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The Ministry of Pain: A Novel Paperback – February 27, 2007


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This cerebral, relentlessly bleak novel bears witness to the "convalescence" of exiles from the former Yugoslavia, Slavic literature professor Tanja Lucic and her students, persevering in Amsterdam in the wake of ethnic cleansing back home. They call themselves "our people" because their native Yugoslavia no longer exists; they refer to "our language" to avoid the "politically incorrect" term, Serbo-Croatian. The way war shreds and disfigures language parallels the way in which refugee living chews up the dignity of Tanja and her students, many of whom work in the punishing clothing sweatshop of the novel's title. Tanja conducts class as group therapy, playing a game of "Yugonostalgia" to come to terms with their horrifying past. The following semester, she is told to shape up her methods, and she turns the class into a serious literary study. Her earlier unorthodox pedagogy backfires, however, triggering a violent climax, after which Tanja truly falls apart. Ugresic (the acclaimed Fording the Stream of Consciousness) writes piercing observations of everyday Amsterdam and of the elder generation in Zagreb. But Tanja's narration, which combines ongoing if eloquent meditation on language and a numb, distanced approach to overwhelming loss, lends the novel an East bloc sterility. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

This novel poses some interesting philosophical questions--who are you, what are you, and what are your memories when your country has disintegrated and even your language has been politicized out of existence? That's what has happened to the narrator and protagonist, Tanja Lucic, ethnically a Croatian, formerly a Yugoslav. Exiled by the Yugoslav ethnic wars of the 1990s and then abandoned by her husband in Berlin, Tanja lands a one-year post at the University of Amsterdam. Her students, with one exception, are fellow exiles enrolled to maintain their refugee status. Ugresic (The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, 2002) explores the many facets of displacement, taking the reader down a sometimes tricky linguistic path that ends up placing a Slavic twist on the notion that "you can't go home again." Despite a surprise ending that is rushed, including an epilogue in which the characters' fates are recounted, this sorrowful tale packs a powerful punch, emphasizing that among former Yugoslavs, some bear the dual burden of guilt and victimhood. Frank Caso
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (February 27, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060825855
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060825850
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #929,505 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Ralph Blumenau TOP 1000 REVIEWER on April 11, 2006
Format: Hardcover
The book is divided into five parts. I found the first part absolutely brilliant, and I think it deserves a five star rating. The narrator, Tanja Lucic, is a Croatian academic who has exiled herself from the former Yugoslavia and has taken a post as a lecturer on Serbo-Croatian literature at the University of Amsterdam. Her students, too, are for the most part, exiles from the various republics that made up the former Yugoslavia. They had enrolled in the course primarily because it was easier to stay legally in Holland as foreign students than to be allowed to stay as refugees. Tanja and the students are all traumatized by the war in Yugoslavia. Tanja's intention in the course is to preserve the memory of life in Yugoslavia before the break-up and, above all, to preserve the memory of Yugoslav literature when back at home the Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Macedonians and Albanians were repudiating their common heritage, and, as far as they could, even the heritage of a common language. But this intention, so far from that being any kind of a healing procedure, created many tensions in the group: its members could not forget what suffering had been inflicted on them by members of other ethnic groups. The displaced and rootless members of the group, uncertain now of their identity, suffer from a kind of sado-masochism: the title of the book is taken from the name of a sado-masochistic club in The Hague. There is a horrifying climax in Part Four when Tanja is victimized by a student who attacks everything she had been trying to do.

Long before that episode, Tanja had come to realize that the Titoist Yugoslavia which preceded the break-up had its own `Problematik': so could it really be held up as a pre-lapsarian ideal?
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Ronald Scheer on July 2, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In a world rapidly filling with those taking refuge from political turmoil, there is a growing literature of the refugee experience. This novel (which seems more like a memoir it is so detailed in the specifics of finding asylum in another country) covers a year in the life of a young woman from Zagreb in Croatia, who has fetched up in Holland, with a university teaching job in the Slavic Languages department. Here she teaches mostly fellow emigres, from the former Yugoslavia.

The narrative device gives opportunity for an ongoing analysis of what it means to be from a country that after bloody civil war no longer exists. In Amsterdam, she mingles with other emigres, "our people" she calls them, who like her can remember growing up in a communist country, priding itself in an ethnic diversity that it no longer tolerates. What they experience, living in exile, is what they call "Yugonostalgia." Returning to Zagreb for a brief visit, she learns what all immigrants must discover, that time does not stand still for those who have stayed behind. Soon those who have left, even history itself, are forgotten in a kind of collective amnesia.

There is defeat for both those who leave and those who stay, she concludes. The only triumph is at the moment of departure itself, when what is intolerable is left behind and the hope of finding a true home somewhere else is not yet dashed. This is something of an academic novel, the fate of the heroine tied up in departmental politics. Given the literary interests of the main character, there are many allusions to European and American literature, film, and pop culture, while the book also draws heavily on a familiarity with Balkan writers. Ironic, darkly humorous, and thought provoking.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Roadrunner on February 25, 2007
Format: Hardcover
My association with Yugoslavia began in the mid-1970's and includes six years living there and traveling around it. From that perspective, this is an interesting, even gripping, book. In rich, moving, well-textured language (translation or original), Ugresic makes us feel the somewhat contradictory sense of loss experienced by all the nationalities comprised in the "former Yugoslavia." Contradictory, because those who don't have some experience of the area may not grasp what's been lost.

So, how does one rate a book like this? It's not commercial, and will never be a best-seller; it's deep, to some extent, but it would also be easy to dismiss it as pointless, self-indulgent navel-gazing. I think the rating, on these amazon pages, must be based on the universality of its appeal; Ugresic's memoir offers insights into the rootless emigrant experience generally, but overall, it will only resonate deeply with those who have some experience of the former Yugoslavia. Thus, a three.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Reader on August 13, 2009
Format: Paperback
When one thinks of a modern day intellectual(s), Susan Sontag comes to mind. But even if one looks a further back, there is Simone de Bouvier, Gertrude Stein, Ayn Rand to mention a few. Every time I read Ugresic's books I think of a writer and modern day philosopher who is trying to make sense of what it truly means being an intellectual in exile. What makes it even more horrifying is being a writer from a small country that disappeared long ago in a country where one's native language, the fighting sword of any writer, begins to loose its luster.

In her latest nover, Ugresic writes of Tanja Lucic, university professor of slavic literature using unorthodox methods to reach out to her small audience of students in slavic department. Most of them are from former Yugoslavia and some have personal attachments to the country and its people. Her methods make her seemingly likable amongst her students until she starts digging too deep. By the end of the first semester, one of her students has committed suicide and another has filed a complaint to he department head about the lack of syllabus in her teaching course. The fact that all of her students have A's is not helping either and Tanja's method changes to a stern, disciplined teaching, it leaves her with only four students in the class during second semester.

Ugresic cuts to the core of the pain of being in exile, being cut off from friens and family, or being humiliated from lack of ability to speak the language in emigree's newly adopted country. Her book characters are playing music in public places for money, they work in Amsterdam's sex shops that produce wardrobe and equipment; her main character lives in the basement apartment of the red light district, alone, detached and utterly unhappy.

While Mr.
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