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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Ministry of Pain

Dubravka Ugrešić

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To purchase The Ministry of Pain

Title: The Ministry of Pain
Author: Dubravka Ugrešić
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 254 pages
Original in: (Serbo-)Croatian
Availability: The Ministry of Pain - US
The Ministry of Pain - UK
The Ministry of Pain - Canada
The Ministry of Pain - India
Le ministère de la douleur - France
Das Ministerium der Schmerzen - Deutschland
Il ministero del dolore - Italia
El Ministerio del Dolor - España
  • Croatian title: Ministarstvo boli
  • Translated by Michael Henry Heim

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting variations on the contemporary (Yugoslavian) exile experience

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A 1/10/2005 Todd McEwen
The Independent . 18/11/2005 Aamer Hussein
Neue Zürcher Zeitung A 18/10/2005 Ilma Rakusa
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/5/2006 Michael J. Agovino
Die Presse . 24/9/2005 Karl-Markus Gauß
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Summer/2006 Michael Pinker
San Francisco Chronicle . 5/3/2006 Elizabeth Gold
Sunday Telegraph A 16/10/2005 Julian Evans
The Times B+ 24/9/2005 James Hopkin
TLS C 30/9/2005 Joanna Kavenna

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Ministry of Pain is a brave, accomplished, cultured novel, sombre and witty. (...) She moves quickly, almost enchantingly, from one comic or rueful consideration to another (...) But despite the breadth and depth of its political and literary ambitions, The Ministry of Pain is possessed of a wonderful, clear simplicity. There are very pure pleasures in Ugresic's honesty, her lightsome, moving prose, her ability to dance in a flash from outrage to satire to a heartfelt exposition of beauty." - Todd McEwen, The Guardian

  • "Readers enthralled by the postmodern sophistication of her earlier fictions may be surprised by the seeming plain approach and simple prose of The Ministry of Pain. (...) Above all, Ugresic maps our ability to survive and to tell the stories of our survival, even when scarred and deprived by war and banishment of those myths we once claimed as signifiers of our identity." - Aamer Hussein, The Independent

  • "Dubravka Ugresic hat ein bewundernswert kluges, sensibles und unlarmoyantes Buch über das Emigrantendasein geschrieben, voll erhellender Details über Tito-Land und Holland, über den Zustand des lost in translation und die Notwendigkeit, sich mit dem 'Phantomschmerz' zu arrangieren." - Ilma Rakusa, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The writing, in this translation, anyway, can be uneven. It's hokey (...), and in some places the dialogue reads like a screenplay for a sweet art-house film (.....) This is all countered, however, by paragraph after startling paragraph of heightened, philosophical musings. (...) This is a work that comes from the gut, one that deserves to be read." - Michael J. Agovino, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Der Roman ist vielschichtig und, wie bei Ugresic nicht anders zu erwarten, zugleich locker und raffiniert komponiert. Aus lauter knappen Abschnitten gebaut, die das Geschehen aus stets neuer Perspektive einfangen, es aber auch mit historischen Exkursen, politischen Glossen und allerlei Abhandlungen zur serbischen Literatur, kroatischen Geschichte, bosnischen Mentalität erläutern, bietet Das Ministerium der Schmerzen eine kurzweilige Lektüre." - Karl-Markus Gauß, Die Presse

  • "Ugresic nails the plight of this character, this situation, with conviction and deadly accuracy. It is a knowing, technically and spiritually compelling performance." - Michael Pinker, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "This is not a novel for those who prefer their war stories simplistic and full of snazzy exploding bombs. With its multitude of voices (the student essays inserted throughout the text), its canny vignettes of Dutch and emigre life, its bits of poetry, its jokes and wordplay, The Ministry of Pain, too, is built on sand, the narrative constantly shifting and keeping Tanja (and the reader) off balance. Only the war criminals have the luxury of feeling no guilt." - Elizabeth Gold, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Ugresic's wit, driven by light lashes of irony and recurrent gallows humour, and her language, graceful and simple in Michael Henry Heim's superbly painless translation, make her themes -- exile, absence, the coping stratagems of homelessness -- more easily grasped than one might expect." - Julian Evans, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Such a fusion of genres, some tending towards the documentary, can make you wonder if this is a novel at all, especially as Ugresic often lacks the poetic vision to raise the material beyond its sources. (...) It is an angry narrative, and a dystopic one, suggesting that it is inhumanity, and not goodwill, that binds us. Ugresic does not so much champion difference as detail its disintegration. (...) Despite the bleak prognosis, and occasional awkwardness of the narrative as fiction, this is a disturbing read that should have you in its thrall." - James Hopkin, The Times

  • "Its indeterminacy, its refusal to accept absolutes, is one of its strengths. Ugresic moves dextrously between sallow present and the narrator's troubled memories of her past. Yet the students are rather one-dimensional characters, forged to make a theoretical point about the changing phases of exile. (...) The opposition between nostalgia and wilful amnesia is too stark. (...) In this novel she relies too heavily on the clichés of exile writing." - Joanna Kavenna, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Ministry of Pain is narrated by a Croatian literature teacher, Tanja Lucić. She'd left Yugoslavia during the war in the 1990s, and after some time in Germany she wound up alone in Amsterdam, where friends had arranged a job for her at the university for two semesters. The book describes that year of teaching (and a bit more).
       The position is slightly absurd: teaching Serbo-Croatian literature, when all the local forces in the former Yugoslavia were doing their best to tear the Serbo-Croatian (plus Bosnian) idea apart and give each a separate identity -- and destroy and deny the past connexions. Her students are almost all Yugoslavian exiles like her, a small, mixed bunch. Most, she assumes, aren't serious students, either, but attending university makes it easier for them to justify their presence in the Netherlands to the authorities.
       For the first semester Tanja doesn't try very hard to offer much of a literature course, using class-time more creatively, setting only small assignments, and treating it largely as a sort of general psychotherapy session for all. Denounced by her students, she is warned to take things more seriously, and goes to the other extreme in the second semester, turning it into a rigorous literature lesson (with, predictably, very few of the students then bothering to show up).
       Much of the novel is a wallow in the exile-experience, with a strong dose of Yugonostalgia. All the characters have suffered a loss, if only by their displacement. Tanja, in particular, is largely anchorless, drifting through Amsterdam. Even when she returns to Zagreb for a brief visit, she can't find her way (and only partly because all the street names have been changed).
       Tanja believes: "Language was our common trauma", and story-telling, the sharing of experience, is her attempt to make it somehow manageable. The book is largely anecdotal: memories, observations, experiences, woven together. There's reality too, but she has a much harder time with that: her suggestion of a "'Yugonostalgic' museum" can, of course, only take on one form:

     'Oh, it will be virtual too. Everything you remember and consider important. The country is no more. Why not salvage what you don't want to forget.'
       Ugresic has addressed this in previous works, most notably in The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, and The Ministry of Pain is again an effort to see what can be constructed out of memory (and, by the same token, what is permanently changed and lost to the ravages of history).
       What makes Ugresic's work particularly compelling is her method. More than just variations on a theme, she posits, suggests, and presents completely different approaches. This, again, is not a book slowly built up out of uniform pieces, a house of cards. Instead, it's like a series of pin-pricks, each coming in an unexpected place. She connects them enough to have an over-arching story -- a year in Amsterdam, to reduce it to the most basic level --, and she integrates them well enough that they don't even seem (for the most part) tangential, but underneath that it really is a very loose collection.
       Much is made of stories, Tanja's own as well as those of the students. But language here is suspect even at the fundamental level, it being questionable whether their common tongue -- Serbo-Croatian -- even still exists any longer. Stories, too, are suspect, and one of the first anecdotes related is an obvious warning to readers:
     '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." '
       Ranging far and wide, Ugresic pieces together an impressive portrait of the contemporary (Yugoslavian) exile experience. The Yugoslavian experience differs in some ways from many other refugee-groups of recent times, specifically because they generally had an easier time gaining a solid foothold abroad than most refugees do (as is also the case with Tanja and her students). Nevertheless, Ugresic's account also communicates the universals of the exile-experience -- indeed, it reaches as far as the widespread feeling of being at sea in this fast-changing world that is similar to the experience of the exile, as more and more of us lose the anchor of history and the familiar.
       The Ministry of Pain is, on the surface, a wallow in exile, but Ugresic can also look at it dispassionately, and much of the success of the book is in the critical approach to her protagonist and characters. Constantly questioning, the book offers few easy answer -- and in this way, too, feels realistic.
       Some of the later turns in the book are less successful, but it still works well as whole. The Ministry of Pain truly engages the reader, and that alone makes it worthwhile. Inventive and with a nice humorous touch, it's also a pretty good read.

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The Ministry of Pain: Reviews: Dubravka Ugrešić: Other Books by Dubravka Ugresic under Review: Other books of interest under Review:

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About the Author:

       Dubravka Ugrešić was born in 1949, in Yugoslavia (now Croatia). Her writing has been translated into numerous languages. She was awarded the prestigious Heinrich Mann Prize in 2000.

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© 2005-2021 the complete review

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