Exile and liberty: the writings of Dubravka Ugrešić

My grandfather, (Baba) Osman Kamber, escaped communist Albania, arriving in Australia in the 1940s. He settled in Shepparton where he raised his family and built his own farm. I grew up in a close-knit community of Albanian exiles. My identity was always told to me as exclusively Albanian, borne out of an insatiable hunger to never forget. We ate ‘peasant food’, we danced the ‘vale’ in circles around the living room, and we had strange noses and wore pins to ward off the ‘evil eye’. There was an atmosphere of paranoia, yet the ghosts that haunted us were never discussed.

I remember my Baba as a tight lipped and gently contained. He would sit on the porch and clutch at his tespih (worry beads). Yellow telegrams arrived to announce the death of a family member six months too late. He would write letters, equivocating with his pen, about how dire life was in Australia, knowing every word would be read by the authorities before the letter reached his loved ones. I saw both love and guilt take the lives of the exiles I cherished. I grew sick at the prospect of all the repetitions, recapitulations, renewed complaints and justifications that entwine us, tying us all together into a painful, bloody mess – hanged man and hangman, victim and victimiser, guard and prisoner.

Between 1944 and 1990, socialist Albania was a Stalinist state. From 1944 until 1985 it was ruled by the paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha and was a brutal communist regime. Albania became increasingly impoverished and isolated from other Eastern bloc countries, as well the West. The secret police were as pervasive as the Stasi in East Germany. From a population of three million, about a quarter of all Albanians were part-time informants and there were ten thousand political police. Twenty per cent of the population was punished for being ‘enemies of the people’ and committed to internal exile, forced labour or political imprisonment. Among the communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe, Albania’s was the poorest and the most unconventional.

For many who have lost their homes, either in a literal sense, or in the broader sense of having lost the familiar surroundings in which they have grown up and developed their psychic landscapes, the question of what comes next is closely bound up with the question of identity. Just as the separate states have lost or changed their languages, symbols and national monuments, so too have individuals been faced with the destruction of their own private memory places; the pain that accompanies the loss of words and the absence of objects and environments that once marked their past lives and served as intrinsic parts of their personal biographies.

I was the first of my family to attend university, and the calcified ghosts urged me to work with asylum seekers (victims of exile and trauma), and to then write an MA and a PhD on the questions they needed answered. My desire was to explain something that seemed simultaneously self-evident and perhaps seldom recognised: not all melancholies are pathological. More precisely, if by melancholia we mean an emotional attachment to something or someone lost, such dwelling on loss need not produce a pathological depression; that combination of incommunicable sorrow and isolating grief that results in the loss of interest in other people, one’s own actions and often life itself. Rather, it can be a refusal to consciously disavow a pain that will never unconsciously die, an unwillingness to repeat violence by forgetting and also a protest, as Judith Butler writes, against the ‘loss of loss’ itself.

It was through this desire that I discovered the work of Dubravka Ugrešić. Born in the former Yugoslavia (Croatia), Ugrešić lived through the communist regime of Eastern Europe, and was exiled from her homeland in 1993. She is a novelist, essayist, and literary scholar. Her writing attacks the savage stupidities of atrocity, punctures the macho heroism that surrounds it, and plumbs the depths of the pain and pathos of exile.

Ugrešić’s novel The Ministry of Pain (Ministarstvo boli) explores what it means to be a refugee, to live in exile from your country and in a ‘landscape of absence’. It delves into the dead end of exile. For Ugrešić, writing the novel was a melancholy occupation: a work of mourning for something lost or repressed. While she embeds her writing in an émigré cultural space, which she inhabits by virtue of her own circumstances, she also formulates her aesthetic practice in relation to a non-entity; or, rather, a used-to-be entity.

The protagonist, Tanja Lucic, is an exile who leaves Zagreb in dismay, finds herself abandoned by her partner, teaching the languages and literature of her ‘former Yugoslavia’ at a university in Amsterdam and living in a subterranean flat on the edge of the red-light district. The ‘ministry’ of the title is a useful metaphor for Ugrešić’s mining of the ultimate sadomasochism of the exile experience: pain caused by recalling pleasures past and their loss; yet, more importantly, the tolerance of the pain caused by exile. The protagonist Tanja’s definition of exile is both caustic and definitive:

Expunge – eliminate – delete – expel – excommunicate – ban – interdict – keep out – shut out from – prohibit from – banish – erase – exclude – … And out goes Y-O-U!

Composed of what Freud considered to be prime examples of abstract loss – a loss of ‘one’s country, liberty, [and/or] an ideal’ – and narratively impelled by the questions of remembering and forgetting, the novel is the embodiment of protracted, intentionally imperfect mourning. It obsessively returns to the now vanished nation. In Ugrešićs words: ‘the trauma of exile, the equivalent of the sudden disappearance of the mother from a child’s field of vision had surfaced’.

If the value celebrated by the melancholic is remembering, the affective response espoused in The Ministry of Pain might seem to be forgetting. This is not the case. The novel does not end with the soothing, Dutch horizontals of her new home. The language disobeys: the very last words in the novel are left to an angry litany, an incantation of aggressive folkloric adjurations, all compiled from the shared vocabulary of former Yugoslavs.

Ugrešić’s book interrogates the concept of its redemptive end and the value remembrance, which looks increasingly like re-enactment within politics. Ugrešić exposes political atrocity for what it is: empty, savage repetitions that breed industries, academies, museums and identities. It is in this vain that the character Tanja imagines ‘a Hague Tribunal the size of a matchbox, with tiny judges in tiny gowns, tiny defendants and witnesses, tiny counsels for the defence and prosecution, miniature surrogates simulating a life in which right and wrong exist’. The assimilation of trauma in life and discourse is never peaceful, but where the trauma is occasioned by a violent dissolution of a nation, psychic and political reconciliation is problematic. Just like the protagonist Tanja, perhaps all that many victims of conflict and exile are hoping for is ‘to come to’.

Years ago I visited Albania, accompanied by the exhumed body of a self-exiled communist dissident, a family member who had died twenty years earlier, a person who’s only wish had been to ‘come (back) to’ her motherland. Her family stood at the airport and greeted the returned body with a petrified and ravenous grief that knocked the air out me. At her second funeral, people came from all of the surrounding villages and when she was laid to rest with the bodies of her mother and father they chanted in Albanian ‘up with democracy/down with communism!’

The grief of atrocity and exile seems to require a politics that recognises the complexity of the relation between violence, power and emotion. The desire to overcome loss, to feel better, can involve the erasure of subjectivities and relations to violence. Overcoming bad feelings is not a measure of healing. Moreover, if ‘bad feeling’ or melancholia is an effect of injustice, then to overcome bad feeling can erase the signs of injustice. At the funeral, the bad feeling was so palpable, it kissed the wings of the birds that circled above.

Dissent is cradled in the hands of love.


Image: ‘Old Soviet Building, Tirana, Albania’ / Les Haines

Natalie Kate Kamber

Natalie Kate Kamber is a PhD candidate in literary studies at Deakin University. She teaches and lectures in law, criminology, sociology, social theory and literary studies. She has recently published a chapter on ‘Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Freudian Critiques)’ in The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies.

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