This review continues with my personal mission to read a variety of Croatian novels. The reasoning behind my mission is something of a long story but I hope that my review of the following novel clearly conveys my feelings and intentions. Although I found this one at the library, I am dying to get my paws on a copy of my very own!

On the Docket: The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic (Translated by Michael Henry Heim)

Genre: Translated / Literary Fiction

Publisher’s Blurb: “Having fled the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, Tanja Lucic is now a professor of literature at the University of Amsterdam, where she teaches a class filled with other young Yugoslav exiles, most of whom earn meager wages assembling leather and rubber S&M clothing at a sweatshop they call the “Ministry.” Abandoning literature, Tanja encourages her students to indulge their “Yugonostalgia” in essays about their personal experiences during their homeland’s cultural and physical disintegration. But Tanja’s act of academic rebellion incites the rage of one renegade member of her class—and pulls her dangerously close to another—which, in turn, exacerbates the tensions of a life in exile that has now begun to spiral seriously out of control.”

First Impressions: Five million stars. Bravo. Well done. Superb. I feel like everything I could possibly say about this novel wouldn’t do it any justice. This book is one of the most satisfying and insightful reads of the entire year, possibly my whole life. What does Oprah call it? A eureka moment?

Where do I begin?

I’ve been sitting at the computer for far too long, trying to put into words how I feel about this book but I haven’t a clue where to start or how to express myself. This is an unusual feeling. Let me start by saying that I completed this novel last week, so I’ve had time to mull my thoughts over in my brain. I hope I can organize my ideas well enough to articulate them here in my review.

The Ministry of Pain explained many things for me, shone a spotlight on people in my life, highlighted and clarified behaviour that was very familiar. The prose was incredibly accessible yet unbearably accurate. With every sentence, people, places, and things became real in my mind, places that had only been described on the news or by family members. I couldn’t help but smile at the words “Yugonostalgia” and “Yugo genes” because both terms, and the strolls down memory lane they inevitably ignited, in relationship to my life and my family, were utterly compelling.

Family history aside, Ugresic’s prose is so crisp, so sharp, that it cuts through all the traditional notions of melancholy like a jackhammer. Tanja Lucic is one of the most intelligent, complex, fascinating characters I’ve encountered in years. Her sense of self (or lack of) is so pathetic but frustratingly truthful, that you cannot help but feel compassion for her and her students. I absolutely loved the idea of including the work and/or essays of Tanja’s students, their childhood interpretations of communism, nationalism, and what it means to feel a sense of belonging. The feelings of homelessness and displacement, as well as the inaccuracy of language, are undeniable but Ugresic articulates the concept with a bullseye of clarity:

That’s why I have the feeling I’m learning from scratch here [in Amsterdam]. And it’s not easy. I’m constantly on the lookout for breathing spaces to deal with the fact that I can’t express what I have in mind. And there’s the larger question of whether a language that hasn’t learned to depict reality, complex as the inner experience of that reality may be, is capable of doing anything at all—telling stories, for instance.

And I was a literature teacher.”

Igor was another riveting character. (Actually, they were all riveting but if I thoroughly analyzed each one, this would be a 30 page essay and not a review!) Igor was the driving force behind Ugresic’s intense novel, and represents the duality of the “Yugonostalgia” experience so perfectly. I think you’ll be shocked by him as well, but just as fascinated.

Final Verdict: I am not likely to forget The Ministry of Pain. Ever. It will remain prominent in my mind for many years to come. Also, I forgot to mention the translation, which was absolutely, positively incredible. Translated fiction is often an effort between a writer and a linguist, a combination that I think has the potential to enhance the original story or change its original meaning. I was incredibly impressed by Heim. He did a magnificent job.