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The Ministry of Pain: A Novelby Dubravka Ugresic
Having fled the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, Tanja Lucic is now a professor of literature at the University of Amsterdam, where she teaches a class filled with other young Yugoslav exiles, most of whom earn meager wages assembling leather and rubber S&M clothing at a sweatshop they call the "Ministry." Abandoning literature, Tanja encourages her students to
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Having fled the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, Tanja Lucic is now a professor of literature at the University of Amsterdam, where she teaches a class filled with other young Yugoslav exiles, most of whom earn meager wages assembling leather and rubber S&M clothing at a sweatshop they call the "Ministry." Abandoning literature, Tanja encourages her students to indulge their "Yugonostalgia" in essays about their personal experiences during their homeland's cultural and physical disintegration. But Tanja's act of academic rebellion incites the rage of one renegade member of her class—and pulls her dangerously close to another—which, in turn, exacerbates the tensions of a life in exile that has now begun to spiral seriously out of control.
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The Ministry of Pain
By Dubravka Ugresic
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Dubravka Ugresic
All right reserved.
The northern landscape like the desert makes for absolutism. Except that in the north the desert is green and full of water. And there are no temptations, no roundnesses or curves. The land is flat, which makes people extremely visible, and that in turn is visible in their behavior. 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.
I don't remember when I first noticed it. I'd be standing at a tram stop waiting for a tram, staring at the map of the city in the glass case, at the color-coded bus and tram routes that I didn't understand and that were of little or no interest to me at the time, standing there without a thought in the world when suddenly, out of the blue, I'd be overcome by a desire to bash my head into the glass and do myself harm. And each time I'd come closer to it. Here I go, any second now, and then . . .
"Come now, Comrade," he would say in a slightly mocking tone, laying a hand on my shoulder. "You're not really going to . . . ?"
It's all my imagination, of course, but the picture it creates can be so real that I actually think I'm hearing his voice and feeling his hand on my shoulder.
People say that the Dutch speak only when they have something to say. In this city, where I'm surrounded by Dutch and communicate in English, I often perceive my native language as alien. Not until I found myself abroad did I notice that my fellow countrymen communicate in a kind of half language, half swallowing their words, so to speak, and uttering semi-sounds. I experience my native language as an attempt by a linguistic invalid to convey even the simplest thought through gestures, grimaces, and intonations. Conversations among my compatriots seem long, exhausting, and devoid of content. Instead of talking, they seem to be stroking each other with words, spreading a soothing, sonorous saliva over one another.
That's why I have the feeling I'm learning to speak from scratch here. And it's not easy. I'm constantly on the lookout for breathing spaces to deal with the fact that I can't express what I have in mind. And there's the larger question of whether a language that hasn't learned to depict reality, complex as the inner experience of that reality may be, is capable of doing anything at all -- telling stories, for instance.
And I was a literature teacher.
After going to Germany, Goran and I settled in Berlin. Germany had been Goran's choice: Germany did not require visas. We'd saved up quite a bit, enough for a year. I quickly found my feet: I landed a job as a nanny for an American family. The Americans paid me more than a decent wage and proved to be decent people. I also found a part-time job at the National Library, shelving books in the Slavic Division one day a week. Since I knew a thing or two about libraries, spoke Russian in addition to "our language," and could make sense out of the other Slavic tongues, the work came easy to me. I lacked the proper work permit, however, so they had to pay me under the counter. As for Goran, who'd taught mathematics at the University of Zagreb, he soon found employment in a computer firm, but he resigned after a few months: a colleague of his had been hired as a lecturer at a university in Tokyo and was trying to lure Goran there, assuring him he would get a better job forthwith. Goran in turn tried to persuade me to leave, but I held out: I was a West European, I said by way of self-justification, and I wanted to be close to my mother and his parents. Which was true. But there was another truth.
Goran could not make his peace with what had happened. He was a fine mathematician and much loved by his students, and even though his was a "neutral" field he'd been removed from his post overnight. Much as people assured him that it was all perfectly "normal" -- in times of war your average human specimen always acted like that, the same thing had happened to many people, it happened not only to Serbs in Croatia but to Croats in Serbia, it happened to Muslims, Croats, and Serbs in Bosnia; it happened to Jews, Albanians, and Roma; it happened to everybody everywhere in that unfortunate former country of ours -- they failed to make a dent in his combined bitterness and self-pity.
Had Goran really wanted to, we could have put down roots in Germany. There were thousands upon thousands like us. People would begin by taking any job they could muster, but they eventually rose to their own level and life went on and their children adapted. We had no children, which probably made our decision easier. My mother and Goran's parents lived in Zagreb. After we left, our Zagreb flat -- mine and Goran's -- was requisitioned by the Croatian army and the family of a Croatian officer took it over. Goran's father had tried to move our things out, the books at least, but failed. Goran was a Serb, after all, which I suppose made me "that Serbian bitch." It was a time of fierce revenge for the general misfortune, and people took their revenge where they could find it, more often than not on the innocent.
And yet the war settled our affairs far better than we could have done on our own. Goran, who had left Zagreb in the firm resolve "to get as far away as possible," had in fact ended up on the other side of the world, and very soon after his departure . . .
Excerpted from The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic Copyright © 2006 by Dubravka Ugresic. Excerpted by permission.
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An acclaimed novelist and essayist, Dubravka Ugresic is a native of the former Yugoslavia who left her homeland in 1993 for political reasons. She now lives in Amsterdam.
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