Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Dubravka Ugrešić: Honey And Pepper

Dubravka Ugrešić visited our university yesterday. Try to describe her any further than that and you run into trouble, which is precisely the sort of dilemma she writes about. Our internal email took the here-and-now approach: 'writer, Amsterdam'. 99% of the reviews you'll see of her new novel The Ministry of Pain are likely to call her a 'Croatian author'. Neither option tells even half the story.

My précis can't do justice to the main thrust of her lecture, so I won't try. Suffice it to say it had to do with the infinite adaptability of post-Communist intellectuals first to the nationalist political climates of the 1990s, then to whatever's necessary to satisfy the EU's idea of what national cultures are. (If you write in Lusatian Sorb, apparently, you've got it made.) According to Ugrešić, east European writers are only marketable as long as they're producing something exotic. I have a sideline academic interest in what I officially call essentialised national heritage and have started unofficially calling Ruslanafication if no-one's listening, so when it comes to this bit, I can only agree.

Ugrešić's essays The Culture of Lies were the first thing I read in the mid-90s that made me think nationalism wasn't always a Good Thing. Get deeper into her arguments and I start to have more issues, but one thing I do admire with Ugrešić is her eye for the telling detail, reminiscent of Marina Warner when she hits the spot. This time, she had her sights on the paprenjak biscuits Croatia Airlines sometimes give out, which have an explanatory text by Zvonimir Milčec crammed on to the wrapper to the effect that the biscuits are like Croatian history: they're a mix of honey and pepper, 'central Europe and the Mediterranean in ideal proportions', foreign invaders have always reached for the honey leaving only the pepper, and now Croats are on their own they can enjoy both. (Question: how big have those biscuits got to be?) Don't anyone show her the cookies Kraš make with a Croatian šahovnica pattern baked into them.

Oh, and I wasn't the person who asked her why young Croatians like to listen to Serbian turbofolk...

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