Vol. XXVI, #2 William Eastlake / Julieta Campos / Jane Bowles
Review of Contemporary Fiction
The Ministry of Pain, by Dubravka Ugresic
reviewed by Michael Pinker
Trans. Michael Henry Heim. Ecco, 2005. 272 pp. $22.95.
Like Kafka’s harrow, the conflict at the heart of Dubravka Ugresic’s The Ministry of Pain incises the ordeal of exile on her Croatian protagonist’s flesh and spirit. Tanjica Lucic is never at peace; her obsession with exile distorts every thought and action. Unable to rid her mind of all she has lost, she tries to deal with these haunting recollections by prompting her university students, fellow exiles, to recall the vanished homeland in a game, like the one she plays with herself traveling home to her mother in Zagreb between semesters. Yugoslavia was no paradise, but it held competing ethnic strains in check that, once free to carve out new nations from the carcass of Tito’s stronghold, would strive to erase the recent past. But Tanjica didn’t want to forget. Vicious civil strife dealt everyone a bad hand—vengeance, reprisal, betrayal, carnage, life interrupted—and no one, at home or elsewhere, was spared. Holding out in Amsterdam, no longer married or young, Tanjica is supposed to be teaching what is left of Serbo-Croatian literature. But she can’t teach it, for she believes her students feel as she does the shock and dismay of the uprooted. Yet as surprising allegations of apparent discontent complicate the promise of a long-term appointment, with no one or place to turn to, Tanjica strains to cope. Sympathy for and imagined solidarity with her students, over whom similar shadows have passed, lead her to take them to coffeehouses to share hopes and fears. Warned that this must stop by her superior, Tanjica becomes an unfeeling martinet—and the class disintegrates. She still gets the sack; once more adrift, she falls back on babysitting. Ugresic nails the plight of this character, this situation, with conviction and deadly accuracy. It is a knowing, technically and spiritually compelling performance.