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Dubravka Ugrešić: Forsiranje romana-reke (Fording the Stream of Consciousness)

As far as I can recall I have two other books on my website set at literary conferences: Iván ThaysLa disciplina de la vanidad [The Discipline of Vanity] and César Aira‘s appropriately named El congreso de literatura (The Literary Conference). The Thays is part serious but also mocking. The Aira is, well, it is Aira, charging off into all sorts of areas, getting carried way and mocking Hollywood B films rather than writers. However, this book does not hide its intent. It is mocking, satirical and playful.

There is a brief introduction about the author’s jet-setting round the world, dealing with her sciatica and meeting various writers. She is advised, particularly as concerns her sciatica What you need is more action. She also tells us that the writers were much more concerned to be recognised as sexual beings than as writers (this is partially in relation to Azim, the naked Turkish poet). She follows this up by saying people may respect writers but they rarely love them, though she herself says I love writers, they are so small and pitiful. The tone has been set for the rest of the novel.

The rest of the book concerns a literary conference in Zagreb. The books seems to be set in 1984, so both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia are alive, if not well. We first meet a communist but he is a Spanish communist, José Ramón Espeso. Sadly, he goes swimming (which he loves), slips while getting out, falls and dies. The episode is mildly mocked, not least because the minister responsible for the conference has to be interrupted from trying various sexual positions with Vanda, his assistant.

We meet hordes of writers, all of whom seem to be fictitious. There is the Czech writer, Jan Zdražil, who has been instructed to buy a certain kind of panties for his wife, apparently not available in Czechoslovakia. He realises he hates her. He is trying to get his large novel published abroad, imaginatively called The Story of My Life, and this will be one of the running themes throughout this book. He tried to persuade an American to get it published, seems to lose the manuscript (already in bad condition as he had hidden it in his wife’s washing machine) and then gets involved in a complicated plot.

It is East Europeans who are the major butt of the mocking and none more so, of course, than the Soviets. Their interpreter spots them a mile away at the airport – Russians are clearly very distinctive for other East Europeans. The Russians themselves are critical of how foreigners get access to archives that they cannot and how there are many foreigners who come to Russia to study not just the greats but Russian writers few Russians have ever heard of. Indeed, it is almost mandatory for the powerful Soviet to have a few tame foreigners around (having a foreigner was a sexual sine qua non). Our Soviets seem to have three interests: sex (of course), fine food and drink and the possibility of defection. Ugrešić mocks all three.

Ugrešić is not averse to mocking her own compatriots. Two of the writers goes to the Writers Club. There is only one strange woman there and, when they ask where the writers are, they are told We have no writers. No writers, no literature. Life writes the novels in this country, nobody gives a damn about literature.

We follow two Yugoslavs. The first is Pipo Fink. He has written one novel, which has not had a huge success, and now writes for children’s TV. However, he is well aware that he is, to all intents and purposes, a loser. Everyone seems to be doing better than he is, both in literature and sex. (He still lives with his mother.) He wants to be the Yugoslav Kerouac. He envies the US writer he meets at the conference. (The US writer, of course, envies him, thinking that culture emanates more from Europe than from the United States).

The other Yugoslav is the conference organiser, Prša, whose novel Golden Fingers has just been published. He works for the sexually active minister and is ambitious to succeed him. He keeps detailed files on all Yugoslav writers and is the main source for obituaries of writers.

One key figure is Jean-Paul Flagus who claims descent from Flaubert (Flagus = Flaubert Gustave) who is partially stereotypical French (though more on the food than the sex side) who seems to be something of a Machiavellian figure with a more important role than at first seems apparent.

There is, of course, a rape, though it is three women who rape (actually they do not but nearly do) a sexist critic, in one of the funniest scenes in the book, even though, of course, rape is never funny.

This is a hilarious book as well as being very clever. Everyone is mocked, regardless of nationality – Russians, other East Europeans, the Irish, the French, the Spanish, the Scandinavians, the Americans – no-one escapes Ugrešić’s caustic satire. It is very post-modernist with lists (how writers died, how they lost their manuscripts), a sausage factory (Those that respect the law and love sausage should watch neither being made – Mark Twain), vicious satire, in-jokes many of which I doubtless missed and all sorts of digressions. And the sciatica? Sadly, she still has it at the end. What she needs is more action, so she will write a novel. This novel.

Publishing history

First published in 1988 by August Cesarec
First English publication by Virago Press in 1991