This piece was originally published in The Winter 2021 Full Stop Quarterly. Subscribe at our Patreon page to get access to this and future issues. Your support makes it possible for us to publish work like this and make it available to all.
On a rainy Wednesday in Manhattan before the pandemic started, I interviewed Dubravka Ugrešić for several memorable hours. She has a warm presence, with sharp opinions and a quick, formidable sense of humor. Ugrešić is one of my favorite authors, and I’d argue that she’s one of the most under-appreciated writers in the world, a unique, brilliant star in the literary cosmos.
Ugrešić was born in 1949 in Yugoslavia, made to take a Croatian passport (an identity she has long denied) after the dissolution of her native country, criticized the ongoing Yugoslav Wars (for which she was branded as, among other things, a witch), and moved to Amsterdam, where she still resides. Her essay collections—three of my favorites are American Fictionary, Europe in Sepia, and Thank You for Not Reading—are terrific, and dwell on questions of national identity, obscurity, mistranslation, and the ever-evolving literary marketplace.
But even better, I think, are Ugrešić’s novels. They’re all good, but three are worth extra attention. Fording The Stream of Consciousness, an early work from the 80’s, is a novel in vignettes about a writing conference in Zagreb during the last days of the Cold War. It begins with the death of a Spaniard and boasts spying and intrigue and some amazing set-pieces, most notably, to my mind, when the authors tour a sausage factory. It’s an extremely metatextual work—the anxious American writer Mark Stenheim is a parody of the neurotic phase in our nation’s letters; Flaubert’s descendent Jean-Paul Flagus keeps on speechifying; a Czech author, Jan Zdražil, is trying to smuggle his manuscript, The Story of My Life, to the west, but it suffers a series of misadventures. Fording the Stream of Consciousness is bookended by an interpolated journal about the author’s travels—Ugrešić novels all bear the imprint of their creator in some way.
Even better, a masterpiece, is 1997’s Museum of Unconditional Surrender, a novel of exile, lost language, and memory. It’s a difficult book to summarize, a mingling of diary, memoir, story collection, and fantastical fiction, with numbered sections, quotations, and fragments. Think of Jenny Erpenbeck mixed with Marquez and David Markson and you’re on the right track. Some particularly effective sequences include a section about seven women unified by a supernatural experience and the story of the narrator’s mother’s bag. The opening is one of my favorites:
“In the Berlin Zoo, beside the pool containing the live walrus, there is an unusual display. In a glass case are all the things found in the stomach of Roland the walrus, who died on 21 August 1961. Or to be precise:
A pink cigarette lighter, four ice lolly sticks (wooden), a metal brooch in the form of a poodle, a beer-bottle opener, a woman’s bracelet (probably silver), a hair grip, a wooden pencil, a child’s plastic water pistol, a plastic knife, sunglasses, a little chain, a spring (small), a rubber ring, a parachute (child’s toy), a steel chain about 18 ins in length, four nails (large), a green plastic car, (Pilsner, half-pint) a box of matches, a baby’s shoe, a compass, a small car key, four coins, a knife with a wooden handle, a baby’s dummy, a bunch of keys (5), a padlock, a little plastic bag containing needles and thread.”
Virtuosic! A documentation of chance failure, but every object is also a potential story, and we read, as Ugrešić says, in search of “semantic coordinates.” The plight of exile, of shedding things as one goes, is here too, although Ugrešić adds at the close of the section that “the question as to whether this novel is autobiographical might at some hypothetical moment be of concern to the police but not to the reader.”
Ugrešić’s quality has not dipped in the years since. 2017’s Fox is a dynamic novel in six parts, using the recurring visual of a trickster fox to explore the nature of storymaking, as an unnamed narrator in exile from Yugoslavia copes with the literary developments of the 21st century and presents essays (with some invented material) on Boris Pilynak, a Russian writer who was executed in 1938, and Dorothy Leuthold, a minor figure in the Nabokov cosmos who chauffeured Vladimir, Vera, and Dimitri on a cross-country trip and accidentally kicked up an undiscovered butterfly at the Grand Canyon. In other sections, the narrator is an “economy class figure” in the European creative scene. Best of all, and one of the high-water marks of Ugrešić’s career, is The Devil’s Garden, a story in which the narrator unexpectedly inherits a house in Croatia and tries to make it a home. She develops an unusual relationship with a squatter who works as a de-miner.
“There I was, apparently, in the same mousetrap I’d escaped twenty years before. From the mousetrap the moon in the sky always looks like an unattainable wheel of cheese. It now looked like an unassuming little landmine, the kind called a pašteta for its resemblance to a can of meat paste.”
“The urge for home is powerful,” Ugrešić writes. “It has the force of primal instinct…the greatest feat of every emigrant seems to be making a new home.”I didn’t articulate that intentionally. I walk through the world and some things stick to me. As a writer I hardly choose, I am chosen. I am perfectly able to explain how my book is constructed but I can’t explain why I was pegged by a certain tune, by a certain detail, a certain character, a certain story, a certain landscape.
On that rainy afternoon in New York, Ugrešić spoke to me about the current state of her career and the obsessive nature of her writing, which she has done without a net for so many years. She also talked movingly, beyond what is about to appear in these pages, about reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez during the war and transposing the fantastic scenes to her own country. She taught me quite a bit about late Soviet architecture and sculptures as well. I had been nervous ahead of time, but she quickly put me at ease.
A portion of our conversation, which Ugrešić selected and updated by email in early September 2021, follows:
Adam Dalva: I started reading your work when my friend gave me the Museum of Unconditional Surrender, so I wanted to ask about how word-of-mouth plays a part in your reception.
Dubravka Ugrešić: I have fresh experiences. I did a modest but absolutely wonderful publicity tour with my novel Fox and the book of essays American Fictionary. The tour was organized by my publisher Open Letter Books, a small, non-profit publisher that specializes in translations. I told my friends that my tour reminded me of Soviet cultural habits during the period known as the “Khrushchev thaw.” My friends laughed. They took it as my “specific” sense of humor.
Some thirty years before the fall of the wall, Soviet culture was divided into the “official” and the “underground.” “Underground” meant resistance culture, with its survival strategies. Thanks to word of mouth, the underground culture became far more respected than the official one. Some artists and writers went into exile, like Joseph Brodsky, Ilya Kabakov, and Sergey Dovlatov, and some of them stayed.
Is it possible that we live today in a different type of “dictatorship”, the market “dictatorship”? A market by its very logic tries to establish a monopoly. Today, the readers in Europe and the rest of the world read predominantly Anglo-American writers. True, the Anglo-American book market serves as a cultural mediator. Without it, we wouldn’t know some Chinese, Korean, or Columbian authors. We all consult The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, The TLS; we consult our local sources as well, our local publishing industry which predominantly publishes books from the powerful English language zone.
However, there is another invisible (or less visible) side of the story. It seems that the American cultural scene, at least the literary one, has gone through a parallel process of cultural “demarketization”. There is a sort of cultural resistance movement with many personal initiatives: tiny publishers, bloggers and vloggers, online publications, podcasts, small local radio stations, critics that promote diverse literary tastes and values which are not necessarily in tune with the market’s (“official”) values. The book market, like any other market, works on the homogenization of literary taste, while the resistance movement (“underground”) works on diversity. Coca Cola, for instance, is the globally known symbol of the homogenization of the global market, while some unknown “XY-drinks” are representatives of the resistance. The book market is, at the same time, not stupid. It doesn’t deal exclusively with the “expected” products. It tends to deal and promote high literary values too. However, the marketplace can’t promote ten types of Coca Cola. It must be the one.
All in all, thanks to my modest American publicity tour, I discovered a whole new literary world. I would have a reading, for instance, with a depressingly small audience, but one of them would quote some details from my books that even I was not able to remember. I met literary enthusiasts, activists, anonymous literary experts, real readers and book lovers, highly competent literary critics. That parallel world totally changed my generalized image of the American contemporary literary scene. It all felt like a modernized re-interpretation of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”, with the book-people, members of an intellectual resistance who learn by heart “unexpected” books and their authors. I might be wrong, of course, maybe I painted the whole picture with my “romantic” literary imagination. Maybe I saw something that doesn’t exist.
I love hearing that perspective on our country. Why do you think interviews with you tend to focus on questions about your own nationality?
The truth is that the majority of readers take literature, especially the “literature of small countries,” as a sort of tourist guide. Such readers do not understand other options apart from “national” labeling or contexts. There are so many contemporary young writers who, like me, live between several cultures. These authors need their modern theoretical platform. Would that “platform” be called transnational literature, world literature, or post-national literature? It doesn’t matter as soon as we understand what we are talking about. Because of the rules of the book market, the author has become much more important than his or her work. The majority of authors accept this type of positioning, but there are some of us who refuse this “instrumentalization” of literature. Constantly insisting on author’s “identities” may not always work in favor of a writer’s literary achievements.
Briefly, I was born and raised in Yugoslavia, and my official identity was Yugoslav. With the fall of Yugoslavia and the ethnic war, we, the citizens of Yugoslavia, were forced to choose our national identity. I took a Croatian passport, there was no other way. As I was openly against nationalism and war, I left Croatia, and in a few years, I became a citizen of the Netherlands, and settled in Amsterdam.
I was thinking about how you have a lead character who is very similar in multiple books. It reminds me of how The Tramp in Modern Times isn’t the same Tramp as Gold Rush, but it also is the same character. In your books, I don’t think “here’s this character again,” but I do think she will be something like you.
I didn’t articulate that intentionally. I walk through the world and some things stick to me. As a writer I hardly choose, I am chosen. I am perfectly able to explain how my book is constructed but I can’t explain why I was pegged by a certain tune, by a certain detail, a certain character, a certain story, a certain landscape.
I’m interested in Fox with how you play with older, mostly unknown writers. On a shallow level, on a Wikipedia level, it’s hard for a Western audience—a reader like me—to get all that information. Some of the references in that book were news to me, and I enjoyed that.
You used the term “Western audience.” What does it mean? I am a Western writer, but I don’t write for my homogenized Western audience. When I write, I address my writing to my imagined ideal reader. I am writing for her/him no matter where they are, in the Mongolian steppes, in some provincial Chilean town library, or in a New York Starbucks. My “Western audience” might reject me like an anonymous reader (on Goodreads) who explained why he disliked my book: “It’s incomprehensible, it must be something Slavic.” I’m using “unexpected” cultural references (yes, many of them are picked from the Slavic literary world). Why am I doing it, risking (though it’s really not a risk) being labeled as “incomprehensible”?
What I fight for in my tiny territory is cultural continuity. There can be no culture without continuous cultural remembrance. Sometimes it seems to me that I am losing my battle. The older I am, the more difficult it is to communicate with the younger generation. A young neighbor of mine, a representative of the YouTube generation who studied at a Dutch film academy, got into a conversation with me. I said, “Did you know that Jean Moreau died?” “Who?,” he asked in amazement.
The only thing I can do is a little homage here, a little homage there, a quote, a name, a title, a line. I’m trying to remind my reader that culture is a fragile system, especially today, when even academic culture might give a preference to a course on dinosaur-movies rather than a course on the great French actress Jeanne Moreau. I’m trying to connect past and present cultural references, just to promote the simple idea that culture is a complicated system. If we break the system, we are condemned to live in an eternal present. My work is hardly noticeable, but there are many “teams” who enthusiastically work on the same thing, such as The Institute for World Literature at Harvard University and NYRB Classics, just to name two examples.
All in all, I’m a sort of literary smuggler. I try to smuggle forgotten, less known literary values to “Western audiences.” Do you know what premastication, or pre-chewing, or kiss feeding is? That’s what I did in Fox.
I have to ask you about Fording the Stream of Consciousness, which is one of my favorite novels.
That book was published one year before the “Fall of the Wall.” It’s a novel about four days of an international literary conference held in Zagreb. The characters are international and local writers, Eastern and Western. The theme is “Mozart and Salieri” syndrome, one of the key themes of our “Western culture,” I would dare to say. The mystical figure, Jean Paul Flagus, the fictional nephew of Gustav Flaubert, spreads some strange ideas about totalitarian control of literary market, about “literary hamburgers,” and about successful and profitable literary production which will kill “romantic” ideas about god-given talent.
Just three years after the publication of the novel, my books and I found ourselves in a totally new cultural context. It suddenly appeared that my books were written in a foreign language: Serbo-Croatian. Croatian literature was supposed to be written in the Croatian language. I was the first woman writer to be awarded the most important Yugoslav literary prize for a novel written in the Serbo-Croatian language, for Fording the Stream of Consciousness. Now, it didn’t matter anymore, because I got a “foreign prize,” awarded to me by Croatia’s enemies, the Serbs. I was excluded from the new Croatian literary scene, partly because I refused to declare myself ethnically. True, I officially declared myself as – Other, and I left the Croatian “democratic” post-communist cultural environment.
By the way, relatively recently some Catholic conservative forces tried to ban Fording the Stream of Consciousness from school curriculums, claiming that the book is “poison” for young readers. According to my accusers, my novel contained some inappropriate sex scenes between two characters, “Lolita”, an “underaged” Austrian journalist, and a Russian writer, a dangerous pedophile. The fact is that the “Lolita”-like character is about 30, and the dangerous “Russian pedophile” is about 40 years old, I’d guess.
Oh my god, that’s awful, I loved the sex scenes in that book.
You shouldn’t worry. You are not in danger; you are not a Croatian YA reader.
This is all making me want to ask about that strange moment at the end of Fox, when your character teaches at a writing school in Italy called Holden Caulfield and none of her students have heard of him.
The European cultural landscape is richly furnished by creative writing schools, a new, powerful, and profitable literary bureaucracy. Writers teach their students how to become writers. For a fee, of course. Some creative writing departments, mostly within universities, educate competent, young, ready-to-write people. However, many such schools and courses are wild, mostly private, and out of the control of the official educational system. My Italian publisher sent me to one such fashionable school to give a class. Before I met my students, the person at the reception desk gave me a contract promising a small honorarium. At the reception hall, while waiting to meet my students, I noticed a modest number of literary classics (that were published by the school itself, I guess), adjusted to modern young readers. I remember a generously illustrated picture book, entitled The Nose, and written by “Nick Gogol.” All in all, everything is fine. The most important thing is that writing is booming. No need to mention that I never got my honorarium.
Because Fox is a novel, I didn’t want to ask you if that actually happened—but that was the funniest ending.
Sometimes life works in favor of our metaphors.
Adam Dalva’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The Paris Review.