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3.9 out of 5 stars
The Ministry of Pain
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 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.
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on 6 January 2013
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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on 28 November 2009
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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on 19 August 2008
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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on 29 September 2008
This is a marvellously written book which should resonate with all exiles, wherever they come from and wherever they've fled to. As an exile myself, also living in Amsterdam, with an intimate connection with the ex-Yugoslav community here and even having a passing acquaintance with the workshop which gives the book its title, I can fully empathise with the author's characters and their messages.

The book starts sturdily founded in reality, and starts to break up somewhat as the characters themselves do. The translation of the quintessentially Yugoslav first section is necessarily a little awkward, but the rest has been brilliantly done (apart, unfortunately, from errors in some of the Dutch): the chapter describing an immigrant ghetto, which could be in any Western city, deserves a prize of itself.

I'm looking forward to reading more of Ugresic' work.
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on 14 November 2005
This is a wonderful absorbing book.
The central character is captivating.
Although her exile is from what was Yugoslavia, it is a universal story for all exiles/immigrants.
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on 6 September 2009
The dislocation, bewilderment, angst of refugees who attempt to start a new life in a new country is done so well that the reader shares their pain.

This book may well appeal to ex-pats anywhere.
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