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Obituary Dubravka Ugresic dies aged 73

FIONA O’CONNOR calls attention to the achievement of a great Yugoslav exponent of intelligent, fearless humanitarianism

ATTENTION deficit often follows the passing of the foremost women writers. 

In the case of Dubravka Ugresic, who died last month, under-appreciation of her brilliance was a constant through much of her life. Published in over 20 languages, Ugresic’s repertoire of novels, essays, short stories, and counter-cultural forms deserve to make her a household name. She is also a historical figure, a key observer of the Eastern and central European fragmentation still unfolding.

Born in Yugoslavia in 1949, Ugresic experienced a childhood limited in Western-style stimulations – children, for instance, made their own ragdolls in the former Yugoslavia as the factories focused on more important production. Through this lack, Ugresic formed a taste for literature under the supervision of her local librarian, who saw no reason a child should not enter imaginary domains such as Kafka’s Metamorphosis. 

Ugresic went on to become one of Yugoslavia’s most esteemed writers, winning the prestigious NIN award in 1988.

Her situation changed drastically following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. In December 1992 Ugresic wrote an article published in The Independent, “Dirty Tyranny of Mr Clean: As Croats celebrate the purity of their air, Dubravka Ugresic is afraid of suffocating.”

The piece is classic Ugresic, alighting on an almost fairy-tale object – the can of pure Croatian air then being sold as a kitsch memento of sovereignty – and linking its significance to belligerent nationalism and what would soon become genocide. The style is Swiftian, carrying the sardonic authority of an intelligent, fearless humanitarianism. It brought her immediate public ostracism in Croatia.

In 1993 Ugresic was denounced as one of the five witches, the so-called “old hags”: feminists who “rape Croatia”, according to a tabloid. These were five women writers and academics who had spoken out against the neo-fascism then filling a void left by the erasure of the communist cultural legacy. Ugresic came to understand first hand “what leads to collective lynching, mobbing, witch-hunt and burning people at the stake.”

In a climate of death threats and disappearances, Ugresic left Zagreb with a suitcase. She first moved to New York, then Berlin, finally taking Dutch citizenship and settling in Amsterdam. In the work that followed her focus honed in on the politics of language; language traumatised by war, invalidated by its capture for propaganda interests. 

In writing to the cities of her occupancy, Ugresic developed her inimitable “patchwork literature” to explore displacement and loss. She set out discrete sections of prose, now fictional, now factional, folkloric and phantastical, to provoke nuanced understandings through their juxtaposition. 

Set in Berlin, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender explores her mother’s life alongside her own, picking up fragments of memory like the scattered junk littering the city.  

In The Ministry of Pain, Ugresic’s narrator is exiled in Amsterdam. “I was, naturally, well aware of the absurdity of my situation: I was to teach a subject that no longer officially existed. What we called jugoslavistika at the university — that is, Slovene, Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, Montenegrin and Macedonian literature — had disappeared as a discipline together with its country of origin.”

Occasionally criticised as a nostalgist for the former Yugoslavia, Ugresic countered in one interview: “Not so many people in the world were born in a country that doesn’t exist anymore.”
 
Her urge was always to write of the expunged: truths and ideas, memories – individual words even – that were no longer permissible.

“Yugoslavia” itself became an “almost forbidden word,” she wrote, “its immense cultural achievements buried.” In this resistance to the striking out of history, Ugresic’s courage and formidable intelligence provide valuable resources 30 years on, with war and nationalist hysteria once again burning in Europe. 

Writing against the kidnap of culture generated by “those who presided over military and government policies as well,” Ugresic identified early on the cultural warfare that is now a common feature of politics. Fittingly, Ugresic notes that the genocidal Radovan Karadzic had formerly been a psychiatrist and a poet.

In exile, Ugresic was no less searing in her analysis of Western marketisation. Much of her most recent essay writing took on the Anglo-American domination of the entertainment and publishing industries. She wrote about the standardisation of cultural experience globally, and the loss of local differences; an invisible hand kind of censorship being imposed in which those outside of the permissible mainstream disappear. 

Particularly likely in the case of the female writer, the fall outside of the national or international mainstream canon creates the space for alternative forms. Ugresic fulfils this role in the variety and innovativeness of her work. 

Her criticism of “unstoppable huge production and a (false) feeling of an absolute freedom of literary choices” is tempered by the community of mostly unknown literary activists and enthusiasts she would meet. Ugresic acknowledged these members of a “dissident underground,” keeping the concept of “good literature” alive. 

With her passing, readers have lost an invaluable discerner of literary values and cultural truth.

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