Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Ministry of Pain

I accidentally started a book on Saturday during a quiet moment in the shop. The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugrešić was on the table and I picked it up and started reading.

I was speaking to a good customer about it today and he pointed out that the C & P bookgroup read this book a year ago. Sadly that was one of the books I didn't read - Marie took charge of that particular meeting. A real shame as now I want to discuss it with people!

The book looks at the various experiences of a group of exiles from the Former Yugoslavia.

(As an aside I have to say that I fear for the future of the Balkans. In all the pictures of the recent celebrations of Kosovan independence the official, EU designed, flags were nowhere to be seen. All I saw were red flags with black eagles - the Albanian flag - and a few token stars and stripes or Union Jacks. 44% of the population unemployed. Only a few Serbs remaining - don't forget the rest were revenge-cleansed by the KLA - and yet all the Serbs that have stayed are convinced Kosovo is Serbian. A recipe for disaster or what?) BTW can I point you in the direction of Mark Mazower's Short History of the Balkans - it's on the table next door...

Although I have to agree that the characters are not particularly well drawn, the translation is less than perfect and the ending sounds dodgy (all points raised at the bookgroup meeting according to excellent customer mentioned earlier) I am still loving it.

Why? Because fiction just seems so much more real than all the political/historical crap you see in the papers and on TV. Fiction is a way to live, for an illusory few moments at least, in the minds of other people.

Ugresic's descriptions of "our people" were instantly recognisable.

"It was just a plastic holdall. What made it special was that it had red, white and blue stripes. It was the cheapest piece of hand-luggage on earth, a proletarian swipe at Vuitton."

"In the Berlin neighbourhood where Goran and I had lived I would stop in front of the large window of the refugee "club". Through the glass I could see "our people" mutely playing cards, staring at the television set and taking occasional swigs straight from the bottle. The hand-drawn map on the wall was festooned with postcards. It had a geography all its own. The places they came from - Brcko or Bijeljina - stood at the centre of the world: these were the only homelands the men had left. Surrounded by smoke rings, they looked as "former" as their one-time nationality; they looked like corpses that had risen from the grave for a bottle of beer and a round of cards but ended up in the wrong place."

There are plenty of "our people" in South London - and their origins are as many and varied as there are countries and experiences.

As a window into the world of the displaced The Ministry of Pain is a great book, whilst still being a flawed book.


  1. Matthew, the author wrote a recent commentary on the Kosovan independence in The Guardian. Her article and The Ministry of Pain deal a lot with the problems of nationalist cultures coming into conflict with more heterogenous ways of determing statehood, as well as the complex layers of nostalgia, homesickness and alienation from both home and adopted country facing exiles, both willing and forced.

    I remember the discussion in the book group well. It was one of those books that I personally didn't enjoy reading at the time although I admired the author's lucid ability to examine the above with both lyricism and honesty, but actually resonated quite powerfully since. Some novels have a time delay effect.

  2. Hi Lee

    I know what you mean about novels resonating. I also think some the best books are deeply flawed...

    Remember the section in the novel where they go to a bar to celebrate the narrator's birthday and someone brings along an accordian?

    There's some great Balkan folk music on Late Junction from Tuesday night.