ArticlePicking the Wrong Witch
Dubravka Ugrešić Creates Exquisite Art from the Pain of War and Exile
Once upon a time there was a magical empire of letters called Central Europe. Its borders were fuzzy but recognizable. Vienna was its capital. The receding Ottoman Empire provided more of its territory. It was a place that existed largely in cafés and castles, train stations and brothels. The empire’s writers found inspiration in the uneasy play of imperialism, capitalism, and burgeoning nationalism in its borders. Psychoanalysis and Marxism and Zionism overlapped and clashed and conspired, depending on whom you asked. Austria’s defeat in the First World War did not end that empire— far from it. The new states formed after Versailles solidified and expanded its reach. The sustained and vicious assault of Nazism could not eradicate it, either. Many of its leading lights survived even that horror, through Holocaust and exile, to find themselves at the front lines of the Cold War, their fame fanned by the exigencies of dissidence and samizdat.
Dubravka Ugrešić, daughter of a Croatian father and a Bulgarian mother, was born into that Central Europe in 1949. It was a literary empire built by the likes of Franz Kafka, Jaroslav Hašek, Robert Musil, and Karl Kraus, and its expansion had writers from Yugoslavia—Miroslav Krleža, Ivo Andrić, and Meša Selimović—busy discovering new vistas.
But that Central Europe, which survived two wars, did not survive a third—the Cold War that ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ironically, the greatest writers of the empire when it finally disappeared—Václav Havel and Danilo Kiš—were outsized figures in events that led to its vanishing. Central Europe’s end, though sad, was largely peaceful—the empire itself dissolving fizzily in the great political and economic scramble westward to the European Union and NATO. The difference that was dissidence was erased. Central Europe’s writers found themselves the wards of small nations competing in the larger European marketplace. But in the former Yugloslavia, Ugrešić’s neighborhood, the empire collapsed in a spasm of blood and fire. Many of her fellow writers sought protection by dividing themselves into competing camps. But Ugrešić did not join a pack. She stood aloof at first, and then ran off to the woods, shouting aloud about the perfidy and terror of it all. By doing so, she became so strange and powerful that those whom she would not join branded her a witch. Ugrešić and four other women writers were attacked in a prominent Croatian newspaper as “unpatriotic” and as “witches,” and the novelist found herself ostracized and isolated in a newly independent country that she never wanted to live in—cast into exile.
These attacks on Ugrešić made her more powerful still. She is now the most prominent living writer from the Balkans, and she has created an astonishing body of work over more than two decades. Her writing attacks the savage stupidities of war, punctures the macho heroism that surrounds it, and plumbs the depths of the pain and pathos of exile.
Many American readers were introduced to Ugrešić’s work when in 2003 Dalkey Archive Press published Thank You for Not Reading, her collection of sharp and persistently Eeyoreish essays on literary culture. Ugrešić’s other feuilletons and essays written for newspapers— collected in Have a Nice Day (2002) and Nobody’s Home (2008)—were the seeds of key elements of her two unblinking novels of exile, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (1996) and The Ministry of Pain (2005). Ugrešić’s work is particularly sharp in tracing the cultural currents—large and small, political and economic—that shrink the writer’s influence and moral authority. In “Glossary,” the coda to her searing collection of personal essays about the death of Yugoslavia, The Culture of Lies (1998), Ugrešić succinctly lays out her principles in bursts of short definitions of phrases such as “a nation’s writer” and “witches”:
My Croatian passport does not make me a Croatian writer. It is easiest and most profitable to be a national writer, particularly if the nation is small. I have chosen a less profitable way: I do not wish to belong to anyone, not to a people, nor a nation, nor a national literature. If I have to belong to someone, then it’s to my readers. Wherever they may be. . . . A milieu which destroys books has no mercy toward their authors either. Several years ago, my (national) cultu ral milieu declared me a “witch” and burned me on a media pyre with undisguised glee. . . . Today, from the perspective of my nomadic-exile, I can only be grateful to my former cultural milieu. I invested my own money in the purchase of my broom. I fly alone.
In short, In short, Croatia picked the wrong witch—and the world of letters is much richer for it.
Although the wars of Yugoslavia are beginning to recede into the distance of history, Croatia’s literary witch won’t surrender up that identity just yet. Ugrešić’s new novel, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, is filled with witches and folk tales, and it is setin Central European landscapes of spas and cafés and Ostalgia. Yet Baba Yaga Laid an Egg also returns to the concerns and motifs that dominated Ugrešić’s work before she was called a witch and bought her broom. It boasts the lighter touch one finds in her earliest work, written before the blood and fire, and it possesses a renewed focus on anchoring the stories of women in the landscapes of life and letters.