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The Ministry of Pain: A Novel

The Ministry of Pain: A Novel

by Dubravka Ugresic

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Carolyn See
Dubravka Ugresic's novel -- if you care about language and how it fails and sometimes succeeds at defining the human condition -- approaches perfection. The translation, the handling of dialects and nuances of what is essentially the same language in five or six different versions, is masterly. The Ministry of Pain will put the fear of God -- or more likely man -- into you.
— The Washington Post
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 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A Croatian intellectual's flight to the Netherlands from the ruins of Yugoslavia yields striking vignettes of emotional shellshock, linguistic displacement and limbo-like stasis. Tanja Lucic arrives from Zagreb armed with flimsy prospects (she's been offered a job teaching the no-longer-extant "Yugoslav literature" at the University of Amsterdam), biting wit and nightmares for memories. As the international trial of Serb leaders gets underway next door in the Hague, Lukic turns her class into a kind of group therapy for her spooked and feral compatriots. Luckily for the reader, Yugoslavian-born Ugresic is not your average immigrant author relating banal travails of assimilation; she is worldly, skeptical and refreshingly cranky. The first-person narrator has a fictional name, but the narrative's language and the attitude are markedly similar to those displayed in Have a Nice Day (1995), the author's memoir of an academic stint in the United States. That tale unsparingly condemned Americans as infantile joy addicts; Ugresic, who now lives in Amsterdam, is somewhat more charitable toward the Dutch. Here, they essentially form a colorless mass of extras against whom to better etch broken silhouettes of "ours," as Tanja calls her fellow expatriates. Passionless about passion-a one-night stand is a "minor transaction of mutual aid involving the commixture of bodily fluids"-Ugresic's heroine burns with love for her native language and fury toward those who divide it into parochial subdivisions. Toward the end, the plot veers into unexpected and not entirely welcome psychosexual melodrama, as Tanja enjoys a sadomasochistic encounter rife with all sorts of neat Kundera-esque significance (cf. thetitle). Ironically, with all the high tragedy in the wings, it's when Ugresic's sharp gaze turns to the minute and the arcane (a female character speaks with "high-pitched sh's and sch's") that her novel achieves inimitable, devastating clarity.
New York Times
“Ugresic must be numbered among what Jacques Maritain called the dreamers of the true; she draws us into the dream.”
Washington Post
“The Ministry of Pain is a shiningly weird and powerful novel...[it] approaches perfection.”
“This sorrowful tale packs a powerful punch.”
Time Out New York
“[A] powerful novel of ideas.”
The Times (London)
“[The Ministry of Pain] is a disturbing read that should have you in its thrall.”
The Independent
“Ugresic’s books contain some of the most profound reflections on culture, memory and madness you will ever read.”
New York Times Book Review
“Soulful, often searing...This is a work that comes from the gut, one that deserves to be read.”
Harper's Magazine
“The Ministry of Pain is a masterly novel.”
The Sunday Times (London)
“This edgy, extraordinary novel . . . offers universal insights into what it is like to lose home, nationality and language.”
Susan Sontag
“Splendidly ambitious...She is a writer to follow. A writer to be cherished.”
The Independent (London)
“Ugresic’s cunning, subtle technique is at its most powerful here.”
The Independent(London)
"Ugresic’s cunning, subtle technique is at its most powerful here."

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The Ministry of Pain

By Dubravka Ugresic

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Dubravka Ugresic
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060825847

Chapter One

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.
Cees Nooteboom

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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

Susan Sontag
“Splendidly ambitious...She is a writer to follow. A writer to be cherished.”

Meet the Author

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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