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The Ministry of Pain Paperback – 13 Aug 2005

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Product details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Saqi Books (13 Aug. 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 086356058X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0863560583
  • Product Dimensions: 13.7 x 20.9 x 2.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,875,555 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'A disturbing read that should have you in its thrall.' -- The Times, 24 September 2005

'A masterly book ... let us hope that in Sweden, on the Nobel Prize committee, they know of her existence.' -- Trouw (review of Dutch edition in national daily)

This is not a novel for those who prefer their war stories simplistic and full of snazzy exploding bombs. -- San Francisco Chronicle, 5 March 2006

‘Like Nabokov, Ugresic affirms our ability to remember as a source for saving our moral and compassionate identity.’ -- The Washington Post

‘She is a writer to be treasured.’ -- The Guardian

‘Ugresic’s books contain some of the most profound reflections on culture, memory and madness you will ever read.’ -- The Independent

From the Publisher

A glowing review from The Guardian's Todd McEwen:

In her delightful, stirring book of essays, Thank You for Not Reading, Dubravka Ugresic wrote of one of the "advantages of exile": "exile is a voluntary job of deconstructing the established values of human life. The exile, like it or not, tests the basic concepts around which everyone's life revolves: concepts of home, homeland, family, love, friendship, profession, personal biography. Having completed the long and arduous journey of battling with the bureaucracy of the country where he has ended up, having finally acquired papers, the exile forgets the secret knowledge he has acquired on his journey, in the name of life which must go on."

The Ministry of Pain is a brave, accomplished, cultured novel, sombre and witty. It is the story of just such an exile, Tanja Ucic, who leaves Zagreb in dismay and confusion and finds herself teaching the languages and literature of her "former Yugoslavia" at a university in Amsterdam, living in a subterranean flat on the edge of the red-light district. "I was, naturally, well aware of the absurdity of my situation: I was to teach a subject that no longer officially existed. What we called jugoslavistika at the university - that is, Slovene, Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, Montenegrin and Macedonian literature - had disappeared as a discipline together with its country of origin."
Tanja is plucky, but also easily sidetracked by the pain she feels in the large community of her fellow émigrés: "'our people' had an invisible slap on their faces". In the cities of western Europe she goes to Croatian cafes and bars, but is often filled with despair rather than camaraderie: "Surrounded by smoke rings, they looked as 'former' as their one-time nationality; they looked like corpses that had risen from the grave for a bottle of beer and a round of cards but had ended up in the wrong place."

Feeling culturally wounded, and believing her students feel the same, Tanja throws the curriculum out of the window and becomes a literary therapist. She attempts to reconstruct the land they have lost through an informal seminar, amusing, haunting and bloody: a "jugonostalgia" of their speech, cultural backgrounds, experiences of war. One girl writes about a typical red, white and blue plastic holdall, seen at émigré markets, and Tanja seizes on it as a metaphor. From now on, their essays will be about what they want to remember, good and bad, of the life of their non-existent country - each item will be put in the "holdall". But the contents of this holdall become burdensome and eventually too nasty - in the end, only Tanja believes it is actually holding anything.

Then her professorship is terminated. She loses the ability to place herself in the world and spirals down into a depression - a striking meditation on the nature of war, language and displacement, the task of accepting one's new country and one's new self: "The past is our 'installation', amateur stuff but with artistic pretensions. With a touch-up here and a touch-up there, here a touch, there a touch, everywhere a touch-touch." This is Ugresic at her best, constantly finding fascinating ways to portray the conundrums of the age and the quirky grammar of thought.

She moves quickly, almost enchantingly, from one comic or rueful consideration to another (Thank You for Not Reading was peppered with quotations from AA Milne's Eeyore, and there is a deep ironic level on which he and Ugresic commune). Can an exile ever be entirely happy with the new place? Will it always have an unreality? "For me [Amsterdam] had the proportions of a child. Shop-windows in the red-light district displaying live dolls for grown-ups, porno shops decked out to resemble toy shops, kindergarten-like coffee shops ... it's not that this urban infantilism is subversive or derisive ... it's just that it's turned Amsterdam into a kind of melancholy Disneyland."

Tanja undergoes some shocking experiences, one the kind of random violence that exiles often take to be too much about themselves. In the middle of her painful withdrawal, her exile within exile, she voices a humbling, striking vision of the Europe that is to be, full of frightening, ambitious people from the broken nations, rootless technocrats, "net and web people" whose loyalties and assumptions will have to be tracked very carefully. There are also profound ruminations on the staggering amount of non-guilt we're capable of feeling these days, thanks to the endless filters of media through which we experience our brutalities to each other.

But despite the breadth and depth of its political and literary ambitions, The Ministry of Pain is possessed of a wonderful, clear simplicity. There are very pure pleasures in Ugresic's honesty, her lightsome, moving prose, her ability to dance in a flash from outrage to satire to a heartfelt exposition of beauty. In the end, Tanja comes to a pragmatic, darker understanding of what it means to be adrift on the map, returning to her linguistic roots in an astonishing fashion. The novel answers emphatically one of the questions Ugresic sets Tanja and herself: "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." Oh yes.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Ralph Blumenau TOP 500 REVIEWER on 11 April 2006
Format: Paperback
The book is divided into five parts. I found the first part absolutely brilliant, and I think it deserves a five star rating. The narrator, Tanja Lucic, is a Croatian academic who has exiled herself from the former Yugoslavia and has taken a post as a lecturer on Serbo-Croatian literature at the University of Amsterdam. Her students, too, are for the most part, exiles from the various republics that made up the former Yugoslavia. They had enrolled in the course primarily because it was easier to stay legally in Holland as foreign students than to be allowed to stay as refugees. Tanja and the students are all traumatized by the war in Yugoslavia. Tanja's intention in the course is to preserve the memory of life in Yugoslavia before the break-up and, above all, to preserve the memory of Yugoslav literature when back at home the Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Macedonians and Albanians were repudiating their common heritage, and, as far as they could, even the heritage of a common language. But this intention, so far from that being any kind of a healing procedure, created many tensions in the group: its members could not forget what suffering had been inflicted on them by members of other ethnic groups. The displaced and rootless members of the group, uncertain now of their identity, suffer from a kind of sado-masochism: the title of the book is taken from the name of a sado-masochistic club in The Hague. There is a horrifying climax in Part Four when Tanja is victimized by a student who attacks everything she had been trying to do.

Long before that episode, Tanja had come to realize that the Titoist Yugoslavia which preceded the break-up had its own 'Problematik': so could it really be held up as a pre-lapsarian ideal?
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Lane7 on 6 Jan. 2013
Format: Paperback
This novel carries a reminder that its characters are fictional: `Not even the city of Amsterdam is totally real.' Through the voices of Tanja Lucic, a young professor of Slavonic literature at Amsterdam University, and her reluctant students (many of them compatriots attending only to meet Dutch visa regulations), the novel examines Yugonostalgia, and hints at the horrors that many from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia-Montenegro now long to forget. Readers find themselves wondering just how far away the fiction is from the personal. Ugresic has worked in many academic institutions, among them the Institute for Theory of Literature at the University of Zagreb. Certainly her depiction of academics, their lifestyles and their ruthless battles over small bits of territory seems horribly realistic, but her playfulness with form and her sense of the absurd keep both author and reader sane.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Naty on 28 Nov. 2009
Format: Paperback
Honestly, I didn't like the book. Though I think that Dubravka Ugresic is a very good narrator, especially at the onset of the book, the way she, in my view, uses her talent, does not escape me. Here and there I have perfectly seen all those "cheap" propagandistic tricks some writers from Central and Eastern Europe play in order to attract attention, to reach glory, etc. Communism was a disaster, nationalism is a disaster, was is a disaster, Serbs are demons, Bosnian Muslims are angels and martyrs, and all these things. I wanted to read a novel and I didn't find anything but political correctness and rather banal propaganda.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By The Pamphleteer on 19 Aug. 2008
Format: Paperback
Some sublime moments. Par exemplo: "The image of a tired Moroccan madonna with a boy child in her lap. He is no more than two. He has thick black hair, parted on the side like a grownup's. His face has the terrifying absence of all children's faces, the kind seen in icons and early paintings."

And: "What if return is in fact death - symbolic or real - and exile defeat, and the moment of departure the only true moment of freedom we are granted? And if it is true, what do we do with it? And who are 'we' anyway? Aren't we all smashed to bits and forced to wander the earth picking up the pieces like Meliha, putting them together like a jigsaw puzzle, gluing them together with our saliva?"

Ugresic takes us on a rare journey through the day-to-day emotional survival of exiles in limbo, their homes falling apart a long way away, their lives in suspense. But although this context feels very real, the characters lack something and, at times, the whole project feels a little too self-conscious. Great title though.
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