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Dubravka Ugrešić: Ministarstvo boli (The Ministry of Pain)

Like many other nationals of the former Yugoslavia, Dubravka Ugrešić left the country and ended up in Western Europe, specifically, in her case, Amsterdam. This story, about a Croatian woman, Tanja Lucić, is clearly very autobiographical. Tanja had arrived in Amsterdam with her boyfriend, Goran. Goran is offered a job in Tokyo and wants her to accompany him. She does not want to go to Tokyo, so Goran goes to Tokyo and she remains in Amsterdam. She is offered a two semester appointment as a lecturer in Serbo-Croat at the University of Amsterdam, where her friend’s husband was Chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.

Many immigrants from former Yugoslavia found that they could prolong their stay in the Netherlands by enrolling in a university course so this is what they did. Her students are virtually all former nationals of Yugoslavia. Many of them work at a place where they made clothes for sex shops. As there was a nearby S&M porno club called The Ministry of Pain, that is what they called their place of employment.

Very soon the group, Tanja and her students, form a coalesced group which she calls our people, by which she means people who came from the former Yugoslavia, who had had an invisible slap on their faces. They had that sideways, rabbitlike look, that special tension in the body, that animal instinct of sniffing the air to tell which direction danger is coming from.

Much of what follows is about what it means to be from the former Yugoslavia, in terms of language, culture, fitting in to the Netherlands and reacting not just to other people from the former Yugoslavia but also to other Slavs. As regards the latter, one of the students point out that Germans have no soul while Russians do.

The first key issue is language. Tanja states I believed that Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian were variants of a single language but adds A language is a dialect backed by an army. Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian are backed by paramilitary forces.. There is a lot of discussion on this issue, including the fact (which is considered key) that Serbian and Croatian have different words for train. It is finally resolved when one of the students says Fuck language! Let’s just talk!

Dealing with their situation was another key issue. We were all in chaos. None of us was sure who or what we were, to say nothing of who or what we wanted to be. They were Yugoslav nationals and knew what that meant but are now nationals of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and so on and they are not sure what that means, not least because of the bad behaviour of the political and military leaders in their new countries.

One way they try to deal with it is to recover the past. Each one writes an essay and highlights something from their Yugoslav past that they miss. These might be a poem, food, a recipe, a comic strip or trains (which were considered to be very important and which, in some cases had been blocked between different parts of former Yugoslavia). It is not that they adored Yugoslavia – Yugoslavia was a terrible place. Everybody lied. They still lie of course, but now each lie is divided in five, one per country – it is just that they like the new situation even less.

Former Yugoslavs are different from the Dutch and Tanja and her students make much of this. Each chapter is preceded by a quote from an author and many of them are about and critical of the Dutch and the Netherlands. Many of them are by Dutch authors. The Dutch are not much for contact; they are for confrontation. They bore their luminous eyes into those of another and weigh his soul. They have no hiding places. Not even their houses. They leave their curtains open and consider it a virtue. is one. How can a country be both hypocritical and boring? asks one student. The response is Only Holland has that distinction. They generally like the Dutch and the Netherlands but, in their eyes, the Dutch and their country have many faults.

However, when Tanja goes back to Croatia to visit her mother (and Goran’s parents), she is not happy there. Things have changed, not surprisingly. Indeed, as many of the street names have changed, she gets lost in her home town. She is happy to return to the Netherlands.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia is in the Hague and she visits a session with one of her students. None of the accused felt the slightest guilt…not a one was willing to come out and state, I am guilty. Not surprisingly, the experience unnerves her and she does not return.

Despite being in the Netherlands, things do not go well for her. As one of her students states every generation starts with nothing and ends with nothing.. The language the culture, her fellow former Yugoslavs, visa issues, Dutch bureaucracy and a host of other problems all add to her problems.

As a book about what it is like be an exile, when you not only feel you have to leave your country but discover that your country has left you and you are no longer what you were when you were younger but essentially a foreigner everywhere, this book works very well. Ugrešić brings out all the issues the exiles faced and many of them are not pretty. She does not come up with a solution nor does she try to do so. You have to try and adapt to a new country, a new culture and, indeed, a new language but you cannot just throw away your old country, your old culture and your native language. Obviously all too many people have had to do this and are still doing it and there are many books on the exile experience but this is certainly one of the most worthwhile ones.

Publishing history

First published in 2004 by Fabrika knjiga
First English publication by Telegram in 2008
Translated by Michael Henry Heim