Friday, June 16, 2006

The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic

# Hardcover: 272 pages

# Publisher: Ecco (February 21, 2006)

# Language: English

# Genre: Fiction

(Translated from the Croatian by Michael Henry Heim)













When the ever- generous Janelle, of
Eclectic Closet , offered to share Croatian writer, Dubravka Ugresic's latest book with me, I jumped at the chance to read it because I saw it as a learning experience and an interesting way to read about the break up of Yugoslavia and the effect it had on the people.

The narrator of the book, Tanya Lucic, is originally from the Croatian part of Yugoslavia, but after the civil war and genocide that embroiled Yugoslavia, she moves to Amsterdam (self-exile) where she finds a job in the University teaching a course in Serbian-Croatian literature. With the exception of a few students, her class is mainly made up of other Yugoslavian emigres. The students are enrolled in this class not because of their love of literature but because a student's visa is the only way they can continue living in Holland (the country will not officially recognise them as refugees.)

Realizing the students' hearts are not in their books Tanja does not insist they study their course material. Instead, she encourages them to write personal essays about their time in Yugoslavia, hoping the exercise will keep their memories alive. It is through the teacher-student conversations and these very poignant student essays that the reader gains access to the memories of these Yugoslavian exiles and you see through their perspectives the impact of the war on their lives, their families, their culture and language. However, with everyone remembering all the bad that happened to them these exercises eventually created discord in the class and Tanja was forced to bring them back on track by re-introducing the official curriculum.

I found this book to be an engaging read. Engaging, not so much for the information it provides but for the questions it asks. For instance, how must it feel to be the citizen of a country that officially no longer exists? Think about it (in context to the book) - you are Yugoslavian one day and the next day, you're not and not because you don't want to, or were stripped of your citizenship, but because that country, the country you grew up in, no longer exists!

What about displacement? How does it feel to be forced to leave your home? To have to make a new life elsewhere? What happens to your identity in this case or your sense of belonging? From being Yugoslavian, you are now simply Croatian or Serbian; Bosnian or Slovenian - shouldn't there be a sense of mourning for the other parts of Yugoslavia that are now lost to you? A vaccum in the heart? A phantom pain?

What happens when the language you grew up speaking is slowly becoming invalid? Language is vital - history has shown that when conquerors wanted to successfully take over a land and its people, they would insist on making the colonised speak their (the conqueror's language). Depriving someone of their language is essentially taking away his voice, also, getting someone to write and think in a whole new language changes his/her personality. But, as Dubravka Ugresic challenges, is language even important to an exile? Is there any language that can truly give voice to their feelings?

It's been so long since a book made me think so much and I still don't feel like I've transferred all my thoughts into a cohesive review. I might have to return and tweak this post a little. I guess you could call it a review in progress. For a more complete review please check out Janelle's review at Curled Up With a Good Book.

23 comments:

Dorothy W. said...

This book sounds very interesting -- I can't imagine my country just disappearing, like you say Thanks for the review.

Lotus Reads said...

Thank you, Dorothy. There is so much to this book that I am having a hard time being articulate about all the thoughts and feelings it brings up in me.

Janelle Martin said...

I am so glad you enjoyed the book! I think I'm still processing my feelings about it, and it's been a while since I read it.

Jude said...

Lotus you really are well read. Language is culture. The thought of losing it is scary isn't it?
Thoughtful, as always. Thanks

Lotus Reads said...

hi, Janelle!

Yes, it is one those books, isn't it? I'm so glad I was able to read it. Thanks!


Hi, Jude

Oh, you do say the nicest things, thanks. I realize I didn't say anything abou the literary style of the book, but I got so caught up with the story, the history and the lives of the emigres that nothing else about the book seemed to matter! :)

kimbofo said...

Yes, I saw Janelle's orginal review and added it to my wishlist. It's also had much promotion on Word Without Borders as one of their book group reads.

Lotus Reads said...

Thank you so much for reminding me about Words Without Borders - I will head there now!

Thanks for stopping by and hope you enjoy the book when you get it!

booklogged said...

I may have to stop reading your wonderful blog - you review such great books that my list keeps growing. I need to live to be very old in order to read them all. I may have to put this one near the top of the list. Sounds like a must read.

Angela in Europe said...

Wow, I never really thought about losing a country like that. I guess I am so far removed from that reality that I have never considered what it would be like.

Beloved dreamer said...

I found your review as usual interesting and filled with feelings few Americans have ever experienced. I too am having a hard time expressing myself. To have your home just disappear to be displaced forever I cannot fathom it. I will right done the title and author but I do not know if I will read it. Good job lotus.

Beloved dreamer said...

Sorry lotus, I forgot to thank you for your commment. As always,my David helped. He says he hates this blog and Aol too.lol

Lotus Reads said...

Awww booklogged, thanks for the nice words, but now you know what it feels like for me when I visit your blog. I end up wanting to read every book you review, you've even turned me on to a genre I thought I'd never read - the mystery novel! :)

Thanks!



Hi, Angela

Thanks for writing in. Yes, it does make you think, doesn't it and even though this may sound cliched, after reading something like this, you cannot help but be thankful for the life you have.

Lotus Reads said...

Beloved, thanks for reading the review, enjoying it and leaving a comment. This book packs a lot in its 272 pages and leaves you thinking about it long after you have read it.

hellomelissa said...

i asked my czech friend if anything changed for her family when czechoslovakia split. she said the main impact or change was from the fall of communism (politically and fiscally) but the break was not at all a change for them culturally. food for thought as always, lotus.

Lotus Reads said...

hi, Melissa!

So great to see you here! :) I'm so glad to have your friend's input. That they weren't affected culturally could mean two things - that they continued to have strong cultural ties with each other despite the split or, could it be that a form of regionalism existed in the country even before it split? I don't remember where I read this, but when Croatia split from Yugoslavia, overnight the kebab stalls (I am guessing kebabs were a Bosnian specialty) disappeared...

I guess also the break up of Yugoslavia was a little different from the breakup of some of the other countries in the region.

litlove said...

It does indeed sound like a fascinating book, and a moving one, too. Thanks for a great review.

Lotus Reads said...

You're welcome,litlove and thanks so much for stopping by!

Rosemary Esehagu said...

Hello Lotus,

You raise very important questions, particularly in light of the significant amount of migration in current days.

Your post, Lotus, reminds me of Jamaica Kincaid's words in her book "A small place," which goes:

"For the language of the criminal can only contain the goodness of the criminal's deeds... [it] can explain and express the deed only from the criminal's point of view." It makes sense then that conquerors would want their colonies to speak their language.

Thank you for sharing this book. I have to get it. So many great books and so little time!

Lotus Reads said...

You're quite welcome Rosemary, and thank you for sharing that wonderful line from Jamaica Kincaid's book with me. I am almost embarrassed to admit I have never read any of her books, but I do know she has a large readership all over the world. Also, being an exile herself, I am sure she has amazing insights to the life of an emigre. Thanks very much for reminding me of her work.

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