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"The Ministry of Pain" is set in the aftermath of the war in Yugoslavia. It is narrated by Tanja Lucic, a Croatian teacher who takes up a post teaching Serbo-Croat literature at a university in Amsterdam. Tanja is led to believe that her students - who come from the different parts of the former Yugoslavia, Bosnians, Serbs, Croats and ethnic Albanians - are not serious about the course; they are there to enhance their prospects of getting permission to remain in the Netherlands and most rarely attend, working instead in "The Ministry of Pain", a well-known sweat shop that produces sex toys.
Tanja finds herself facing a challenge; at a time when the different groups that made up Yugoslavia are asserting their individuality, splitting up languages that were imposed to unite, how can Tanja teach a subject that unites a tradition that is being torn apart? Instead Tanja tries to involve the students in creative projects that celebrate Yugostalgia, placing the things that unite the students - favourite childhood sweets and television programmes, memories of parades for Tito's birthday, traditional fairy tales and folk lore - in a virtual museum that she hopes will help heal the deep wounds of the war.
Tanja is delighted by the way the students throw themselves into the tasks and how they appear largely to overcome their differences and use their common pain to help each other. The classes spill out into emigre bars where the conversation goes on into the early hours and the underlying tensions between some of the students looks to have been quelled. However, after a Christmas visit to her mother in Sarajevo, Tanja returns to Amsterdam to learn that one of her students has denounced her. Unaware of who did this Tanja, surprised and betrayed, sets about teaching the course as the authorities demand, an action that has dramatic consequences for everyone involved.
Looking at the way the story unfolds, parallels can be drawn between the war in Yugoslavia and the progression of "The Ministry of Pain". At first Tanja tries to unite her students and find common bonds, even if they are very artificial ones - just as the different ethnic groups in the territory of Yugoslavia were given an imposed "national identity"; then she fails to spot the tensions that bubble under the surface just as they did in Yugoslavia as some of the policies started to cause resentment and politicians started to manipulate these minor grievances; finally the groups shows signs of disintegration as outside influences exert pressure on Tanja to impose measures she doesn't agree with and threaten to ruin what she has created, just as the warring politicians in the former Yugoslavia dragged their citizens into a bitter war that the majority, to this day, say was never "their war".
Although "The Ministry of Pain" is a story that is completely tied up in the history and the future of the countries of Yugoslavia, it is a story that all exiles will be able to identify with. Part One of the book looks at the issues of being an immigrant, trying to start a new life in a place with a new language and new customs, even a totally different attitude to life, yet being tied to one's past, unsure of how much of it you can leave behind and how much will always be with you.
The background to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia is a vey complicated one but Dubravka Ugresic manages to outline it in a way that is not cumbersome or overburdened with details. It doesn't necessarily assume a knowledge of the conflict, its roots and its consequences, but it is sparing with the fine details and keeps the story quite simple.
The story is told mainly through a series of anecdotes, some of which are portrayed by pieces of writing the students produce as part of their studies. The students come from diverse backgrounds, not all of them are academics, and they are enrolled because the Dutch government was more likely to gain residence to foreign students. As a result the styles of the written pieces differ but it doesn't make them any more or less poignant or evocative; in fact, those written by the less articulate students are perhaps the most evocative because those writers don't feel confined by the dictates of grammar or style.
This is the first novel by Dubracka Ugresic that I have read and I know little about her other than the fact that she is Croatian and does now live in the Netherlands. The tone of the book came across as quite autobiographical but I don't know how much is based on the author's own experiences. Maybe this says something about Ugresic's ability to write with empathy and feeling about profound feelings, especially in this case, great pain and loss.
Stories are at the heart of the novel and act as a way of uniting the students. The students remember fairy tales from different ethnic groups that became "Yugoslavian" fairy stories loved by all children whatever their background. Then there are the personals stories that occasionally rise to the surface, tales of the horrors of a war that tore their lives apart and took away the country they knew as home.
I suppose I am a Yugophile, fascinated by the history and culture of the country but it has only been after its break up that I have visited the different member states of the federation and heard stories about the war and its effects. But those stories have come mainly from Slovenians, a people who are, some might say, not so greatly affected by the war because Slovenia was able to break away from the union after a "war" that lasted ten days and incurred - on the Slovene side - just eighteen casualties. At the time Slovenia became independent the population was almost entirely made up of ethnic Slovenians and the people were united by one language, Slovene.
"The Ministry of Pain" brought a new perspective to the conflict for me - the voices of real people. Before I had read only historical accounts and the diary of Zlata Filipovic, a child living in Sarajevo at the time of the siege. This novel gave me a more human perspective than the academic and newspaper accounts and more complex insight than the simplistic, immediate reactions of a child. Although the characters of the students are pretty one dimensional, they different voices create a rich tapestry of experiences and reactions. The author didn't need to create detailed portraits of the students, the dialogue between the students and their written work does that instead. The words of the students are more insightful than any history book could ever be. One student writes, "Yugoslavia was a terrible place. Everybody lied. They still lie of course, but now each lie is divided in five, one per country."
I found Tanja quite a difficult character to get to grips with; at times I felt nothing but sympathy for her, at others I found myself frustrated by her naivete and I was irritated by her desire to try to heal the psychological scars of her students, something she was totally unqualified to do, but also an impossible task for someone who could not do the same for herself. I didn't feel that her inability to come to terms with her own situation made her weak, but rather it made her inexpert and possibly a dangerous person to try to help others in that way.
While "The Ministry of Pain" tells a very sad story there are moments of joy and I felt that the good things the students remember about life before the war were wonderfully portrayed with warmth and humour; "bitter-sweet" is perhaps a good description of the overall sentiment of the novel. The ubiquitous checked plastic hold-all that regular visitors to Eastern Europe will recognise and love is used a rather romantic metaphor for the former Yugoslavia and the students metaphorically place inside it those things that unite them.
If the use of stories is the way this tale is told, then memory is at the very heart of it. When encouraging her students to think of things to put in the hold-all Tanja tells them to put in" ...everything you remember and consider important. The country is no more. Why not salvage what you don't want to forget.' Reading the book, it felt to me like the author was herself creating a time capsule of memories in order not to lose those things others were trying to obliterate.
The success of "The Ministry of Pain" as a novel to be enjoyed by a wide audience is perhaps limited because it could be interpreted as an indulgent wallow in Yugostalgia; it's not so much that the references are too obscure to be appreciated - personally this was probably my favourite aspect of the book - but I do think they'd become quite tedious if a reader had no interest in them. The novel is essentially a collection of reminiscences but they are linked together in a way that cleverly makes the reader look at them quite critically to form his or her own point of view. When Tanja questions her own reactions to the war I felt that in an indirect way I, as a reader, was being asked to do the same by thinking about my reactions to the students experiences.
This is not an easy book to read in spite of the story being written in a simple style. It is a book that entertains yet also challenges and provides a lot to think about. I would recommend it to anyone with a particular interest in the war in Yugoslavia and to anyone who considers his or herself an exile; there are some fascinating and thought-provoking ideas that make this an exciting yet poignant read.
This translation is by Michael Heim; I find it difficult to comment on the success of the translation having not read any other of Ugresic's novels. However, I found no problems with stilted language or unsatisfactory expressions and the style is vey readable. The translator is a prolific one with credits for translations of Gunter Grass, Jan Neruda and Milan Kundera among others.