, and so it was a perfect match for everything which I was writing about. And that's why the novel has that structure, that's why there are the art and exhibition installations: all of that, it's a kind of very subtle building, that novel.
    Here [in The Ministry of Pain] Amsterdam is a different procedure. It's a simple, first person narration. That confuses people very much because they think it is a realistic novel, or some kind of an essay, a personal essay, or a memoir, which it is not.

    Why Amsterdam ? Amsterdam, if you read it carefully, also serves as a perfect metaphor.
    First of all, there's that transience. Everything is built on sand, so nothing really keeps. Everything goes away. This motif of sand and wind and water which erases the traces is all the time in the novel. And the narrator, she is obsessed with that, the sand. She feels the sand between her feet ...
    Then there is the artificiality. The artificiality of Amsterdam, which is a dollhouse. It is a dollhouse within a dollhouse within a dollhouse. That's why there's this story about Madurodam ["Madurodam is a perfect mock-up of the Netherlands, a Dutch Disneyland" p.80], and why there's this notion how the Netherlands is a soothing country: because it is like a blotter. So everything is erased.
    It is about oblivion, it is about final reconciliation. It is a little bit dull, a little bit wrong, it is a bit ironic for the teacher to finish in a relationship with her student who is mentally ill. Who does not remember. She relies on someone who does not remember. So it is also, I think, about death. About time as a metaphor.
    There are notions how she feels that artificiality, how it is like Disneyland, like a playground, Madurodam. How it's like cotton candy. And it is a perfect rhyme between her and the town, though in one moment she says: 'Maybe something is wrong with my heart, maybe there is no blood in my heart. Maybe that's why I see Amsterdam as a cotton-candy fluff town, not a real one.' [The text reads: "I lived in the heart of Amsterdam, which, or so it sometimes seemed to me, pumped more cotton candy than blood. Though maybe my own heart was broken and my view distorted." p.81]

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       Language issues

       [Not only literature but language itself plays an important role in Dubravka Ugresic's writing, both her fiction and non-fiction. She writes in Croatian, and there's no escaping that it is a marginal language. In The Ministry of Pain the narrator, Tanja Lucic, fills in as a lecturer "in servo-kroatisch" at the University of Amsterdam -- a language ("Serbo-Croatian") that in a sense doesn't exist any longer, split crudely apart along with the former Yugoslavia. The novel uses language -- Dutch, English, and especially the now three-headed beast that Serbo-Croatina/Bosnian has been turned into as a marker of lost and found identity and history.]

M.A.Orthofer: One of the striking scenes early in The Ministry of Pain is when Tanja asks her students to "compose thumbnail autobiographies" to learn more about them -- and she asks them to write these in English, even though practically all of them are more comfortable speaking and writing in (Serbo-)Croatian. Has English become that lingua franca that we use to have a common ground away from home ?

Dubravka Ugresic: In The Museum of Unconditional Surrender I wrote about a girl who lived in the same house I did. She was a student and rented a room there, and she tried to kill herself. We saved her, the doctor and me, but I never knew why she did that.
    A month or two later she came to my room and she told me the story, in English -- she was a student of English language -- and so in the book there is a small essay about why she did that in English. The story was so banal -- a love story, with a married guy and her. If she would tell that story in Croatian, her mother tongue, then she would destroy the power of her own story, because it is so trivial. So retelling it in English, she distanced herself, she saved the real suffering for herself. She didn't destroy anything. Telling it English, it was the perfect way.

    There are more language themes within that novel [The Ministry of Pain] which were untranslatable. The students' Croatian is peppered with English phrases. Michael [Henry Heim] suggested we should put those phrases in italics, but I don't think it matters. You have to say all the time: 'and then Igor said in English' ... which only reminds you that this is not English. And then of course the swears, those oaths at the end, they're really written in all three of those language. That is quite nice for the local ear, to hear all those .....

M.A.Orthofer: In The Ministry of Pain Tanja observes: the 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. [...]: I was not much concerned with the "new languages" and had no interest in dividing them up according to the fifty or so words that distinguish them. [p.35] Is that effort at separation, at making the nearly identical distinct, still ongoing ?

Dubravka Ugresic: They are a little bit cooler about that now, but what is done is done. And what is interesting is that now I experienced something which I didn't believe before, that things really could change within ten years, and you can manipulate people and people's ability to remember in just ten years. That's what has happened in the former Yugoslavia, especially in Croatia, because there was a prohibition of everything that was Yugoslav. There were cases of book burning, and there were library cleansings. So the books in Cyrillic letters were cleansed, though in school we learned both -- but kids today don't anymore. [Croatian is written using Roman letters, while Serbian uses Cyrillic letters.] So communist and other Russian literature, everything, was also swept out, out, out. And then there was such a big propaganda about that language thing, that people really do think twice now: 'How can I understand those Serbs ? those Bosnians ?' But that's how it is. That's what happened with the Nordic countries, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. Within a hundred years those languages slowly drifted apart. They still understand each other, but they are different languages. So it is possible that this will happen with Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian as well.

M.A.Orthofer: So you don't think with the EU-euphoria, and the coming together -- it seems inevitable that eventually the entire former Yugoslavia will be part of the European Union -- that that will be a force pulling the pieces back together again ?

Dubravka Ugresic: Of course it will.
    Language is a big thing. You feel it like it is yours if you can understand it. So I hope those divisions won't go further.
    Mentally, for many people -- including me --, it is still one territory. It is always such a surprise that I have to show a passport at the Slovenian border, that I have to behave seriously at the Macedonian border. It is as if suddenly you needed a visa to go to Brooklyn -- and then that they would force you to respect the different way Brooklynians speak English.
    It's crazy -- but people are crazy.

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       Translation, reception, ... and rebellion

       [Dubravka Ugresic is a widely translated author, with many of her books available in English, Dutch, German, and other languages. I was curious about both the issues of translation, and the (possibly) contrasting reception of her books in Europe and America.]

Dubravka Ugresic: It is extremely difficult to find a good translator from small languages. You have people who are experts for those literatures and languages, and they are really unquestionable authorities. It's such a small terrain -- and nobody else really cares. And then you are in the strange position that you have to be thankful to those people, that they do care, and at the same time you protest, because you don't want to be under the authority and good will and capriciousness, or whatever, of one person, and there is always only one person per territory. There is no competition.

M.A.Orthofer: Like you describe Tanja's colleagues at the University of Amsterdam ... ["the field made them absolute lords over the minor, out-of-the-way, language-and-literature fiefdoms into which no one had ventured theretofore, which made the probability of their competence being adequately evaluated statistically insignificant." (p.46) ]

Dubravka Ugresic: It makes it very difficult.

M.A.Orthofer: Do you see any difference with the European market, which seems to be much more receptive to books in translation in general -- and is perhaps more open to smaller languages, since there are so many there ? Do you think there's a better approach to it there ?

Dubravka Ugresic: No, I think the best things are going to happen here [in the US].
    I'll tell you why. First of all, I am much better understood here. Usually people would say: I am best understood by my local audience. No, it's not true. Sometimes, constellations they change. They are in tremendous dynamic. They travel too, and you travel too -- your books.
    Sometimes it happens that now I feel I am much better understood in this country than my country -- or Eastern Europe. Though Eastern Europeans would be the first ones to say: these are our themes, this is about us, more or less. No, what is happening there is that those formerly closed markets -- it doesn't concern Yugoslavia, because that is a different situation -- they are discovering the beauty of markets. And they are publishing like crazy. They are discovering their power. In Russia, they used to import Mexican, Venezuelan, Brazilian soap operas; today they are writing their own, and there are even buyers -- Finland, Norway. Who knows, maybe tomorrow America will be a buyer of Russian soap operas !
    In America it was never a shame to write and to earn money for that. It was okay. In Eastern Europe it was not okay. You were blessed; you were a writer because God decided so. You should not waste your talent on money. These earthly affairs should not interest you. You are like a holy cow. But now they've discovered the sweetness of money.
    Meanwhile this [American] book-constellation has passed through all those phases -- it experienced popularity, and fame, and money, and overproduction, and even Hollywood. Now audiences, the readership, has become much more sober -- or at least the people who do count, intellectuals, academic audiences, students -- and you can find in this country many more critiques of media and money and culture than in Europe.
    You can 't find any critique about anything in former Eastern Europe. Just the pure joy of earning money.

    My audience is small. I see that from the experience of teaching in this country. When I saw those students -- well, who on this earth would study some Russian or Croatian or whatever if you are really not a serious person, and those students, they were.
    It is clear that they are losers. They are not going to earn anything. They are not going to find jobs. But they are going for that, and that is something that's great.
    If one can find still a romanticism, romantic ideas or romantic passion about intellectuals, intellectualism, about literature, about some values, then it is here. Not anymore there. Unfortunately. They blew it up.

M.A.Orthofer: Do you think the pendulum will swing back there ?

Dubravka Ugresic: Probably. But they have to swallow all that trash, they have to see all those movies, and then see what's next.

M.A.Orthofer: In Europe and Latin America authors are still very prominent as 'public intellectuals', playing a significant role in leading discourse, filling the feuilletons. A recent German list of public intellectuals was top-heavy with authors, while in Latin America you have figures like Fuentes and Vargas Llosa. In America writers don't seem to have this role ...

Dubravka Ugresic: I think that writers here were never perceived and they never assumed that role themselves, or nobody gave them that role, to feel that importance.
    In Europe, because of change of regimes, writers were active serving their governments or their political parties or ideologies, or opposing these. So, Germany during Nazism, the Soviet bloc during communism, there is a long history of participation of intellectuals in European thought, politics, state-making, whatever. And I think that American writers never had that role. Rarely.

M.A.Orthofer: Your fiction can also be seen as very political. In Europe people probably think of you as a political writer, while that doesn't seem to be the case in the US. Is that how you perceive it ?

Dubravka Ugresic: You understand that I'm not writing because I'm interested in myself, for vanity, but because I'm observing how that works on my own example ...

M.A.Orthofer: Right, your experiences make a perfect case study ...

Dubravka Ugresic: So this is the quickest way to learn the things.
    That question of reception: for instance, I am not nicely received in Croatia. They didn't like this novel. They would say: 'Ah, this boring' and so on.
    Why they took it so badly ? First of all, they don't want to admit -- it's total denial -- that thousands and thousands of people left the former Yugoslavia, and they left it because of the war. This is something people do not like to hear.
    Second, there is a tremendous division between those who left and those who stayed. Those who left probably they also have this narrative of self-pity: 'Ah, we left our country because ...', or: 'We suffered abroad, in exile .....' And the same goes for people who stayed: 'We were left by those who live in Amsterdam and they smoke pot and then write successful books about exile, and we fought for democracy, we who stayed at home ....'
    They also didn't like Thank You for Not Reading. Because it was too facile, it was like: 'Ya, she knows everything ...' It was not understood what I was talking about. I was in Hungary, and they thought I was some kind of a political commissar or something, telling them about the values of high literature.
    What values of literature ? Because it's a run where everyone can take part, and whoever is first is first, and best and that's it. So, they do not understand what I'm talking about.

    Young people don't even understand what is their cultural history any more.
    There's a cinema in Budapest for example where you can see those excellent Hungarian movies done during the Communist period.
    Who goes there ?
    Tourists, foreign tourists!
    So all that fantastic subversive culture under the Communists, like Milos Forman's movies, Szabo's movies, the Balázs movies [movies from the experimental Béla Balázs Studio] is forgotten. And young people don't have a clue. For them it's all boring, political. Which is a tremendous devastation. I only hope that somebody is making some archives, and doing something to preserve that.
    What is cool for them ... well, just go and see what they translate: they translate what everybody else translates, and that is what is cool. Michel Houellebecq is cool. He is the coolest of cool. And they all want to be like Michel Houellebecq: 'So fuck you all, with your morals, with your histories of literature, with you values, with your Shakespeare. We don't want to hear it.'
    This is the general attitude among younger audiences. And then the older ones are in that self-pity mood, which is also ... well, you can't sympathize with that either.

M.A.Orthofer: Well, isn't youthful rebellion common everywhere ? Do you think it's particularly pronounced in Eastern Europe because of the change of regimes and ideology, by the opening of the markets ?

Dubravka Ugresic: No, no !
    Rebellion -- what does that mean, rebellion ? Rebellion doesn't mean a thing. Because it's the media that tells you what rebellion is -- and then you buy Nikes because that is 'rebellion'.
    I recently came across a small column by a Croatian woman writer, and she wrote something like:
Nobody understands our values. It's like what authors like Amélie Nothomb and especially Michel Houellebecq describe. Houellebecq, who is so subversive, nobody understands him, and he is an outsider .....
    That woman hasn't ever been to an airport ! How somebody whose books are sold in all the airports of the world could be subversive ... if you could explain that to me .....

M.A.Orthofer: It's good marketing ...

Dubravka Ugresic: But they do think that he is subversive !
    Now you can imagine what in effect has changed. What has changed ? I mean, how Houellebecq could be subversive after the sexual revolution, after all the movies and books about that.
    What it is -- and this is why I am angry -- it is the subversiveness of Sex and the City.
    Poor Erica Jong and the generations before Sex and the City, if those girls are subversive.....
    It's about perception, what is subversive, and that perception comes from young people, and young people they do not have experience and they do not have knowledge, because we do live in a culture of oblivion. We are being born every day, and everything is erased. That's why you can find that Tracey Emin is subversive.

M.A.Orthofer: So who do you think is subversive in our day and age ? Or do you think it's impossible to be subversive any more ?

Dubravka Ugresic: It's almost impossible. Because the moment you say: 'Yes, I am subversive', all the media will jump and make a big profit out of it.

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       [Much of Dubravka Ugresic's work is based on and deals with the exile experience. The 20th century strikes me as an age of displacement, voluntary (immigration) and involuntary (including exile) displacement directly affecting hundreds of millions, making for a world of strangers in strange lands (with the corresponding loss of the familiar and one's roots).
       I was curious whether she believed this was a condition that would continue to be so common.]

M.A.Orthofer: So much of your writing is about the exile experience, which is still a very common experience -- but how much longer do you think this will be part of the global experience ?

Dubravka Ugresic: Not much longer.
    Things are absurd. Croats and others wanted so much to be independent. (I'm just giving the Croatian example because it is close to me, but it is the same everywhere.) So they fought for that, to be independent.
    In Croatia, within ten years of independence, what happened ?
    Nothing is Croatian any more !
    All the banks are foreign banks -- Italian, Austrian, German.
    Media -- our pride ! -- nothing is Croatian. Austrian, German, Swedish .....
    Even the roads. People are buying concessions on the roads, so even the roads are in foreign hands.
    Factories. The only pride of Croatian industry was a factory that produces pharmaceuticals, and even this is not Croatian any more.
    So what is Croatian in Croatia ?
    What makes that state ? Just a flag ? A language ? A little bit of history ? What ?
    And then private properties: everything is sold out. So disgusting, ugly Serbs, our enemy, they do not spend their vacations on the Adriatic coast any more -- but everyone else is: Hungarians, Russians, Austrians, Germans, Italians. They eat our fish .... So everything will be sold out ....
    Why do the Serbs need a state when they can be a branch of Ikea ? They can call themselves Ikeans. Or Croatians can call themselves Siemens, because this is what matters.
    And there are a few flags, and a bit of war, and a couple of thousand dead, and a couple of millions spent for whatever, that is ... let's say: entertainment. That's how it is, unfortunately.

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       Writing and reading

M.A.Orthofer: So what are you working on ?

Dubravka Ugresic: I recently finished a book of essays, which will be published in the Netherlands. The title is Nobody's Home, which is the title of the old Czech TV-series for children, which is the story of parents who have to leave their little son at home because they have to work, and whenever someone knocked at the door he would shout: "Nobody's home !"

M.A.Orthofer: And what do you read ?

Dubravka Ugresic: I am quite a messy reader. I am able to swallow anything and everything, and also to watch any garbage on TV. I was a passionate reader of fiction when I was younger. I like to be informed, so I'm still buying books compulsively, but I don't remember which book I really read from the first to the last page ... yes, I read The Corrections, that is the last book I read totally. The rest, I am just reading.
    Last summer I had some back problems, so I couldn't move, I was in bed for some time, and there was nothing to do but read, so I was reading everything in the house of the friends I was staying at, and that was fantastic.
    Today, I am more interested in reading books on culture, cultural history, anthropology, philosophy -- non-fiction, rather than fiction. Fiction has to really surprise me. But I do read it here and there -- and I still buy books.

    We are now living in an age where practically everybody is able to write a decent book, or to make a decent movie, or even make decent art -- in other words: we live in communism.

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Dubravka Ugresic: Interviews: Dubravka Ugresic's books at the complete review:

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