PRAISE FOR DUBRAVKA UGRESIC
“Ugresic, a game and inquisitive critic, looks at culture from all angles, which sometimes means picking up the mic. . . . Karaoke Culture is an essential investigation of our times.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Ugresic must be numbered among what Jacques Maritain called the dreamers of the true; she draws us into the dream.”
—New York Times
“[Karaoke Culture is] a brilliant collection of timely essays.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Dubravka Ugresic is the philosopher of evil and exile, and the storyteller of many shattered lives.”
“A unique tone of voice, a madcap wit and a lively sense of the absurd. Ingenious.”
ALSO BY DUBRAVKA UGRESIC
The Culture of Lies: Antipolitical Essays
Have a Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream
Thank You for Not Reading: Essays on Literary Trivia
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg
Fording the Stream of Consciousness
In the Jaws of Life and Other Stories
Lend Me Your Character
The Ministry of Pain
The Museum of Unconditional Surrender
Copyright © 2013 by Dubravka Ugrešić
Translation copyright © 2014 David Williams
Originally published in Croatian as Europa u sepiji (Beograd: Fabrika knjiga 2013)
First edition, 2014
All rights reserved
All citations of Envy by Yuri Olesha are taken from Marian Schwartz’s 2004 translation, published by New York Review Books.
Essays from this collection previously appeared in the following: “Fatal Attraction,” “Liquid Times,” “Jumping off the Bridge,” “A Mouthful,” and “Soul for Rent!” appeared together under the title “My Own Little Mission” in The Baffler; “The Code,” “The Dream of Dorian Grey,” “A Middle Finger,” and “Who Is Timmy Monster?” appeared together as “The Code” in The Baffler; “Wittgenstein’s Steps” appeared as “Wittgenstein’s Steps: A Letter from Unified Europe” in The Baffler; an abridged version of “ON-zone” appeared as “Out of Nation Zone” in Salmagundi; “Europe in Sepia” and “Mice Shadows” appeared in Salmagundi; “A Croatian Fairy” appeared in The White Review; an abridged version of “Can a Book Save our Life?” appeared in Bookforum; and an abridged version of “Zagreb Zoo” appeared in PEN Atlas.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data: Available upon request.
Text set in Caslon, a family of serif typefaces based on the designs of William Caslon (1692–1766).
Design by N. J. Furl
Open Letter is the University of Rochester’s nonprofit, literary translation press: Lattimore Hall 411, Box 270082, Rochester, NY 14627
1. EUROPE IN SEPIA
Europe in Sepia
The Croatian Fairy
The Museum of Tomorrow
2. MY OWN LITTLE MISSION
Jumping off the Bridge
Soul for Rent!
The Dream of Dorian Gray
A Middle Finger
Who Is Timmy Monster?
3. ENDANGERED SPECIES
Can a Book Save Our Life?
A Women’s Canon?
What Is an Author Made Of?
1. EUROPE IN SEPIA
“We are a breed of men that has reached its upper limit,” he would say, banging his mug on the marble like a hoof.
—Yuri Olesha, Envy
NEW YORK, ZUCCOTTI PARK
I visited New York in October 2011, and a couple of days after arriving, I set off for Wall Street, not having checked the exact location of Zuccotti Park. Coming out of the subway, I fortunately spotted an information kiosk.
“Excuse me, where’s the, ah . . . revolution?” I asked goofily.
“Just go straight on, it’s a few blocks away,” replied a young guy, his face spreading into a smile. Buoyed by the smile, I got going. As the rhythm of my pulse quickened, I wondered whether a long dormant rebel virus was stirring in me. Rebel?! Well, yeah, when you line up a few historical and personal details, it’s fair to say that rebellion and I are well acquainted.
My parents conceived me around the time when Tito said his famous NO to Stalin. I came into the world in 1949, when the Soviet Union and its fraternity of member states had recently accused Yugoslavia of “deviating from the path of Marxism and Leninism.” The same year Tito was declared a traitor and Yugoslavia condemned to isolation. I was born on March 27. On the same date, albeit eight years previously, the slogan Better the grave than a slave, better war than the pact1 was born. It was one I adopted at a tender age, and in time I developed a form of behavior, which psychologists—so adept at creating new terms—would today classify as LAT (Low Authoritarianism Tolerance) syndrome. It’s entirely possible that Tito’s famous NO to Stalin set me on my way as a budding naysayer. The opening line of The Internationale, “Arise, damned of the Earth,” makes my skin tingle; Bandiera Rossa makes me cry. While children in other countries flicked through The Teddy Bears’ Picnic, my picture book story of choice was about a young man named Danko.2 Brave Danko tears his heart from his chest, lighting the way for a cowering crowd trapped in a deep, dark forest, and leads them into a sunny clearing. Danko ends up dead, of course, alone and abandoned, what else. The part where some imbecile, having just crawled out of the darkness and into the light, steps on Danko’s still beating heart took root in my imagination forever. An unproductive affinity for dreamers who use their hearts as batteries has followed me unfailingly ever since.
By the time I got to grade school, together with my classmates I sent letters of support to Patrice Lumumba, imprisoned somewhere in distant Congo. As a girl I pronounced the names Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah, and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement, with the same ease that today’s kids pronounce Rubeus Hagrid, Albus Dumbledore, and Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody. There’s no mystery in it; I was twelve when the Non-Aligned Movement held its first conference in Belgrade. I protested against the war in Vietnam, even though I wasn’t a hundred percent sure where Vietnam was. I spent my childhood sincere in the belief that everyone in the world—black, yellow, white, whatever—had the right to freedom and equality.
On the approach to Zuccotti Park I spent a moment checking my pulse. I wondered whether the slogan Power to the workers, peasants and honest intelligentsia hadn’t done a number on me, and in this respect, whether my compatriots, those who twenty years ago accused me of being “Yugonostalgic,” might have had it right after all. At the time I publically opposed the hysteria of nationalism, when I should have realized that nationalism is a matter of profit, not feeling. I opposed the war, when I should have accepted the thesis that war is just business, a way to make money by other means. My compatriots cottoned on to these things from the outset, and unperturbed, ran roughshod over the top of me, reenacting what the aforementioned imbecile from my picture book did to Danko’s beating heart. Drawing near to Zuccotti Park, I wondered whether that old revolutionary fervor had been hibernating in me, lying in wait for its chance to come out, now, at the wrong time, and in a place I would have least suspected.
I found myself back in America having accepted a kind invitation from Oberlin College in Ohio, where they had organized a lecture series entitled Remembering Communism: The Poetics and Politics of Nostalgia. The Oberlin invitation momentarily boosted my tattered, veteran’s self-confidence. It quickly atrophied. After twenty years of digging through the ruins, what more could I say about nostalgia, except from that, for me, it has long since lost its draw. The thought of getting down to work induced only fatigue. An insuperable mass of written and as-yet-unwritten texts swelled before me, my own and those of others. Then came the books, films, images, stories, memoirs, symbols and souvenirs, enough to fill an enormous storeroom, a chaotic archive in which all manner of things had settled: seminal theoretical texts such as Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia; popular films such as Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin; visual art projects such as the installations of Ilya Kabakov; the heap of random exhibits that had strayed their way in there.
But who gets to play supreme arbiter and rule on an exhibit’s belonging or non-belonging? The “archive” itself produces nostalgia only while it remains in chaos, while used as a storeroom, only while its existence remains “illegal.” The work of postcommunist and (in the Yugoslav case) postwar artists—self-appointed archivists, “collectors of ruins,” “doctors of nostalgia,” “archeologists of the everyday”—only makes sense as a voluntary undertaking, and only when accompanied by the artist’s recognition of the futility of his or her work. As soon as the work achieves “recognition,” it immediately becomes susceptible to manipulation (although in itself worthless, nostalgia can still be a valuable commodity), and the energy that set it in motion vanishes. It is, parenthetically, in this disappearance that the fundamental paradox of any preoccupation with nostalgia resides: Nostalgia wipes its tracks, deceives its hunters, sabotages its researchers’ toil, never remaining what it is or was.
The Berlin Wall fell over twenty years ago. From today’s perspective it is clear that it fell in an extremely unusual manner. Instead of imploding, or simply toppling left or right, the wall crashed down from a great height, like a meteor, sending concrete dust flying everywhere. Yugoslavia collapsed two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, like a row of dominos, toppling from the north and west toward the east and south.
At the time I exchanged an invalid Yugoslav passport for a new Croatian one. Two years later, new passport in hand, I left the country, one that had only just realized its “thousand-year dream of independence.” And here’s another paradox: the smaller the nation, the longer its history. Croatia declared both its independence and its (overnight) democracy, but the slogan I had adopted all those years ago—better the grave than a slave—was somehow triggered in me (my mistake, no doubt), and I quickly catapulted myself to Berlin.
The city had entered its fifth year of life A.W. (After the Wall). Pieces of the wall crunched beneath my feet, concrete dust particles shimmering on the backdrop of the deep blue Berlin sky, like a sea filled with billions of tiny plankton. I spent 1994 living in the old western part of the city, writing my novel The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. In yet another paradox, it was Berlin, not Zagreb, that served as a generator for reminiscence, as an ideal cutting desk for the montage of memories, a lens with perfect zoom and refraction, a pair of glasses custom-made for reading the Yugoslav and East European collapse.
In the immediate wake of independence, Croatian politicians and the local media (particularly the media) introduced the lilting coinage “Yugonostalgia” as a synonym for hostility toward the newly-created Croatian state. Yugonostalgics were castigated as dinosaurs in human form, people who grieved for the death of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia, Tito, Partisans, the slogan brotherhood and unity, the Cyrillic alphabet, Yugoslav popular culture—all this stuff, and a lot of other stuff besides, was tossed into the “dustbin of history,” into a memory zone to which admittance was strictly prohibited. Accusations of Yugonostalgia whizzed back and forth past people’s heads like bullets. People erased their biographies and changed their names and places of birth, sworn atheists were baptized, restaurants scratched “Yugoslav” dishes (those believed to be Serbian) from their menus, and in school the mention of Yugoslavia in history books was reduced to a few lines. They wouldn’t even give it a picture.
My Yugonostalgia had reared its head a little earlier, when Yugoslavia was still whole and there was no tangible reason to mourn its disappearance. Nostalgia is, however, a capricious beast, visiting us on a whim, turning up for no discernible reason, ambushing us at the wrong times and in the wrong places. Back then, I was haunted by an unnerving premonition that the world around me was about to suddenly vanish. This neurosis of imminent disappearance and discontinuity transformed me into an “archeologist of the Yugoslav everyday.” I convinced myself that if I managed to preserve in memory the name of the first Yugoslav brand of chocolate, or the name of the first Yugoslav film (hardly a stretch, I admit), I could perhaps halt the impending terror of forgetting. When Yugoslavia finally sank, my neurosis took on a name—Yugonostalgia—and a definition: political sabotage of the new Croatian state. And I received epithets, too—traitor and Yugonostalgic. Eyewitness to how brutally and efficiently the confiscators of memory could erase collective memory and with it my personal history, I became a member of my own personal resistance movement. I defended myself by remembering—remembering as weapon of choice against the violence of forgetting. As opposed to theirs, my bullets killed no one. Mine had too short a range.
NOSTALGIA—A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD
Back then, the Internet had yet to enter mass usage. Today, every post-Yugoslav is able to satisfy his or her Yugonostalgic appetites. There are sites with everything from old Yugoslav films, video-clips, popular TV series, pop singers, advertisements, and design concepts, to the chairs we sat in, the kitchens we cooked in, the haircuts we wore, and the fashions we followed. Today, Yugonostalgic exhibitions are in vogue. One can buy everything from souvenir socks bearing Tito’s portrait and signature, to cookbooks with recipes for his favorite dishes. The theaters perform works with Yugonostalgic content; in documentaries interviewees speak freely of their Yugonostalgic impulses. Yugonostalgia, however, has lost its subversive quality, no longer a personal resistance movement but a consumer good. In the intervening time, Yugonostalgia has become a mental supermarket, a list of dead symbols, a crude memento mori stripped of emotional imagination.
Today, the bandit capitalism of transition is able to tolerate the presence of Yugoslav souvenirs in the ideological marketplace. Yugonostalgia only reinforces its position. How? Rather than being an entry point for serious research into and understanding of Yugoslav socialism, to a real and enduring settling of accounts between the old and the new, to a generator of productive memory—and possibly a better future—today’s commercialized Yugonostalgia has been transformed into the opposite, into a highly-effective strategy for conciliation and forgetting. Buying a pair of souvenir Tito-socks, the post-Yugoslav symbolically lifts a twenty-year ban, removing the stigma from his or her socialist past. Here, nostalgia has radically changed in essence, no longer a protest against forgetting, a polemic with the existing system, or longing for a former life (if it ever meant that), but unreserved acceptance of the present. Put baldly, bandit capitalism can easily afford to behave like the Russian oligarch, Mikhail Prokhorov, who rented the cruiser Aurora, a symbol of the October Revolution, and organized a party befitting the very richest of the rich—Russian oligarchs.
On the other hand, the irritation evinced when words such as Yugonostalgia, Yugoslavia, Yugoslav, socialism, and communism are spoken suggests that having become Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, or whatever, citizens of the former Yugoslavia still have some way to go in freeing themselves of their Yugoslav pasts. As a result, public figures, whether politicians, writers, or artists, inevitably tag an obligatory footnote to every mention of the word Yugonostalgia. Mentioning Yugoslavia doesn’t for a second mean that one mourns the country’s passing, let alone that of communism—God forbid! The exhibition Socialism and Modernity, which opened in late 2011 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, both confirms and serves to inflame an irritation that has smoldered for over two decades in Croatia and other former Yugoslav republics. Visitors to the exhibition can see the first car Yugoslavia ever produced; the first Yugoslav radio and television set; excerpts from TV shows; exemplars of fashion, furniture, architecture, and design; even a trove of old bank notes, coins, posters, and photos, but the historical context remains incredibly elusive. Yugoslavia, communism, and socialism are rarely mentioned, so one is somehow left with the impression that the modernity of the fifties and the sixties was an exclusively Croatian one, one with a dissident hue, although the nature of this dissent remains ambiguous. The exhibition’s curators seem afraid of the fact that Croatia was a Yugoslav republic at the time, that Yugoslav socialism brought modernity with it, and that the socialism and modernity of the time were an ideologically harmonious pair.
American capitalism uses nostalgia in a far more adroit, refined, and enticing manner. The Levi’s Go Forth and Go Work campaigns are examplary of how capitalism rebrands itself and thus shores up its dominant position.3 Deploying the aesthetics of devastated post-capitalist spaces (the abandoned workers’ halls of Pittsburgh and Detroit), and using amateur rather than professional models, the images in the Levi’s advertisements invoke nostalgia for erstwhile values: self-reliance, strength, honesty, work, self-respect, courage—a nostalgia for the America of the pioneers. Culled from this pioneer-America are shots of freight trains and stowaways, deserted railway tracks alongside which people trudge into an uncertain future, muscle-ripped young men bathed in sweat, scrappy bundles in hand, on their faces a visible readiness to meet life head on. Accompanying the images, phrases such as things got broken here absolve those to blame for the economic crisis of all responsibility, implying that the crisis is a kind of natural catastrophe that has afflicted everyone in equal measure. The bald exhortation we need to fix it urges people (the working class!) to spit in their palms, take matters into their own hands, and rebuild their lives—your life is your life! And, naturally, no one sets off to rebuild his or her life bare-assed. Hence the necessity of a baseline initial investment—in a pair of Levi’s.
Still in a daze from the change of time zone, in the morning I headed out for a walk around Oberlin. It wasn’t that there was anywhere to really go. My hotel looked out over a large park. On the opposite side of the park were the university buildings, and to my left the main street with a handful of shops, including the bookstore where in a few hours time I would be giving a reading. A modest poster taped to the inside of the window gave the date and time. The bookstore wasn’t actually just a bookstore, but a kind of general store stocking anything and everything. Feigning effort to remain incognito, I bought a useless pair of Chinese-made slippers, a waste of both money and vanity given that the sales clerk had no idea I was the person in the poster photo. Nonetheless, it was an opportunity to tip my hat to my past. The store vaguely reminded me of the old Yugoslav stores of the fifties, and so in addition to the slippers I bought a copy of my book. I felt like Allison MacKenzie, who after forty years returns to Peyton Place to buy a copy of her own book, all in the hope that the hoary bookseller might recognize her.
I began my story about Yugonostalgia in the same venue later that evening, the small audience made up of students and faculty. I think my listeners were expecting me to talk about popular conceptions of Yugonostalgia, but the morning stroll around the small town center had pulled a number of mysterious threads, and suddenly images from my childhood burst into life before me. I was born and grew up in a similar small town, minus the students and the university of course. In what passed as downtown, there was an improvised cinema in what was formerly the local hotel. My mom and I would take our places on the long wooden benches (no backrests—it was the fifties!) and watch Hollywood movies. How was it that Hollywood films were my childhood entertainment? A few years after Tito’s historic NO to Stalin, Yugoslav cinemas were flooded with Hollywood films, the best kind of ideological support. Even Tito was an avid cinephile, as was my mom, as was the little me.4 Bathing Beauty with Esther Williams was apparently the first Hollywood film to play in postwar Yugoslav theaters.
My favorite actor was Audie Murphy, an American hero who stood barely 5’ 3”, and weighed only around 110 lbs., but who killed 240 Germans in the Second World War, received 33 prizes for bravery, acted in 44 films (in which he killed Indians by the score), and in the end died in a plane crash. However briefly, for us children Audie Murphy was a kind of Yugoslav Peter Pan. The world was straightforward then. Fascists were our enemies. We crushed fascists, just like the Americans, just like Audie Murphy. To be fair, Stalin crushed fascists too, but he was our sworn enemy.
Other stars soon took Audie Murphy’s place: Marlon Brando, James Dean, Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty . . . Mom used to subscribe to a film magazine; we’d guzzle reports of our silver screen heroes and heroines like sweet candies. Many of Mom’s books were American too—An American Tragedy springs to mind. At high school I identified with Allison MacKenzie. She wrote poetry and went around with books clasped to her chest, as if they were some kind of protection. I carried my books like that for while, but then came other idols, other attractions . . .
All in all, in Oberlin’s MindFair Books, it became apparent that the authentic object of my nostalgia was the America of the fifties, an America gleaned from American films shown in a small provincial theater, in a small provincial town in Nowheresville, Yugoslavia. My Yugonostalgic packet wasn’t stuffed with the usual stereotypes—the red star, the hammer and sickle, the Yugoslav national anthem—all of which my young listeners perhaps expected, but with other stereotypes—Americana, Yugo-Americana. Nostalgia had betrayed me again. Nostalgia, you bitch . . .
I suspect my young listeners might not have completely understood my story, the names I tossed like confetti couldn’t have meant much to them. Two or three of my peers in the audience nodded their heads affirmatively, recalling the early years of our mutual youth. Maybe later they wondered how it was that our childhoods had been so similar, and our countries so distant and different. I neglected to mention that I also have a little habit fed by the Internet. Whenever my mind wanders to a Hollywood star or starlet of my childhood, I immediately go to Google to tell me if he or she is still alive. Esther Williams just passed away, unfortunately. But Pat Boone is still around, thank God!
NEW YORK, WASHINGTON SQUARE
From Zuccotti Park I took a stroll to Washington Square and sat down on a bench. It was late afternoon, sultry, an Indian summer. I immediately noticed that the black guys who used to play chess were missing, as were those who hung out brownbagging it. Washington Square had long been a hangout for smokers, and now a sign at the entrance warned that smoking in the park was strictly forbidden. The scamps bumming cigarettes were gone, and with them any occasion for small talk. The park seemed distressingly well ordered, like a provincial college campus. Where were the dropouts, the refuseniks, the superfluous men and women, the alcoholics and smokers, the homeless, the pickpockets, the vagrants, the hustlers? Where were the grumblers grumbling to themselves, the idlers, the beggars, the losers, the dreamers? Where were the skeptics, the envious, the good-for-nothings, the weaklings, the humiliated and insulted, the capitulators? Where were they?
On the bench opposite me I immediately recognized a middle-aged woman. She was an actress, a film actress, until recently a poster girl for a well-known cosmetics brand. I felt a sudden compassion for the lines on her face, as if they were my own. The face of a goddess was showing the first signs of capitulation. Jesus, just think how many people walk the earth waving invisible white handkerchiefs and flags! And what about me? Where do I stand in the order of things?
One of the Zuccotti Park slogans beamed out the message: Listen to the drumming of the 99% revolution. For once I remembered to take photos. In those few days the Zuccotti kids were photographed so often that thirty years’ worth of Japanese tourists haven’t managed to take more photos of Manneken Pis, the famous little peeing boy of Brussels. And it is for this reason, this reason alone, that the drums from Zuccotti Park echoed in every corner of the globe.
From all corners, you can hear the drumming. They’re sending messages to one another, the content always the same. Whether the media will end up ridiculing and destroying the kids, whether the media industry will suck them up and spit them out as profit, whether the tractable rebels will leave the confinement of Zuccotti Park and one day take to the streets to join with those from London, Barcelona, Athens, Amsterdam, Berlin, Zagreb, Moscow, and who knows where else, is, for the moment, not important. For now they’re just drumming: The days of plenty are over!5
I sat on the bench, warming myself in the Indian summer sun. I let my eye wander discreetly over the actress’s figure: the indistinct charcoal-colored outfit, the stooped shoulders, the body that has obviously given up worrying what a spectator might think. The actress nodded her head. I offered a friendly nod back. She didn’t notice me. She had a mobile phone to her ear and was nodding to an unseen collocutor.
“What’s the time?” a young guy asked. I was flustered, it had been so long since a random passerby had interrupted me with the question. Nobody asks for the time anymore. I looked at my watch. In almost all time zones watches were showing the same thing. “It’s time . . . for revolution,” I said. And with that I headed toward the subway.
1 On March 27, 1941, demonstrations erupted in Belgrade against the signing of the Triple Pact. Demonstrators bravely took to the streets shouting slogans against Hitler and Mussolini. The slogan (in the original) “Bolje grob nego rob, bolje rat nego pakt” was later plucked from its historical context and engraved in the collective memory of many Yugoslavs as artfully rhyming revolutionary code.
2 The reference here is to Maxim Gorki’s short story “The Old Woman Izergil.”
3 Sarah Banet-Weiser offers an astute analysis of the trend in the Dutch documentary Metamorfose van een crisis (Aftermath of a Crisis).
4 Yugoslav film director Dušan Makavejev once wittily remarked that Yugoslavia’s disintegration began the moment Tito opted to appoint not a sole personal movie operator, but one for each of the six Yugoslav republics.
5 The translated title and catchphrase of the German-Austrian film Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei (2004), distributed in English as The Edukators.