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BOOK REVIEW: The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugreši?


“…stimulating the memory was as much a manipulation of the past as banning it.”

The Ministry of Pain (Ministarstvo boli) explores what it means to be a refuge, to live in exile from your country. Told through the eyes of Tanja Lucic, a temporary teacher in the Department of Slavonic Languages at the University of Amsterdam, Dubravka Ugreši?’s novel follows Tanja’s journey as she and her students explore their memories of a lost country, language and the meaning of language.

Throughout The Ministry of Pain, Ugreši? invokes the idea that the life of an exile is like living in a fairy tale or a parallel world. Early in the novel Tanja states:

“I had the feeling I might well – if like Alice I should lose my footing and fall into a hole – end up in a third or fourth parallel world, because Amsterdam itself was my own parallel world. I experienced it as a dream, which meant it resonated with my reality. I tried to puzzle it out just as I tried to interpret my dreams.”

Fairy tales provide resolution, heros winning and justice prevailing. In a world of chaos, Ugreši? expresses that the simple plots and “literary heroes who are brave when ordinary people are cowardly, strong when ordinary people are weak, noble and good when people are mean and ignominious,” are what appeal in a country where “languages were used to curse, humiliate, kill, rape, and expel.”

For émigrés, exile means defeat and dysfunction. On her return from a trip to Zagreb, Tanja meets another émigré who councils her to forget anything as a way to create a new life for herself. Through his voice, Ugreši? suggests that for émigrés time moves slower than reality. Those left behind have moved on and adapted to the new reality while émigrés are still stuck in their own time. The return home means a return of the memories, and a search for a fairy tale land that no longer exists. To achieve peace and a release from the past, émigrés must forget using the “miraculous little erasers we all have in our brains.”

Ugreši?’s fundamental questions appear to be these: For those lost in time and place, does forced remembrance equal torture? Can pain lead to reconciliation, a penance that allows émigrés to live outside their former country without guilt? Ugreši? has created a novel that leaves the questions without answer, compelling each reader to search inside for an answer.

In The Ministry of Pain, there is much discussion among Tanja’s students on the value of Yugonostalgia: the yearning for a country and culture that have vanished into the maw of history. Ugreši?’s gift is in creating a novel that functions both as Yugonostalgia and a paean to the resilience of the human spirit.

Dubravka Ugreši? was born in the former Yugoslavia (Croatia), left her homeland in the 1993 and currently resides in The Netherlands. A novelist, essayist, and literary scholar, The Ministry of Pain is her seventh work to be published. Her books have been translated into over twenty languages. Ugreši? has received several international awards, including the Italian Premio Feronia 2004 (previously awarded to José Saramago, J.M. Coetzee, Günter Grass, Ismail Kadare, and Nadine Gordimer).

Michael Henry Heim, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at UCLA, translates works written in Russian, Czech, German, Serbo-Croatian. The Ministry of Pain is the fourth work by Ugreši? in whose translation he has been involved.

See the review posted at Curled Up with a Good Book – The Ministry of Pain.

7 Comments to

“BOOK REVIEW: The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugreši?”

  1. On May 29th, 2006 at 1:25 pm Lotus Reads Says:

    Wow, Janelle! I wouldn’t miss reading this book for the world. I have recently made friends with a couple of people from Croatia and I have a longing to get to know more about their homeland, their culture, their displacement to other parts of the world and so on…

    My hope is that in reading this, I will develop a better understanding of these fine people I have had the good fortune to meet very recently.

  2. On May 29th, 2006 at 1:26 pm Lotus Reads Says:

    I forgot to say: thanks very much for the fine review!

  3. On May 29th, 2006 at 2:32 pm Janelle Martin Says:

    Thanks Lotus! You’ll get it on Sunday. *wink*

  4. On May 29th, 2006 at 4:02 pm Lotus Reads Says:

    Can’t wait, Janelle! :))

  5. On June 8th, 2006 at 7:27 am Lotus Reads Says:

    Janelle, you’ll be pleased to know I’ve started on “Ministry of Pain” but I keep stopping after every couple of pages to read up on the history of the former Yugoslavia. Fascinating! Also, the writing is incredibly beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing the book with me.

  6. On June 8th, 2006 at 7:44 am Janelle Martin Says:

    You’re welcome for the book! I’m so glad you are enjoying it. I wanted it to go to someone who would enjoy it as much as I did.

  7. On June 10th, 2006 at 9:49 am Susan Helene Gottfried Says:

    Did you know I just linked her from Metaxu Cafe??? 😀

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