Neustadt International Prize

2016 - Dubravka Ugrešić

Born: 27 March, 1949, Croatia

Author's Quote : “Retouching is our favourite artistic device. Each of us is a curator in his own museum. [..] Uncover A, cover up B. Remove all spots. Keep your mouth shut. Think of your tongue as a weapon. Think one thing and say another. Use orotund expressions to obfuscate your intentions. Hide what you believe. Believe what you hide.”

Field: Historical Fiction

Prize share: 1/1

Books Written By Dubravka Ugrešić

About Dubravka Ugrešić

Dubravka Ugrešić (born 27 March 1949) is a post-Yugoslav writer. A graduate of University of Zagreb, she has been living in Amsterdam, the Netherlands since the 1990.

Ugrešić majored in comparative literature and Russian language at the University of Zagreb's Faculty of Arts, pursuing parallel careers as a scholar and as a writer. After graduation she continued to work at the university, at the Institute for Theory of Literature. In 1993 she left Croatia for political reasons. She has spent time teaching at European and American universities, including UNC-Chapel Hill, UCLA, Harvard University, and Columbia University. She is based in Amsterdam where she is a freelance writer and contributor to several American and European literary magazines and newspapers.

Dubravka Ugrešić has published novels and short story collections. Her much loved “patchwork” novella is Steffie Speck in the Jaws of Life (Croatian: Štefica Cvek u raljama života), published in 1992. Filled with references to works of both high literature (by authors such as Gustave Flaubert and Bohumil Hrabal) and trivial genres (such as romance novels and chick lit), it represents a sophisticated and lighthearted postmodern play with the traditional concept of the novel. It follows a young typist named Steffie Speck, whose name was taken from a Dear Abby column, as she searches for love, both parodying and being compelled by the kitschy elements of romance. The novel was made into a successful 1984 Yugoslav film In the Jaws of Life, directed by Rajko Grlić.

Her novel Fording the Stream of Consciousness received NIN Award, the highest literary honor in former Yugoslavia, whose winners include Danilo Kiš and Milorad Pavić; Ugrešić was the first woman to be awarded the prize. The novel is hilarious Bulgakov-like “thriller” about an international “family of writers” who gather at the conference in Zagreb in the “socialists”, “Yugoslav” era. Museum of Unconditional Surrender is a novel about the melancholy of remembrance and forgetting. A female narrator, an exile, surrounded by scenery of post-Wall Berlin and images of her war-torn country Yugoslavia, constantly changes the time zones of her life, past and present.

Set in Amsterdam, Ministry of Pain portrays the shattered lives of displaced people. It’s a novel about the trauma of language and the language of trauma. In the novel Baba Yaga Laid An Egg, published in the Canongate Myth Series as "most inventive and most substantial volume",Ugresic draws on the legendary Slavic figure of Baba Yaga to tell us a modern fairy tale. It deals with beauty, magic and vigor, death, aging and gender inequalities and discrimination, but also the power of old women to settle the score.

At the outbreak of the war in 1991 in former Yugoslavia, Ugrešić took a firm anti-war and anti-nationalist stand. She wrote critically about nationalism, the stupidity and the criminality of war, and soon became a target of parts of the Croatian media, fellow writers and public figures. She had been accused of anti-patriotism and proclaimed a “traitor”, a “public enemy” and a “witch”. She left Croatia in 1993 after a long lasting series of public attacks, and because she “could not adapt to the permanent terror of lies in public, political, cultural, and everyday life”. She wrote about her experience of a collective nationalist hysteria in her book The Culture of Lies, and described her “personal case” in the essay “The Question of Perspective" (Karaoke Culture). She continues to write about dark sides of modern societies, about the “homogenization” of people induced by media, politics, religion, common beliefs and the marketplace (Europe in Sepia). Being “the citizen of a ruin” she is interested in a complexity of a “condition called exile” (J. Brodsky). Her novels (Ministry of Pain, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender) explore exile traumas, but also excitement of exile freedom. Her essay “Writer in Exile” (Thank You for Not Reading) is a small writer's guide to exile.


Europe in Sepia - Dubravka Ugrešić

By Jana L.Perskie

Dubravka Ugresic's new collection of cultural essays deal, primarily with "Nostalgia," the title of her first piece. Ms. Ugresice is a Croatian, formally a Yugoslavian, who now lives in Amsterdam.

Her essays delve into politics, history, popular US, Yugoslavian and European culture from the 1950's to the 21st century, and her own thoughts and flights of fancy. She is branded a "Yugonostalgnic," by many of her fellow countrymen and women." This is a derogatory term, a synonym for those who long for the days of the Yugoslavia of yore under the reign of Tito; dinosaurs who look back fondly to the slogan "brotherhood and unity."

Her "Yugonostalgia" began before the death of Tito, before the unified country of Yugoslavia broke up into six different states: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Serbia. "Back then I was haunted but an unnerving premonition that the world around me was about to suddenly vanish." She wonders if she has developed what psychologists call "LAT," "Low Authoritarianism Syndrome."

The collection's first essay, which really captivated me, has the author visiting New York City in 2011. She is searching for Zucotti Park during the "Occupy Wall Street" protests. She asks a stranger, "Excuse me, where's the ah, revolution." She wonders if "a long dormant rebel virus" was stirring in her.

She visits Washington Square in New York City's Greenwich Village and laments the absence of the "dropouts, the refuseniks, the superfluous men and women, the alcoholics and smokers, the homeless, the pickpockets the vagrants, the hustlers, the grumblers grumbling to themselves, the idlers, the losers, the dreamers," of before...the Washington Square Park as she remembers it.

The author was born in 1949, around the time when Marshall Josip Broz Tito, a statesman, revolutionary and authoritarian head of the post WWII state of Yugoslavia, told Soviet dictator Stalin "NO!" He modeled his economic development plan independently from Moscow, which resulted in a diplomatic escalation followed by a bitter exchange of letters in which Tito affirmed that although his country would follow the examples of the Soviet system, his country would remain separate from Russia and the eastern block countries. Ms. Ugresic seems to be having trouble with what the future has brought. She asks herself, "What in her lifetime of civil war, new passports and fractured identities, betrayals, etc., had actually been realized of all the things promised to us by communists' ideologues."

She reflects on a post Soviet Union world, "a BG, (before Google)," world. However, although she paints the past with artificial colors, (which she is very much aware of), she really doesn't want to turn time back, but is not happy with life in the present. The author quotes Peter Sloterdijk, a German philosopher, cultural theorist TV host and columnist, " Europe no longer loves life. The radiance of historical fulfillment is gone, in its place only exhaustion, the entropic qualities of an aging culture," a reign of "spiritual nakedness." Yes, she agrees, "Europe is in decay."

With a wry, often quirky sense of humor, she does riffs on 21st century Europe - western and eastern. The essays contain comments on the Netherlands, where undocumented immigrants are not wanted. Here Poles are branded as thieves - they are blamed for everything that goes wrong. Even the Polish prostitutes flourish, taking work away from Amsterdam's ever famous "ladies" who work their trade in the infamous red light district. As far as Hungary goes - they are "anti-Semitic and despise the Roma, (gypsies)." She muses on formerly great Russian literature and Europe's neglected film industry, where only yesterday directors, i.e., Luis Bunuel, Ingmar Bergman, Lina Wertmueller, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Goddard, Sergei Eisenstein, Michelangelo Antonioni, etc., created cinematic masterpieces. She even mentions the popularity of aquarium ownership among wealthy young men, to the marginalization of unattractive people.

There are also pieces ranging from her travels to USA's Midwest and her native Zagreb, from Ireland to Israel. There are lots of personal anecdotes here. Her insights on the people she meets in her travels are perceptive. Like an anthropologist, she analyzes the norms of the times and writes of "Lookism." "'Lookism' is a widespread and very powerful prejudice based on a person's physical appearance." It is discriminatory. Fat people are targeted as ugly. Even Sak's Fifth Avenue has closed their plus-size department. Fat people and smokers are "intolerable social evils."

The "Sepia" from the title refers to the old photographs in sepia.

These essays are passionate, intriguing, and skillfully written. They should appeal to those who are curious about the take on today's world by a woman who is the product of both a communist regime and the "now" of the 21st century. Highly recommended.


Europe in Sepia- Dubravka Ugrešić

By Tony R. Parsons

I’m an undergrad history/P.S. minor. So I somewhat enjoyed this book. Lots of historical facts I assume true-to-life. War, concentration camps (gender, race, ethnicity), survival & rebuilding personal lives seem to be the theme. It even had a touch of the famous artists & musicians of eras gone by (nostalgia). Flash forward to even modern times & how the European countries still struggles. Awesome book cover, great font & writing style. A very well written ethnic/cultural historical (fact/fiction) book. It was very easy to read/follow from start/finish & never a dull moment. No grammar errors, repetitive or out of line sequence sentences. Lots of exciting scenarios, with several twists/turns & a great set of unique characters to keep track of. This could make also make a great historical (geographical) movie or mini TV series (A & E, History channel). It was kind of hard to follow for me so I will rate it at 4/5 stars.