Theme: Eastern Europe
Perhaps you have asked yourself, as I have, where have all the good thinkers gone? Where are the intellectuals? Are they hiding under a table at a Parisian cafe refusing to give any thoughts on the state of the world today, much less a madeleine crumb of hope? And where went the strong women writers who pen incisive social commentary without it lapsing into ‘poor me, nobody dates the smart chick’ collection of essays or a another ‘poignant and brutally honest’ memoir about addiction, childhood or a failed marriage?
Well, step right up, ladies and gents, and meet Dubravka Ugresic. Sure, the name may not be familiar to you, but it should be. Born in the former Yugoslavia with a passport that states she is “Croatian” but now lives in Amsterdam, Ugresic is a world citizen. Nobody’s Home is a book of essays that are tiny yet rich slices of a fresh baked reality cake. There are to the point, funny and observant and leaving no ethnicity off limits. This book is about 300 pages and I tore through it in ttwo days. Ugresic’s style reminds me of a well-trained athlete – no unnecessary movements, just the basics honed to perfection. She does not waste a word. But what are we talking about here? Fashion, diets, relationships? Ah, no.
Some of the topics Ugresic covers are: war, exile, flowers and communism, cultural identity, the memoir phenomenon, the concept of nationalism and sex trafficking. I know, I know, but there are lots of women who write essays/columns that aren’t about clothes, weight loss and dating the right man. Maybe. But more often than not, if they aren’t about those things they are proponents of a particular political agenda pushing the feminist slant when it suits the cause. Ugresic answers to no one and has no affiliation, just the affiliation of philosophy and thought-provoking reactions to society in general. Here’s a taste of her take on ‘the European bazaar:
Europe is tired. During the twentieth century, Europe has spent itself on wars. ideologies, and Utopias. Right now, Europe is doing what people are always happiest doing. Europe is looking more and more like an open market, a yarmarka, a fair, a bazaar. Money is the lingua franca of Europe and European unification. Money is the most natural of languages. There is a seller for everything, just as for everything there are buyers. And while the ideologists of European unification are still tearing their hair out over a European identity (forgetting that identity is always articulated by contrast to an Other, which Europe has done with enthusiasm throughout its history), the European-ness of Europe is being determined by life itself. the Chinese are settling Eastern Europe (Budapest has a China Town event though it hasn’t been given the name officially), and Germans are buying summer houses in Sweden and Portugal. The Dutch are snapping ip apartments in Moscow, the Serbs are buying in Budapest, the Italians in Croatia, the Muscovites in Italy…The migrations are not only moving North to South and East to West, as the demographers have feared they would, but also West to East, and South to North, and round and round in circles. Dutch tomatoes, German yogurt, French cosmetics, Italian shoes. Who could keep track of all that has occupied Eastern Europe? The occupation is sensual, exciting and pleasurable; if it hadn’t been, someone would have objected already. Invisible money rustles, clinks, and pours from pocket to pocket. While Europe’s thinkers are searching for a harmonious formula for a new European-ness, America has virtually occupied Europe, promptly unifying the European East and the European West.
And I am likely to presume she knows what she’s talking about, having lived through fascism, communism, and rabid nationalism. She has lived in many cities in Europe and in the United States and finally decided to reside in Amsterdam after being deemed a ‘witch’ by the press in Croatia. Admittedly, I haven’t yet read any of her novels which I will undoubtedly do in the near future. So much of the book contains thoughts and reactions to the effect of Communism, the reshaping of history of each new country formed, and how Eastern and Western Europe interact culturally in a continent where border hopping is a routine experience and that now includes countries in the East that had never been a part of that equation. She describes how she fits into the equation of this ‘new’ Europe as a citizen, but more importantly she fits in as a woman writer and overall how Eastern European women writers are portrayed:
Similar differences in treatment exist between literature and–women’s literature. While literature gladly bears the burden of universalist values, women’s literature wrestles with narrow, inborn specifics. When women write about sex, for instance, their perspective is treated as female, while when men write about sex, their perspective is perceived as universal. Although every writer is a “personality,” “a self,” in the practice of literary theory, literary history, and sociology, women writers are invariable “treated” in formations, in groups of two, three or four, especially if they come from small countries. Two Bulgaria women writers, three Eastern European women writers…Gender-oriented female literary critics are seldom much help. It turns out that a sisterly concern for the status of writing women has contributed to the promotion of women writers, but also to keeping the sisters ghettoized, with one difference–the ghetto has become more visible and loud. The long-awaited right to create one’s own self-definition in terms of gender, ethnicity, and race ultimately, in most cases, becomes a nightmare and a punishment.
As many minority writers will tell you, this is the truth, especially if they are women.
This book of essays will give you an idea of what Eastern Europe’s and Europe’s growing pains are like–quick spurts with slow periods of adjustment. And lots of confusion. It helped me to understand even though there were totalitarian regimes that wanted things to be black and white, good or bad, the histories of each country changed with democracy but they still want to write the history with a new and improved version of black and white, good or bad. Capitalism has moved in and nationalism is amped up, and that makes for a powerful mix of identity and consumerism that has got it’s hold on Europe. It will all be okay as long as Ugresic helps us figure it out.
By Dubravka Ugresic
Translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac
Open Letter Books
Hardcover, 297 pages