An exile feels that the state of exile is a constant, special sensitivity to sound. So, I sometimes feel that exile is nothing but a state of searching for and recollecting sound.
-Dubravka Ugresic, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender
Literature of exile is a term that is used to refer to a body of literary works that explore the emotions, experiences and challenges of those who are forced to leave their homelands, or choose to leave their homelands in search of more fulfilling options for them for social, political or personal reasons. But even under this broad umbrella, there are as many forms of exile as can be imagined. Immigrants travelling to the promised lands seeking a better future, but always holding the backup option of going back home, just in case. Millions forced out of their countries through civil war, invasion and prosecution.
And then we have Dubravka Ugresic, who faced a different kind of exile. Ugresic was born in Yugoslavia (now Croatia) in 1949. She graduated in comparative literature and Russian studies from the University of Zagreb and wrote postmodern fiction initially. Her early works showed a debt to Gogol’s The Nose and other absurdist stories. She was known for bringing in topics as varied as classical literature, such as Madame Bovary alongside advertising and journalism. She wrote in what was called ‘literary in-betweenness’, straddling both highbrow classics and other genres that were considered trivial, like crime and romance novels. The postmodern writer thrived in Yugoslavia and Ugresic was one of the most irreverent and playful of the bunch.
Her early work reflects the relative stability of her nation under Tito, a period that Ugresic and other Yugoslavians were later to look back upon with longing, as future horrors unfolded. In her acclaimed 1981 novella, Steffi Cvek and the Jaws of Life, she shows how her protagonist allows herself to be guided by the fictions sold by literature, television and mass culture, a particular favourite bugbear of Ugresic, over her life. Indeed, the author shows the character reading Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s tragic and foolish heroine who dreams of passionate love and has no idea to attain it. Ugresic, in her novel shows that the mass culture that we consume and are forced to consume itself has the production of desire built into it. We are told what to consume and also told how to feel about what we consume.
In the early 90s, ethnic tensions escalated in Yugoslavia, eventually leading to the breakup of the country. Ugresic was a witness to this turmoil and when she witnessed the increasing nationalism all over, especially in her (now) home country of Croatia, she spoke her mind. The response from the state was immediate - she was shunned from the circles of writers, bookstores stopped carrying her books and in some sections of the media, she was even called a witch. Always witty, always classy, she responded by leaving, saying later, ‘I decided to get on my broom and fly away.’
It would not be a stretch to say that Ugresic would not have become the writer she became if there had been no civil war in Yugoslavia. It is possible to imagine her continuing to write postmodern fiction, rich with themes that were close to her heart - the condition of women, for one. But once she left Croatia for the West, eventually settling in Amsterdam, she became a slightly different kind of writer. Her ambit broadened. What she saw in the West opened her eyes to the hypocrisies of the West in all things, the mindless consumerism, the manipulation by the media, the lot of writers, the lot of women and of course, those in exile. Interestingly, her books rarely include items of academic interest like footnotes or references. She writes what she says and what she feels based on her experience and the results are invariably bracing, fun and illuminating.
In one of her seminal works of fiction, called The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, she writes brutally, ‘Refugees are divided into two categories: those who have photographs, and those who have none.’ This may seem harsh and reductive, but it is meant to convey her feeling that it is important to remember the past, that photographs are evidences of life lived that is no longer possible (as an exile, Ugresic felt this stronger than many) and in some ways, holding on to photographs is a way of both honouring the past as well as reminding oneself that it was real. The book, ostensibly a novel, is a collection of small fragments, almost anecdotes. Ugresic urges the reader to dismiss any feeling that the chapters and observations are random, only saying ‘If the reader feels that there are no meaningful or firm connections between them (the fragments), let him be patient: the connections will establish themselves of their own accord.’ It is a refreshing attitude, trusting the reader to connect the dots.
Ugresic also became an extremely prolific essayist. She worked at various American universities such as Wesleyan, Harvard and Columbia. Her essays can be found in numerous books, and she could always be trusted to be honest and funny. Talking about seeing Joan Collins at the London Book Fair, she says, without a trace of mockery, she writes, ‘Joan Collins appeared, dressed like a quotation: in a pink Chanel suit, with a pillbox hat and a coquettish veil over her head. To those who have seen Ms Collins, the description is funnily spot-on. In the collection of essays, Thank You for Not Reading, which is all about the publishing industry, its foibles and the impact it has on readers, she is passionate all the way through. She bemoans that ‘trivia has swamped contemporary literary life’ and that ‘blurbs are more important than books. Elsewhere she also notes that the demands of the market are without ideology and there is no moral dimension to be considered in what the market demands. Charmingly, Ugresic bares her own jealousies including a nightmare where she wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, but as Joan Collins. She is completely on point when she observes that writers like Stephen King, writers of ‘horror’ or ‘romance’ novels are only commercial variations of the propaganda novels from the communist countries.
Ugresic is also a formidable writer of the parent/child relationship, especially when it comes to mothers and daughters. Almost all her novels have a lady protagonist with an elderly mother significantly around. Descriptions of the mothers’ lives invariably leads to her opinions on memory, forgetting, social change and the terror of non-existence. Photos play a huge part in the novels, almost always denoting something lost, be it a photo of Tito, or a child or a former love. One mother in the novel Baba Yaga laid an egg, suffers from aphasia, a disorder that can affect how you communicate, impacting both your speech and written word. The mother is not able to connect thoughts to words. It is not hard to see the parallels between her mind that has lost all identifiers, and a city after being colonised, being razed of all landmarks and even street names. Orientation is lost and the ground shifts beneath one’s feet. This is again, a particular pain known mostly to exiles. It is not too difficult to see an influence of Turgenev, particularly Fathers and Sons, in Ugresic’s repeated return to mothers and daughters.
In her fiction and her non-fiction, Dubravka Ugresic defied categorization, so wide was her interest and so personal was her take on everything. Even fellow practitioners of her craft, the writers, are not spared. In one of her last novels, Fox she quotes Boris Pilnyak, the Russian writer: The fox is the god of cunning and treachery. The fox is the god of all writers. In this book, Ugresic asks many valid questions that all writers and readers should ask - How does high art relate to low art? what is narrative? The book has epigraphs from Brodsky, Nabokov, Bulgakov and then from a fictional writer. Marginal characters ignore rules of storytelling and rudely move to the centre of the stories. The book is structured, if that is the word, as six parts, with titles as varied as the banal ‘A Story About How Stories Come to Be Written’ (part one) and the mischievously named ‘Little Miss Footnote’ (part five). The book once again talks about what we now know are Ugresic’s main issues - the relentless commodification of culture, the plight of migrants worldwide, but especially in the Balkans, the chilling whitewashing of history and the terrifying rise of nationalism. In the end, the book states, ‘we are all footnotes.’
In some ways, I suppose we must thank the ethnic tensions in Yugoslavia that allowed Dubravka Ugresic to spread her wings as a writer and delight us with her expertise. For many years, she was mentioned as a possible recipient of the Nobel, but it never came to fruit. She was a finalist for the International Man Booker Prize in 2009, but the prize went to Alice Munro that year. Reassuringly, Ugresic did manage to score a rare enough distinction: she won the Neustad International Prize for Literature in 2016. The Neustad is one of the very few international prizes for which poets, novelists and playwrights are all eligible. Also, the prize is bestowed only every alternate year and is sometimes called ‘The American Nobel’, given the number of laureates, candidates and jurors have themselves won the Nobel. It is somehow apt that Ugresic, not as famous as she should be, has been celebrated with the American Nobel, also not as famous as it should be probably.
And in the end, her legacy is her honesty, her wit. Her relentless passion for books, her fighting to save the fundamentals and roots of culture, her railing against the ills of modern consumerism tirelessly. At the very end of Thank You for Not Reading, she narrates an anecdote about an American worker Roy, who worked on her apartment, but who was also given to tall tales that may or may not have been true. After Ugresic fires him for lounging on the job, one day she finds two pages from his promised story hidden away in her house. The pages are compelling and Ugresic says the opening pages were the perfect example of how to hook a reader. But Roy is gone, no one seems to know where, and Ugresic, like all good writers, sneaks up like a fox and steals his story from him to make it into a chapter in her book. She ends with a ruminative possibility of a parallel scenario - Perhaps at the moment I am writing these lines, I am living in Roy’s pages, a life about which I know nothing.