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Dubravka Ugrešić: Nobody’s Home

Open Letter Books, based in the University of Rochester, have been blogging away at Three Percent for over a year now, and last month they finally launched their first title: Nobody’s Home by Dubravka Ugrešić (2005). What makes Open Letter special is that they will explicitly only publish works in translation. I’ve been interested in their forthcoming output for a while now and have deliberately held off buying Nobody’s Home, published last year in the United Kingdom by Telegram Books, because I never really liked the cover.

So, first a few words on this edition. It’s a hardback, the image and text printed straight on as there’s no dust jacket. It’s always good to see a bit of cover kudos for the translator – Ellen Elias-Bursac, translating from the Croatian – and the book doesn’t let us down here. Being someone who likes a bit of uniformity to their books, I’ll be looking forward to seeing how other titles from Open Letter stand together.

But to the book, and as is clearly stated on the cover, Nobody’s Home is a collection of essays, split into five sections. The first, each no more than two or three pages, are, as Ugrešić says in the afterword, a series of feuilletons written between 1998 and 2000 for a column for the Swiss newspaper Die Weltwoche. Others, longer in scope, are taken from commissioned works, appearing in the likes of Polish newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza and British quarterly The Drawbridge

Ugrešić’s main topics are identity, nationality, and the global marketplace. It should make sense – her lifestyle is peripatetic, her nationality polymorphous:

Ten years ago I held a Yugoslav passport, with its soft, pliable, dark red cover. I was a Yugoslav writer. Then the war came, and the Croats, without so much as a by your leave, shoved a blue Croation passport at me…Again I hold a passport with a soft, pliable, dark red cover, a Dutch passport. Will this new passport make me a Dutch writer? I doubt it.

The fueilletons that open the book provide a suitable introduction to the author’s style. Warm with humour, they are filled with anecdotes and, with permissable license, overstatements on all manner of topics, typically leading into wider consideration. While talking about an expensive suitcase she leads into a quick discussion on exile (“The only way exiles are able to leave trauma behind is not to leave it behind at all, but to live it as a permanent state…”) and nostalgic for the days when people were famous for, you know, doing something, she laments the rise of the celeb (“A celeb is an empty screen onto which the rest of the world projects its meaning. The celeb is a cultural text, an artifact of mass culture.”).

In the longer pieces,  Ugrešić finds space to set out her stall and explore her observations of Amsterdam, her adopted home, or reflecting on her experiences on the Literature Express in 2000, a train journey taken by many writers throughout Europe. Amongst these longer considerations are Opium, a piece on how celebrities, with their (ghostwritten) memoirs are the prophets of the day, and one of the more memorable essays in Nobody’s Home: What is European About European Literature? In this the author’s passion is evident at her dislike of national tags:

When my first novel was published in England, a critic finished his review with the question: But still, is this what we need? Only later did I realize what the critic’s sentence had meant. I hadn’t noticed there was a label trailing along behind me as I traveled: Made in the Balkans.

In fact, it really annoys her:

The label is a fundamental assumption of the outdated institutions of national literatures, but also for the modern literary marketplace. Because ethnic identity is a tried and true sales formula which has propelled many writers from the periphery – for the right literary reasons or the wrong ones – into the global literary marketplace. The market always needs a Bulgarian, a Serb, a Croat, an Albanian. But only one. Two max. A surfeit is, naturally, confusing.

It’s an understandable ire, especially given some of the examples she cites about authors born here, living there, speaking this, that, and the other. How can you truly pin them down when even the literary marketplace has gone global? Transnational literature, she concedes, may be the way forward – a catch-all term for those writers, like her, are everywhere and nowhere.

The notion of writers flowing this way is only a small part of a wider picture, too. In other essays Ugrešić tackles the East meets West nature of Europe, with westerners buying up cheap property in Croatia and Bulgaria, with those going the other way, in search of employment, be it migrant works by free will or women, trafficked. While it all may seem serious, there are many moments of humour to be had, such as this one in reference to the new European bogeyman:

I propose that a statue be raised to the Polish plumber in many European cities. Why? Because the Polish plumber is the first victim of European unification, and, particularly of European expansion. Since everyone speaks of the Polish plumber  with such fear and loathing – outstripping even the legendary hatred of the Roma – the statue should consist only of a pedestal. And on that pedestal should be the words: Statue to the Unknown Polish Plumber.

From an image of Vladimir Putin kissing a fish in another essay, Ugrešić notes the difference between a totalitarian Moscow (“…the less you said about yourself, the thinner the police files would be.”) and the world of today, where everyone is rushing to fill their files, chasing that Warholian fifteen minutes. You’d think we’d know the Polish plumber to see. But as she notes, it’s a media paradox:

The paradox is: the more we eat, the hungrier we are. The more opportunities we have to inscribe our name on the map of the world, the greater the fear of disappearing. The more traces we leave behind us, the faster these traces are erased. The more books we publish, the quicker they are forgotten; the more movies we watch, the less able we are to remember what they were called.

Perhaps that’s why Open Letter are only publishing twelve books a year. That they may not be forgotten so fast. As the inaugural title, Nobody’s Home is an interesting choice for the American publisher, not least because it’s a collection of essays. But in that it introduces a whole other continent and the changes it’s currently undergoing to an American audience, and is written, for the most part, in a witty, easygoing style, it may just prove an ideal grounding for those who subscribe to later releases.

October 13, 2008

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