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Dubravka Ugrešić: Muzej bezuvjetne predaje (The Museum of Unconditional Surrender)

The book starts off with a post-modern list, this time quite an unusual one, namely the contents of a walrus’s stomach. The walrus has a name – Roland. The contents of Roland’s stomach are fairly extensive and entirely random. I mention this as it shows Ugrešić’s post-modern credentials but also because she herself explains how relevant it is to her book.

The visitor [to the exhibition of the walrus’s stomach]… cannot resist the poetic thought that with time the objects have acquired some subtler, secret connections…The chapters and fragments which follow should be read in a similar way. If the reader feels that there are no meaningful or firm connections between them, let him be patient: the connections will establish themselves of their own accord.

In other words, this novel is seemingly bitty, jumping in place, time, style and connections between the characters but it is all connected, even if the connections are not all that obvious. The novel changes in style throughout, from diaries, to first-person narratives to mini-stories to letters and so on. She is also in different places in the novel. Rilke once said that the story of a shattered life can only be told in bits and pieces. Her life has been shattered by the break-up of Yugoslavia. In the end life is reduced to a heap of random, unconnected details, Brodksy said. (There are lots of quotes from other writers.)

If you have read any of Ugrešić’s other novels, you will be familiar with many of the themes in this book. These include exile (and its associated problems including solitude, a sense of displacement, and a yearning for the past, albeit often seen through rose-tinted spectacles), the break-up of Yugoslavia and its consequences (more on an individual level than a global level), her mother, a sense of community with other Slavs, particularly but certainly not only those from the former Yugoslavia, language and, of course, memories.

We start with what we might call a Croatian Proustian madeleine. In this case it is an old bag. The beginning of this story is hidden in a lady’s pigskin bag, which she [her mother] had brought with her. Her mother was Bulgarian and had emigrated to Yugoslavia when she was twenty, met her husband, had two children and had stayed on in what is now Croatia, even after the death of her husband and the departure of her children. Other things were lost or destroyed but the bag remained. It contained various keepsakes and, in particular, a lot of photos. Inevitably, these trigger memories both for mother and daughter. The narrator (we do not know her name but her mother calls her Bubi) persuades her mother to put them in an album. Bubi later looks at them and they seemed to have been placed entirely randomly in the album, somewhat like the objects in Roland’s stomach.

We see numerous examples of memories triggering thoughts. There are false memories, such as a friend who remembers her old boyfriend but her memories of him are very different from the reality. There are memories of her childhood, which are inevitably distorted, such as when we sees the Black Sea from a different part.There is a discussion on photos as an aid to memory.

A photograph is a reduction of the endless and unmanageable world to a little rectangle. A photograph is our measure of the world. A photograph is also a memory. Remembering means reducing the world to little rectangles.

Her mother has not had a particularly happy life and she discusses her mother’s story. Indeed, when talking about her childhood, it is often really talking about her mother. It was as though everything she did went wrong. And now her world has shrunk, husband and family died, children moved away, she has nothing in her life, a couple of basic rituals, a couple of neighbours, an occasional visit from her son and an occasional phone call from her daughter. It seems that I’ve spent my whole life longing for something, but I never knew exactly for what. It was all so hazy, she says.

Our narrator is not entirely happy. In Berlin, she finds no-one has time for anything and everybody, herself included, seems to spend a lot of time sleeping. She cannot find street addresses and is continually getting lost in this strange city.

She finds comfort with fellow former Yugoslavs as she does in her other books. Zoran from Belgrade and Goran from Skopje, now both living abroad, discuss things that they remember from Yugoslavia, not always positively, e.g. a railway line that led nowhere. However, a fellow Croatian writer tells her I am a dead writer.

Exile is generally the key to Ugrešić’s work and this book is certainly no exception. Most of the characters are or have been in exile, whether voluntary or less than voluntary. The narrator’s mother, as we have seen, is in exile from Bulgaria and the narrator herself is in exile, primarily in Berlin in this book, though we know the Netherlands features strongly in her other books. Exile, or at least the form of it I was living with increasing weariness, is an immeasurable state, and she does not mean that in a positive way. The effect in this and her other books are being lost in a foreign city (see her comments on getting lost in Berlin, above), a nostalgia for the old country which, all too often, is seen through rose-tinted spectacles, seeking out fellow exiles, both your compatriots but others as well, feeling a stranger when you do go home and, perhaps above all, a sense of losing something you cannot regain.

I had lost my homeland. I had not yet got used to the loss, nor to the fact that my homeland was the same but different. In one year, I had lost my home, my friends, my job, the possibility of returning soon, but also the desire to return.

The issue of the break-up of Yugoslavia is not so much to the fore in this novel as it is in her other novels. In many cases, there are merely oblique references, such as nostalgia for the things of childhood or the comment immediately above. However, the idea is always hovering in the background. Some countries last as long as people, one character comments and that comment is very much indicative of the volatile nature of politics in Eastern Europe.

Art (in the broader sense) is very much key. One of the sections is entitled Was ist Kunst?, i.e. the German for What is art?. She asks various people the question and, not surprisingly, gets many varied answers. These include the very real Richard Wentworth, various friends and neighbours and the postman. We follow her literary interests and learn about obscure Russian writers such as Konstantin Vaginov who, like her, was trying to make sense of everyday reality, and Doyvber Levin who, like so many of his contemporaries, had been swallowed by darkness.

Above all, it is stories that keep this novel going. She tells numerous stories of friends and people she meets, of her mother and other family members, of chance encounters, of artists and fellow exiles, and, of course, of herself.

Ugrešić is such a fine writer that, as she says at the beginning, the connections will establish themselves. As mentioned above, her themes are clear and, even if the novel is, deliberately, somewhat bitty, life is bitty and exile, in particular is bitty.

Publishing history

First published in Dutch translation by Nijgh & van Ditmar in 1997
First English publication by New Directions/Phoenix in 1999
First Croatian publication by Samizdat B92 in 2001
Translated by Celia Hawkesworth