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The Pain of Exile
on 11 April 2006
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?
This is a rather crude summary of Ugresic's subtle exploration of what memories mean and what they can do to this particular group of exiles. The book must be even more resonant to readers who are familiar with Serbo-Croat literature, fairy tales and nursery rhymes.
Actually, Tanja is unqualified to act as a kind of therapist to the group also because she herself is slowly disintegrating. The remaining four sections of the book describe this process of disorientation. She is full of neuroses, of inarticulate anxiety and of inarticulate rage. I found those parts much more difficult to read, to sympathize with and probably to understand; and that has affected my overall rating of the book. Part One had dealt problems which I imagine all Yugoslav exiles shared; the rest of the book - and particularly the generalized hymn of hate with which it ends - does not seem to me to have that universal character.
A tribute is due to Michael Henry Heim, who has translated the work from the original Croat.