The Museum of Unconditional Surrenderby Dubravka Ugresic
Critically acclaimed experimental, literary fiction by the famous Croatian exile author.The Museum of Unconditional Surrenderby the renowned Yugoslavian writer Dubravka Ugresicbegins in the Berlin Zoo, with the contents of Roland the Walrus's stomach displayed beside his pool (Roland died in August, 1961). These objectsa cigarette lighter,
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Critically acclaimed experimental, literary fiction by the famous Croatian exile author.The Museum of Unconditional Surrenderby the renowned Yugoslavian writer Dubravka Ugresicbegins in the Berlin Zoo, with the contents of Roland the Walrus's stomach displayed beside his pool (Roland died in August, 1961). These objectsa cigarette lighter, lollipop sticks, a beer-bottle opener, etc.like the fictional pieces of the novel itself, are seemingly random at first, but eventually coalesce, meaningfully and poetically.
Written in a variety of literary forms, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender captures the shattered world of a life in exile. Some chapters re-create the daily journal of the narrator's lonely and alienated mother, who shops at the improvised flea-markets in town and longs for her children; another is a dream-like narrative in which a circle of women friends are visited by an angel. There are reflections and accounts of the Holocaust and the Yugoslav Civil War; portraits of European artists; a recipe for Caraway Soup; a moving story of a romantic encounter the narrator has in Lisbon; descriptions of family photographs; memories of the small town in which Ugresic was raised.
Addressing the themes of art and history, aging and loss, The Museum is a haunting and an extremely original novel. In the words of the Times Literary Supplement, "it is vivid in its denunciation of destructive forces and in its evocation of what is at stake."
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1. 'Ich bin müde,' I say to Fred. His sorrowful, pale face stretches into a grin. Ich bin müde is the only German sentence I know at the moment. And right now I don't want to learn any more. Learning more means opening up. And I want to stay closed for a while longer.
2. Fred's face reminds one of an old photograph. Fred looks like a young officer driven by unhappy love to play Russian roulette. I imagine him some hundred years ago spending whole nights in Budapest restaurants. The mournful scraping of Gypsy violins doesn't provoke so much as a quiver on his pale face. Just occasionally his eyes shine with the gleam of the metal buttons on his uniform.
3. The view from my room, my temporary exile, is filled with tall pine trees. In the morning I open the curtains to reveal a romantic stage set. The pines are at first shrouded in mist like ghosts, then the mist disperses in wisps, and the sun breaks through. Towards the end of the day the pines grow dark. In the left-hand corner of the window a lake can just be seen. In the evening I close the curtains. The stage set is the same each day, the stillness of the scene is broken occasionally by a bird, but all that ever really changes is the light.
4. My room is filled with a silence as thick as cotton wool. If I open the window, the silence is shattered by the twittering of birds. In the evening, if I go out of my room into the hall, I hear the sound of a television (from Kira's room on my floor) and the sound of a typewriter (the Russian writer on the floor below me). A little later I hear the uneven tapping of a stickand the scrape of the invisible German writer's small footsteps. I often see the artists, a Romanian married couple (from the floor below me), they pass silently like shadows. The silence is sometimes disturbed by Fred, our caretaker. Fred cuts the grass in the park, driving the pain of his love away with the noisy electric mower. His wife has recently left him. 'Zy vife ist crazy,' Fred explained. That's the only English sentence he knows.
5. In the nearby town of Murnau there is a museum, the house of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky. I am always a little troubled by the traces of other people's lives, they are at once so personal and yet impersonal. When I was there I bought a postcard showing a painting of the house, Das Russen-Haus. I often look at this postcard. I sometimes feel that the tiny human form at the window, that dark-red dot, is me.
6. On my desk there is a yellowed photograph. It shows three unknown women bathers. I don't know much about the photograph, just that it was taken at the beginning of the century on the river Pakra. That is a little river that runs not far from the small town where I was born and spent my childhood.
I always carry the photograph around with me, like a little fetish object whose real meaning I do not know. Its matt yellow surface attracts my attention, hypnotically. Sometimes I stare at it for a long time, not thinking about anything. Sometimes I plunge attentively into the reflections of the three bathers mirrored in the water, into their faces which are looking straight at mine. I dive into them as though I am about to solve a mystery, discover a crack, a hidden passage through which I shall slip into a different space, a different time. Usually I prop up the photograph in the left-hand corner of the window, where the end of the lake can be seen.
7. I sometimes have coffee with Kira from Kiev, a retired literature teacher. 'Ya kamenshchitsa,' says Kira. Kira is passionate about every kind of stone. She tells me that she spends every summer in the Crimea, in a village where the sea throws all kinds of semi-precious stones up on to the shore. She is not alone, she says, other people come there as well, they are all kamenshchiki. Sometimes they meet up, make a fire, cook borsch and show one another their 'treasures'. Here, Kira passes the time painting copies of various subjects. She has made a copy of the archangel Michael, although, she says, she prefersthreading. She asks whether I have a broken necklace, she could mend it, she says, re-thread the beads. 'You know,' says Kira, 'I like threading things.' She says it as though she were apologising.
8. In nearby Murnau, there is a museum commemorating Odön von Horváth. Odön von Horváth was born on 9 December 1901 in Rijeka, at 16.45 (according to some other documents it was 16.30). When he had attained a weight of some 16 kilograms, he left Rijeka, and spent some time in Venice and some more in the Balkans. When he reached a height of 1 metre 20 he moved to Budapest and lived there until he was 1 metre 21. According to Odon yon Horváth's own account, Eros awoke in him when he was 1 metre 52. Horváth's interest in art, and particularly literature, appeared at a height of 1 metre 70. When the First World War started Odön von Horváth measured 160cm, and when the war ended he was a whole 180cm. Odön von Horváth stopped growing when he reached a height of 184cm. Horváth's biography measured in centimetres and geographical points is confirmed by museum photographs.
9. There is a story told about the war criminal Ratko Mladic, who spent months shelling Sarajevo from the surrounding hills. Once he noticed an acquaintance's house in the next target. The general telephoned his acquaintance and informed him that he was giving him five minutes to collect his 'albums', because he had decided to blow the house up. When he said 'albums', the murderer meant the albums of family photographs. The general, who had been destroying the city for months, knew precisely how to annihilate memory. That is why he 'generously' bestowed on his acquaintance life with the right to remembrance. Bare life and a few family photographs.
10. 'Refugees are divided into two categories: those who have photographs and those who have none,' said a Bosnian, a refugee.
11. 'What a woman needs most is air,' says my friend Hannelore as we walk towards the nearby Andechs monastery.
'What a woman needs most is a butler,' I reply to Hannelore as I buy a cheap plastic ball with a guardian angel in it in the souvenir shop at the monastery.
Hannelore laughs inaudibly. When the ball is given a little shake, snow falls on the guardian angel. Hannelore's laughter rustles like polystyrene snow.
12. Before I came here, I spent a few days on the Adriatic, in a house beside the sea. Occasional bathers came to the little beach. They could be seen and heard from the terrace. One day my attention was drawn to a woman's strikingly loud laughter. I looked up and saw three elderly bathers in the sea. They were swimming with naked breasts, right by the shore, in a small circle, as though they were sitting at a round table, drinking coffee. They were Bosnian (judging by their accent), probably refugees, and nurses. How do I know? They were recalling their distant schooldays and gossiping about a fourth who had confused the words 'anamnesis' and 'amnesia' at her final examination. The word 'anmesia' and the story about the exam were repeated several times and each time they provoked salvoes of laughter. At the same time, all three waved their hands as though they were brushing invisible crumbs from a non-existent table. All at once there was a shower, one of those short, sudden summer ones. The bathers stayed in the water. From the terrace I watched the large shining drops of rain and the three women: their laughter was increasingly loud, with increasingly short intervals, now they were doubled-up with laughter. In the pauses I could make out the word 'falling' which they kept repeating, meaning, presumably, the rain ... They spread their arms, splashed the water with their hands, now their voices were like birds' cawing, as though they were competing as to whose voice would be throatiest and loudest, and the rain too, as though it had gone mad, was ever heavier and warmer. Between the terrace and the sea a misty, wet, salty curtain fell. All at once the curtain absorbed all the sound and the three pairs of wings continued flapping magnificently in the glistening silence.
I made an inner 'click' and recorded the scene, although I don't know why.
13. 'What a woman needs most is water,' says Hannelore as we rest after swimming in the luxurious atmosphere of the Müllersche Volksbads.
14. From the start, my acquaintance S.'s life didn't go well. But still, she managed to complete her nursing training and get a job in a hospital for mentally retarded children on the edge of town. 'It won't end well. I absorb other people's misfortune like blotting paper,' she said. In the hospital she found her little personal happiness, a male nurse, much younger than her, an exceptionally small man (when I met him I couldn't take my eyes off his little lacquered shoes) who even had a surname that was diminutive. At a relatively advanced age, she fell pregnant. She decided to go ahead with the pregnancy despite the fact that they were both diabetic. She carried the pregnancy (twins!) to term, and then, the day before they were due, the unborn babies suffocated. My acquaintance fell apart like wet blotting paper. She spent some time in the psychiatric wing, recovered and moved with her little husband to a smaller town. One day she suddenly appeared in my house. Everything was 'normal', we talked about her work, about her husband, about this and that, and then my acquaintance took a little plastic bag out of her handbag and spread her 'treasures' before me. These were two or three insignificant little shiny objects, so insignificant that I don't remember what they were. She fiddled with her trinkets for a long time. Then, catching sight of a miniature spray of dried flowers on my shelf, she said that she really liked the spray, that it was wonderful, simply wonderful, and asked me to give it to her. She shoved the little spray into the plastic bag, and then departed with her pathetic magpie's treasure.
15. Over coffee, Kira tells me something about the other inhabitants of the villa. 'You know, we're all alike in a way, we are all looking for something ... As though we had lost something ...' she says.
16. An exile feels that the state of exile is a constant, special sensitivity to sound. So I sometimes feel that exile is nothing but a state of searching for and recollecting sound.
In Munich where I had gone to meet Igor, I stopped for a moment near Marienplatz, drawn to the sound of music. An elderly Gypsy was playing Hungarian Gypsy songs on a violin. He caught my passing glance, gave me a smile that was both deferential and brazen at the same time, recognising me as 'one of his'. Something caught in my throat, for a moment I couldn't breathe, and then I lowered my eyes and hurried on, realising a second later that I had set off in the wrong direction. A couple of paces further on I caught sight of a life-saving telephone box and joined the queue, pretending that I had to make a phone call, what else?
There was a young man standing in front of me. Tight black leather jacket, tight jeans, high-heeled boots, a kind of insecurity and impudence on his face at the same time, like colours running into each other. A second later I knew that he was 'one of us', 'my countryman'. The way he slowly and persistently dialled the numberlooking neither to right nor left, like a waiter in a cheap restaurantfilled me with a mixture of anger and pity and put me on the side of the people in the queue. And then the young man finally got through (yes, 'one of us', of course!). My countrymen's habit of talking for a long time, about nothing, as though coddling, pampering, mutually patting each other's backs and jollying each other along, that habit filled me again with a sudden mixture of anger and pity. The violin was still whining sorrowfully, the young man was talking to a certain Milica, and in my head, as at an editing table, I was mixing the whine with the young man's babbling. The black-eyed violinist was staring persistently in my direction. For a moment I wanted to leave the queue, but I didn't, that would have given me away, I thought. That is why, when the young man finished his conversation and smoothed his hair with his hand (a gesture which filled me with the same mixed feelings as before, because of its unexpectedness), I telephoned Hannelore, who was the only person I could have telephoned, thinking up some urgent, practical question.
I was late for my meeting with Igor. We went to a Chinese restaurant and, as we chatted brightly waiting to be served, I observed that I was restless, absent, that my eyes were wandering, I felt as though I was covered with a fine film, like spectacles on a winter's day. And then I became aware of a sound I had not at first registered. There was Chinese or Korean pop-music playing, or at any rate pop-music from that part of the world. It was a soft, elegiac, sweet crooning, a love song presumably, which could have been from my home, or from Igor's Russian home. Just then there was a sudden downpour of rain which streamed down the restaurant window behind Igor, and finally I broke, let myself go, reacted properly, precisely, following an ancient, well-practised reflex, of which I had not been conscious until that moment. In a word, I salivated at the sound of the bell, that universal, sweet whine, the same whine no matter where it came from ... I struggled inwardly, resisted, grumbled, almost glad that I was in its power, almost physically satisfied, weakened, softened, I splashed about in the warm invisible puddle of tears ...
'What's happening, Igor ...?' I asked him, as though apologising.
'The glint of the button on your blouse is making your eyes shine,' said my friend, a Russian Jew from Chernovitsa, an exile.
I looked dully down at the button. It was an opaque, plastic-goldish colour.
17. 'I have no desire to be witty. I have no desire to construct a plot. I am going to write about things and thoughts. To compile quotations,' wrote a temporary exile a long time ago. His name was Viktor Shklovsky.
18. 'Ich bin müde,' I say to Fred. His pale sorrowful face stretches into a grin. Ich bin müde is the only German sentence I know at the moment. And right now I don't want to learn any more. Learning more means opening up. And I want to stay closed for a while longer.
In the silence of my room, with the romantic stage set in the windows, I arrange my bits and pieces, some I have brought with me, without really knowing why, some I found here, all random and meaningless. A little feather I picked up while walking in the park gleams in front of me, a sentence I read somewhere rings in my head, an old yellowing photograph looks at me, the outline of a gesture I saw somewhere accompanies me, and I don't know what it means or who made it, the ball containing the guardian angel shines before me with its plastic glow. When I shake it, snow falls on the angel. I don't understand the meaning of all of this, I am dislocated, I am a weary human specimen, a pebble, I have been cast by chance on to a different, safer shore.
19. 'What a woman needs most are air and water,' says Hannelore instructively as we sit in a bar, blowing the froth from the beer in our mugs.
20. The exile feels that the state of exile has the structure of a dream. All at once, as in a dream, faces appear which he had forgotten, or perhaps had never met, places which he is undoubtedly seeing for the first time, but that he feels he knows from somewhere. The dream is a magnetic field which attracts images from the past, present and future. The exile suddenly sees in reality faces, events and images, drawn by the magnetic field of the dream; suddenly it seems as though his biography was written long before it was to be fulfilled, that his exile is therefore not the result of external circumstances nor his choice, but a jumble of coordinates which fate had long ago sketched out for him. Caught up in this seductive and terrifying thought, the exile begins to decipher the signs, crosses and knots and all at once it seems as though he were beginning to read in it all a secret harmony, a round logic of symbols.
21. 'Nanizivat', ya lyublyu nanizivat',' says Kira as though apologising for something, and smiles the pale smile of a convalescent.
'Threading, I like threading things.'
22. In the glass studio at the end of our park, the Romanian couple are preparing an exhibition. The young woman uses an axe to shape pieces of wood she has been collecting around the park for days. Meanwhile, the man pins little pieces of thin, almost transparent, paper to a huge white board. On each one a bird's head is painted in soft, bright, grey watercolours. The young woman hits the wood rhythmically with her axe. At first the little pieces of paper are still, and then an invisible current slowly stirs them. The birds' heads quiver as though they were going to fall.
Excerpted from THE MUSEUM OF UNCONDITIONAL SURRENDER by Dubravka Ugreic. Copyright © 1999 by Dubravka Ugreic. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
What People are saying about this
The effect is stunning: Ugresic slowly persuades us that the Yugoslavia-rending war was not the singular event we deperately want to believe it is, but a cataclysm linked to all wars in Europe this century, from the Cold War back to the First World War, through which Yugoslavia was carved into being... If a book as purposely decentered as this can be said to have an emotional core, Ugresic has provided it in a funny and singularly fantastic event.
This astonishing novel deserves more than one reading...The narrator accepts the fact that she is a "museum exhibit," but she understands the secret harmony, the round logic of symbols. She thus places herself, and by doing so, she is able to create and offer to us this fictional treasure of startling beauty.
Meet the Author
Dubravka Ugresic is the author of several works of fiction, including The Museum of Unconditional Surrender and Fording the Stream of Consciousness, and three collections of essays, Have a Nice Day, The Culture of Lies, and most recently Thank You for Not Reading.
She has received several international prizes for her writing,
including the Swiss Charles Veillon European Essay Prize, the Austrian
State Prize for European Literature, and most recently the Premio
Feronio-Citta di Fiano. Born and raised in the former Yugoslavia, she left her homeland in 1993 for political reasons and currently lives in
Celia Hawkesworth was Senior Lecturer in Serbian and Croatian at the
School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College, London until her retirement. She has published numerous articles and several books on Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian literature, including a study Ivo Andric: Bridge between East and West, and Voices in the Shadows: Women and Verbal Art in Serbia and Bosnia. She has also published numerous translations, including several works by Ivo Andric and Dubravka
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