Dubravka Ugrešić is a literary historian, a sharp and lucid essayist who doesn’t mince words, an influential and much translated author, a prose writer who “sewed together” the cult Croatian novel Steffie Speck in the Jaws of Life (1981), adapted in 1984 into the equally popular film In the Jaws of Life (director Rajko Grlić), the recipient of many international literary awards, and a guest lecturer at European and American Universities. Since 1993, she has lived in the Netherlands and writes in Croatian among other languages. She “exists in an in-between place” and “lives in a no-man’s land” as she put it in her own words.
We have been able to read Ugrešić in Slovenian since 1995 when her novel Forging the Stream of Consciousness was published in translation (tr. Denis Poniž). This was followed by a long hiatus (if you do not count occasional translations in magazines) that lasted until 2005 when another Ugrešić novel came out, this one The Ministry of Pain (tr. Klarisa Jovanović), immediately followed by an important collection of anti-political essays entitled The Culture of Lies (tr. Maja Brotschneider, Andrej Jaklič, Jana Unuk, Gregor Butala, Jurij Hudolin, and Ivana Vinovrški). In 2010, two more of Ugrešič’s works came out in Slovenian – her most well known novels Steffie Speck in the Jaws of Life (tr. Višnja Fičor) and Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (tr. Sonja Polanc).After 1978, the year Ugrešić wrote the fiction work Poza za Prozu, she began a successful series of short story collections and novels in which the exploration of a number of innovative literary processes became an autonomous part of her literary creation: the patchwork novel Steffie Speck in the Jaws of Life, the intertextual short stories in Život je bajka (1983), and the interdiscursive novel Forging the Stream of Consciousness (1988). With these three works, she created a fictional world in which new narrative strategies were presented in a very readable way. On the one hand, fiction emerged from real, life facts; on the other hand, faction, or the actualized metaphor, sometimes emerged from fiction. Later, she increasingly turned toward non-fiction and the literary essay (Culture of Lies, Thank You for not Reading, Američki fikcionar, Nobody’s Home, Karaoke Culture), while still creating fictional works (The Ministry of Pain, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, and Baba Yaga Laid an Egg).
The characteristics of Dubravka Ugrešić’s prose (the intermingling of the personal and the public, East and West, politics and culture, high and low literature, the syncretism of genres, autopoetics, autoreferentiality, intertextuality, and interdiscurvity) with which we became acquainted before her ex-communication from Croatian society and culture (this occurred at the beginning of the 1990s because of the critical response of then ultranationalist policies of Croatia) are also evident in her essays. The Culture of Lies is a collection of anti-political essays published in the Netherlands in 1995, and a year later in Croatia by the publishing house Arkzin and its imprint Bastard. The partly literacized essays in this collection pose questions and demand answers about our own responsibility for the Yugoslav Wars of Secession and the disintegration of Federal Yugoslavia, and for everything the war brought and the loss of the identity we once had. Now we must ask ourselves about whether that identity was real – and the answer is probably no – about the poison consequences of nationalist propaganda and the redemption of killing, destruction, about cleansing the world of everything other and different, and about “the border between before and after, between one and another time, one and another reality, one and another utopia, between the past and the future.” The taste of the essays in The Culture of Lies is acrid and bitter. It is the same taste that is in the mouth of “all those who tell their own truth in these terrible war times. Terrible times are usually collective times. The truth is only what may be smoothly built into the picture which the collective accepts as the truth.”
We also discover how we get to the point where a lie become the highest truth in Ugrešić’s collection of essays Thank You For Not Reading (2001), a book that emerged from the internal struggle between the following duality: that writers should not be involved with the “dirty laundry” of their craft, and that writers should not close their eyes to the “dirty laundry” of their craft. The writer Dubravka Ugrešić never closes her eyes to anything. In recent collections, she has refused to close her eyes in particular to the general standardization of culture and other tastes, to dumbing down, to blind and uncritical acceptance of patterns of behaviour and reflection, to second-rate imitations and manipulation.
When the novel Forging the Stream of Consciousness was published in Slovenian translation, Andrej Blatnik wrote that the fact that “the most important work in contemporary international literature translated into Slovenian in 1992 came from Zagreb is something to think about. It will be hard to get over the fact that Lumi published this book before we were able to place it in the XX. stoletje collection.” The continuation of quality – that is something we can shoot for in 2016.
Foto © Judith Jockel