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Dubravka Ugresic: Literature, Identity and Putin's kisses.

by poemless Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 06:49:38 PM EST

"The ideal place for me is the one in which it is most natural to live as a foreigner." - Italo Calvino.

(image c/o Walter White)  

From Wikipedia:

Dubravka Ugrešić (born 27 March 1949, Kutina) is a noted Yugoslavian/Croatian writer who lives in the Netherlands.

Ugrešić was born in 1949 in former Yugoslavia, now Croatia. She studied Comparative Literature and Russian Language and Literature at the University of Zagreb, pursuing parallel careers as a scholar of the humanities and as a writer.

Her best-known novel in former Yugoslavia was Štefica Cvek u raljama života (Steffie in the Jaws of Life), an ironic postmodernist novel freely playing with clichés and stereotypes of trivial literature and culture. The novel was an immediate success and made into a 1984 movie U raljama života directed by Rajko Grlić.

After the outbreak of the war in 1991 in former Yugoslavia Ugrešić took a firm anti-war and anti-nationalistic stand. She wrote critically about nationalism (both Croatian and Serbian), the stupidity and criminality of war (see her book The Culture of Lies), and soon became a target of nationalistically charged media. She was proclaimed a "traitor", a "public enemy" and a "witch".

She left Croatia in 1993 and continued to write living outside her country. Her writing has been described as accessible, intelligent, innovative and politically and emotionally charged.

Ugrešić lives in Amsterdam as a freelance writer. She occasionally teaches at American and European Universities and writes for some European newspapers and literary journals.

I could spend this whole diary writing about her life of exile as a person from the former Yugoslavia who lives in Amsterdam and treks about your continent like a one-woman show of European cosmopolitanism and literary tradition.  But a lot of people have done that.  "You can Google me," she said.

Once upon a time, when I was a stunning young impressionable thing, a stunning older impressed professor of mine turned me on to this writer named Dubravka Ugrešić.  He'd edited and published some of her books and was attempting to lure her to teach at our university.  He gave me her books (to the shock and ire of his male students, who'd been made to pay for their copies.)  I fell madly in love, but not with the professor.  I'd never read anything like it - so witty and brilliant and positively genius and cosmopolitan.  In my life I've know known people who carry around the same book for up to a year.  Brothers Karamazov, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Road Less Travelled.  Are they reading them?  Are they saving up for a long, unforeseen wait in a train station?  Are these books like amulets?  Are they being displayed like tattoos or crucifixes?  Who knows.  I did that with Fording the Stream of Consciousness.  It became like an extension of myself.  I was annoyed when she turned down the teaching position.  Like an organ rejection.

Her prose is intelligent and witty and playful and deeply satisfying.  She's obviously a curious person, and as a result of her nomadic existence, has a lot of great material.  She's an astute observer of human behavior.  I'd be terrified to have her as a psychologist: you probably can't get away with lying to her.  She'd make Freud squirm.  And in that quintessentially Eastern European manner, she judges everything around her with a piercing, unsentimental eye until she can't help herself any longer and falls into a mess of vulnerability and melancholy, and wraps it all neatly in a package of wicked humour.  I've said it repeatedly: good prose is on the verge of extinction!  I have adopted Dubravka Ugrešić in the attempt to save a species.  Like a polar bear.  Maybe I should start a charity, like the WWF, but for talented writers.  Send me $100 and receive a plush replica of Andrey Kurkov as a thank you gift.

But I am not just a literary do-gooder!  I have my ulterior motives.  Previously, I reviewed a writer from Bosnia, Aleksandar Hemon.  He's another of my adoptees.  (In the future, I plan to read Slavenka Drakulić.  Maybe I'll commit an entire bookshelf to symbolic reunification of Yugoslavia.)  Hemon and Ugrešić have a lot in common, what with their national issues, mastery of language, observations of human absurdities and daily head-on collisions between East and West.  Also, they write about the people, places, cultures intensely familiar to me: Chicago and Slavic Languages and Literature Departments.  I read their books to feed my narcissism (I am written about, therefore I am) and because in a world where no one understands me </dramatic sigh> there is a guilty pleasure in being typecast.    

Sabina Pluhar.  Many anonymous young women who had come from Uppsala, Paris, Ann Arbor, Nottingham and Munich to study Russian language and literature experienced their finest moments in "awful, "ugly" Moscow: they had been invited to poetry readings, literary salons, theatres, met dozens of fascinating people and, for the first time in their lives, felt they were important, special, even unique.  There was always something for them to do for somebody, something to get out, something to get in.  Gabby, Ellen, Viviane, Jane - they all saved "brilliant" works from the dust of oblivion by smuggling them across the border (unaware, of course, that there were copies galore); they all stuck too the sweet glue of fear and local mythology the way flies stick to flypaper, and had a hard time readjusting to anonymity wen they returned home.  The only tangible thing they had to show for it all was the senseless thesis on Russian language or literature they had ostensibly gone there to write.

When I returned from Moscow, I wrote a manuscript.  Then, everyone was going to Russia and returning to write manuscripts.  I'd been keeping in touch with a guy I met in Moscow, who, upon receiving my letters, proclaimed I was a brilliant writer, and why hadn't I ever told him?  Or maybe I was just trying to stave off anonymity.  Anyway...  the manuscript is prefaced with the above excerpt from Ugrešić 's novel, Fording the Stream of Consciousness.  By the time I got to Russia, there wasn't much book smuggling to be had, but otherwise the description is spot on.  It's a scathing indictment, but I don't care.  She knows me.  Better than I know myself, even.  Seriously.  When I said my name, she insisted I do not know how to pronounce it correctly.  She pronounced it, beautifully.  But I would sound like a maniac going around  pronouncing my own name with a made-up Croatian accent, like the woman at parties who gets drunk and speaks with a British accent even though she is from Milwaukee.  How did I end up with a name only someone else can pronounce?!  WTF?!  I've always hated my name.  Until I heard Dubravka Ugrešić say it.  Maybe I'll move to Croatia, where my name is sultry and rolls off tongue like Slavic buttah.  Mmm...

Here's some more deliciousness from Fording the Stream of Consciousness:

"What was the lure of Moscow?  A love of fear? Did they come from their homes all rosy, carefree and vitamin-packed for a taste of something interesting, or, rather, dangerous?"

(The character, Troshin, a Russian writer abroad for a conference, goes through a long list of peculiarities of Russian life Western visitors sought out, like stories of work camps, statues of Lenin, flea markets filled with freaks, etc.)

"each of them not only sublimely certain that they were the first to see it all but also, once they have turned genuine grotesqueries into unbearable kitsch, shamelessly forcing their "authentic", "ironic" or "completely unbiased" angle on us, on us Russians.  And they seemed to take a positive pleasure in the absurdities and monstrosities of a life that was not their own.

Foreigners. He envied them their light, easygoing way of doing things; it came from their personal freedom, something you could not acquire, something you had to breathe with the air of the country where you lived.  He admired the ease with which they entered into conversations with door-keepers, reception clerks, cloakroom attendants, janitors, - that ever-present, terror-inspiring band of geezers that constantly aroused Troshin's anxiety.  Or used to admire them, admired them until the day he witnessed a skirmish on the streets of Moscow between a no-nonsense policeman and a foreigner and watched the foreigner's self-assurance melt and the familiar, home-grown, humiliated look of fear spread over his face.  Troshin knew the mechanisms of fear like the back of his hand, yet it was only after that incident that he realized how tenuous personal freedom, inner freedom actually was.  A foreigner played the tough guy as long as he had his passport in his pocket.  yet some of them stayed on longer than they had intended; some went home irreversibly changed.  Changed by what?  Among other things by the first opportunity in their lives of being - different."

Reader:  Poemless!  Wait!  Back up.  You said she didn't take the teaching job.  Then you started talking about the way she pronounces your name.  How did you end up meeting her?

Poemless:  Oh.  I saw the bookshop a few doors down was hosting an event with her last week.  I went.  Just like that - I met a personal hero.  

She was more imposing than her voice as a writer would lead you to think.  I would not want to upset her.  But it was fun.  An intimate affair with 2 six packs of beer and about 1 attendee per beer, so I had a nice opportunity to chat with her.  She terrifies me actually.  Having a conversation with her was like playing a game of chess.  And I've never played chess.  As if it weren't traumatic enough just meeting her.  I found Hemon on a shelf at the bookstore.  I found Ugrešić through less innocent circumstances.  Oh and looking for the website of the series Writings from an Unbound Europe, which appears to be down, I see our shared acquaintance has recently written something entitled, Intertextual Sexual Attraction in A. Blok's "The Unknown Woman."  Great.  Now my life is a bloody Woody Allen film!!  Anyway, trauma.  As much as I admire her, each time I pick up her books, I'm like Proust with his cookie.  She's not just some author out there who wound up on one of my many bookshelves because they were on Fresh Air.  She's part of my luggage.  Some people display photos.  I don't.  I'm an anti-photo-ite.  I display books.  I'm like Hrabal's Hanta.

OMG.  Bohumil Hrabal's Too Loud a Solitude is on Google Books!  Stop.  Read it.  Come back and finish reading my diary.  Go.  Page 55 is one of the most beautiful literary passages I have ever read.

N.B. Hrabal is not from the former Yugoslavia, but from the former Czechoslovakia.  Vovochka should stop lamenting the disintegration of the Soviet Union.  It's alive in all its territorial integrity on my bookshelves.  I'll extend to him an open invitation to come visit.

Speaking of Putin, she has a funny little essay about him in her new book, Nobody's home, which is very green and which she was hawking when I met her.

"Let Putin kiss a wet slippery fish" (Excerpt)

Putin & his strategic little rybka.  "Mmmwah!"

I cannot recall when I last saw a more pornographic image. The picture is a close-up of Putin holding a fish and kissing it. It was taken during the president's visit to a fish farm in the village of Ikryanoe, near Astrakhan, on the Caspian Sea. He is kissing a sturgeon, the fish that produces the finest caviar. The eye of the fish, visible just below Putin's nostrils, is, it seems, warmer and more tender than Putin's own. Several moments later, he put the sturgeon back into the water, to the applause of the assembled locals and employees.

Putin, like the great masters of self-image management, is here killing several semantic birds with one stone. The sturgeon is a long fish with a pointy head. With the gesture of an experienced porn star, fixing the observer with his chill gaze, Putin is sending an indirect kiss to the gay population: the long, slippery sturgeon in his hands could be a penis, and Putin is kissing the organ at its sensitive tip.

But there is another, strictly heterosexual, interpretation. In the slang of many Slavic languages the word "fish" means woman, or, rather, the female sexual organ. This metaphoric sequence starts from the male assumption that the female sexual organ "smells like a fish". Fearless Putin embraces the smelly fish (though his sensible woollen gloves suggest the fish-kisser prefers safe sex).

The president is also sending the kiss to the subconscious mind of the Russian people, who know their fairy-tales. The main hero of "By the Pike's Wish" is stupid, ugly, lazy Emelya, a fisherman who amasses wealth, a kingdom and a beautiful princess because he releases a pike he had caught. The pike is his powerful helper. All Emelya has to say is: "By the pike's wish, at my command..." and things are resolved instantaneously in his favour. Putin, therefore, is suggesting to his people that they should stay where they are and place their trust in a higher order, because they can be pulled out of deep shit only by the will of God - or fish. Putin himself, like Emelya, is a lucky fellow, and the fish's favourite. One way or the other, the kingdom is his.

I've said it repeatedly: it is sooooo not just me.

BTW, I've found this story on ... her blog!  So you can check out other essays by her over there, for free.  Which is super since money for buying things will have completely disappeared by this time next Wednesday.  OTOH, no plush replicas for you!

Here is another essay from the same book.  It's a book of essays.  It's like Odds & Ends, only more profitable.

"Identity" (Excerpts)

The last few years whenever I hear the word "identity" I am overcome by a powerful allergic reaction.  I hear this word everywhere, all the time, these days.  My life is not easy.  It is not easy to live plagued by allergy, especially an allergy like this.  Other people can control their allergies.  If they are allergic to milk, they don't drink it; if they are allergic to pollen, they wait for the flowering season to pass.  For me, it is as if I am allergic to bees, but live in a beehive the size of the planet.  I have no idea how I picked up this allergy.  I must have been over-exposed to it.

They constantly assaulted me with that word in my former homeland.  


Every form I fill out requires that I enter my "identity."  By occupation I am a writer.  Nobody's perfect.  Everyone has to earn their bread and butter.  But, what do you know, it turned out that the things I wrote weren't written by any old writer, but by a Croatian writer.  Ah, identity!

I changed my place of residence, and that helped some but not much.  I continue to inhale identity like pollen; that word keeps resounding around me like a mantra.  I'm constantly sneezing, and tears well in my eyes.  Recently, for instance, I was watching an American television show.  A young woman decided she wanted to open a men's salon where, she said, she will cut hair in the nude.  Why shouldn't the woman be naked while she cuts their hair, I thought.  What is so bad about that?  I was prepared to offer her my silent support until the woman suddenly erupted with: "This is the identity I have been looking for, and now I've found it!"


For the first time it occurred to me why people hold on to this identity of theirs so fiercely - precisely because they know identities can be changed.  That is why a new word should be circulated: integrity.  Because even people with no identity, like myself, for instance, can have integrity.  Identities are interchangeable, like passports.  Integrities are not.  And now, am I not right, doctor?  Say so yourself.

I'll let you take it from here.  

I also want to mention UpstateNY's and Magnifico's' diaries on the state of American literature.  I will happily discuss Eastern European literature until I drop dead, but will leave discussions of American strengths and weaknesses to others.  :D

Dubravka's official website

Bibliography (of English translations):

Nobody's Home (trans. Ellen Elias-Bursac). London: Telegram/Saqi 2007; Open Letter Press, University of Rochester 2008
The Ministry of Pain (trans. Michael Henry Heim). London: Saqi 2005; New York: Ecco Press 2006.
Lend Me Your Character (trans. Celia Hawkesworth and Michael Henry Heim). Dalkey Archive Press 2004.
Thank You For Not Reading (trans. Celia Hawkesworth and Damion Searls). Dalkey Archive Press 2003.
The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (trans. Celia Hawkesworth). London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1998; New York: New Directions 1999.
The Culture of Lies (trans. Celia Hawkesworth). London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1998; The Penn State University Press 1998.
Have A Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream (trans. Celia Hawkesworth). London: Jonathan Cape 1994; New York: Viking Penguin 1995.
Fording the Stream of Consciousness (trans. Michael Henry Heim). London: Virago Press l991; Northwestern University Press 1993.
In the Jaws of Life (trans. Celia Hawkesworth and Michael Henry Heim). London: Virago Press l992. Northwestern University Press 1993.

Yeesh - I hate to post and run.  I hope someone gets something out of this.  And that it hasn't slid into oblivion before I am back on Monday!

Have a great weekend, everyone!

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 06:54:38 PM EST
I met Dubravka last week. What a coincidence.

She is a very charming and funny woman with a great personal story. It was a pleasure having her visit us here in Buffalo. Remarkable writer as well.

by Upstate NY on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 07:25:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And pretty hot, too.

The Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet. Winston Churchill
by r------ on Sat Oct 4th, 2008 at 03:10:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
When you say, "visit us here," where is here?  University?  Bookstore?  Home?

I dated a boy who's father was the head of a university English department, and when authors came to visit, they sometimes stayed at their home.  He'd shared his room with Kurt Vonnegut once.  

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Mon Oct 6th, 2008 at 10:44:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, I'm at the University of Buffalo, and I'm friends with Dubravka's publisher. We had dinner and hosted her in house with our students. D. was very gracious with students.
by Upstate NY on Mon Oct 6th, 2008 at 11:09:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I had no idea!  Her new publisher at Open Letter?  (I'm googling - I see they are out of Rochester, all makes sense now!)  I am really excited about them - it's so hard to find a lot of authors in translation, or even learn fo their existence, really.  Though I have to admit, I do question their choice of cover design...  So freaking green!  lol.  

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Mon Oct 6th, 2008 at 11:20:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
They are undertaking an act of cultural heroism. Many translations of fiction a year in a country that only publishes 400.

Bravo Open letter. may you develop a heckuva backlist.

by Upstate NY on Mon Oct 6th, 2008 at 04:16:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not when it's you writing, or her.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Oct 4th, 2008 at 05:12:17 AM EST
I am sure that sentence makes sense in your mind.  I, however, have no idea what it means.

The 'rents called last night from Dijon, BTW.  They are loving Europe!

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Mon Oct 6th, 2008 at 10:42:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not certain (I can tell) when it's you writing, or (when it's) her.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Wed Oct 8th, 2008 at 02:51:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh, I put all of her writing in blockquotes.  It should be obvious.  

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Wed Oct 8th, 2008 at 03:00:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That isn't just any fish Putin's got, it's a sturgeon! A wet slippery sturgeon ...

We had those when I was growing up too...you could catch them on the line, but when you caught one, whatever you were fishing with got sucked into it's mouth and was pretty much gone. We thought of them as carp, only uglier. Treated them the same. Which means I'll be damned if I'd kiss one.

Later on, I caught on that caviar came out of them, and that caviar (which I've only had once, when my wife's Polish family came to visit right after the wall came down and they brought it, with some really good Vodka called Polmos) was really really good. My wife's family also loves carp too, to my puzzlement, they make fish balls (gefiltefish) out of them, it's really expensive too.

All the trash fish from my childhood turned into delicacies!

And now, caviar costs a workingman's month's salary the kilo, and sturgeon are now a protecting species in the UP (though, if they've sucked up a big hook and you throw it back, do they still live?).

Trash fish no more...

The Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet. Winston Churchill

by r------ on Sat Oct 4th, 2008 at 03:09:56 PM EST
UP caviar?  As in "Upper Peninsula?  That's slightly terrifying to me.  

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Mon Oct 6th, 2008 at 10:48:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Don't worry, we didn't eat it, or the fish for that matter.

Purely trash fish. I wonder, actually, if it would be edible...I bet it would be.

But why would UP caviar be bad? Just curious...you must've had a bad experience.

(You know the first sign of spring? Illinois plates...)

The Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet. Winston Churchill

by r------ on Mon Oct 6th, 2008 at 05:05:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Spring?  I thought autumn would be the best time to visit.  The trees are stunning this time of year.

While it is perfectly beautiful in that part of the world, I have issues with the cuisine (except for the baked goods).  I've actually only ever been to northern Wisconsin & Door County, not technically the UP.  But I assume they are pretty much the same.  

And I am convinced all Great Lakes fish are toxic.

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Mon Oct 6th, 2008 at 05:25:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for this diary, Poemless - your own enthusiasm in conjunction with those magnificent quotes triggered fascination + urgent desire to experience Dubravka's writings at first hand.

"Ignoring moralities is always undesirable, but doing so systematically is really worrisome." Mohammed Khatami
by eternalcityblues (parvati_roma aaaat libero.it) on Sat Oct 4th, 2008 at 05:41:14 PM EST

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Mon Oct 6th, 2008 at 10:48:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for this diary poemless.  She sounds fascinating.  I'll put her on The (reading)List.  But first I have to get through Anna Karenina and The Fountainhead.  (And something else for a another bookclub I'm in, but I can't remember what.  I hope it's short.)

I just have to ask:

... they had been invited to poetry readings, literary salons, theatres, met dozens of fascinating people and, for the first time in their lives, felt they were important, special, even unique.

I've always wanted to meet someone who went to an honest-to-god literary salon.  You?

by Maryb2004 on Mon Oct 6th, 2008 at 12:18:10 AM EST
"honest-to-god literary salon"

I knew a woman who had a bookshop in Chicago and actually called her author events "literary salons."  I am not sure what the hell an "honest-to-god literary salon" is, though.  Like, what would qualify as a "sham" literary salon, I am wondering.  I'm really curious to know what you imagine it to be.  

I guess I just consider it to be people sitting/standing around reading or reciting literature, usually with some air of self-indulgent intellectual pretense and mild subversiveness.  Alcohol or coffee and cigarettes complete the picture.  So, I've been to countless of those.  Considering all of my adult life has been spent in academia, bookstores or libraries, it's rather unavoidable.  Though I did actually seek them out abroad.  Although, I guess in fairness, you can't just call any gathering in Russia where people drink and smoke and recite literature and talk about art and philosophy and politics and argue about who is the greatest poet a "literary salon."  I think the official term for that is "the national pastime."  :)

I can even go so far as to say that my home has been the setting of these things many times throughout my life.  But maybe they were not honest-to-god literary salons.  Maybe they were fake.  I can't say.  

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Mon Oct 6th, 2008 at 11:11:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"honest-to-god literary salon"

That's pretty much what I was picturing.  

by Maryb2004 on Mon Oct 6th, 2008 at 12:32:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Also, I should add, in case Page is lurking about, Ugresic writes a lot about the peculiarities of living in Amsterdam in her new book - which she might find interesting.  Sounds like a very odd place.

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Mon Oct 6th, 2008 at 11:46:19 AM EST
Is it worth reminding that Grozny got a street of Putin's name?

Last night, a question in the US presidential debates was "Do you think that Russia under Vladimir Putin is an evil empire?"

And there is yet another book:

What does the man think of himself?

by das monde on Wed Oct 8th, 2008 at 05:40:04 AM EST
I hesistate to respond because this is supposed to be about Ugresic, but I did bring up Putin...

  1.  His spokesman has made it very clear VVP does not want streets named after him or monuments erected to him.
  2.  Evil Empire?  See here.
  3.  And for his birthday he released a dvd, "Learn Judo with Vladimir Putin."
  4.  What does the man think of himself?  I want to know what his clones think of him, since I cannot fathom how one human being has time to be a Prime Minister, judo instructor, tiger-hunter, party chairman, National leader, murderous spy, and personal savior of Iceland all at once.  There must be more than one of him.

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Wed Oct 8th, 2008 at 03:32:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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