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The Ministry of Pain: A Novel Paperback – February 27, 2007
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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.
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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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.
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. Heim does wonderful job of translating the book, for any reader unfamilar with culture, it is unfortunate that footnotes are not availbale. I am convinced that footnotes would bring out deeper meaning for some of the characters and references mentioned in dialogs between many of the book characters. The ending feels rushed, which is unfortunate. Otherwise, I fidn this book to be a remarkable piece of wok about what it means to be immigrant, what is it that we call home and how immigrants and emigrees redefine themselves in the new world they find themselves in.
This writer can write, no doubt about it--and she has things to say,
but the ending is so ridiculous and hard to accept (it seems as though
the writer was lost when coming to terms as to how to end her tale) that
it practically invalidates all that preceded it.
I mean, the wrap up is something like a cheap twist ending in a B-grade
And this writer is too good to do something like that. I still can't believe
that she decided this was the best way to resolve her tale (even two
weeks after having finished reading her book.)