Karaoke Culture

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Thanks to Open Letters, the University of Rochester's nonprofit, literary translation press, we can now read the work of Dubravka Ugresic, a Croation-born writer who dissects pop culture and political folly with equal skill, insight and acumen. In KARAOKE CULTURE, a collection of recent essays (translated by David Williams), Ugresic takes on a variety of subjects, beginning with "the bit of anonymous fun grown into a culture"--the worldwide karaoke craze.

"The very foundation of karaoke culture lies in the parading of the anonymous ego with the help of simulation games," Ugresic says. "Today people are more interested in flight from themselves than discovering their authentic self. The self has become boring, and belongs to a different culture. The possibilities of transformation, teleportation, and metamorphosis hold far more promise than digging in the dirt of the self. The culture of narcicissm has mutated into karaoke culture--or the latter is simply a consequence of the former."

Ugresic's other targets include Emir Kusturica, the Yugoslav filmmaker who built his own version of Graceland (with the help of the Serbian political Mafia); fan fiction (Harry Potter); cell-phone novels; and the horrors of the hotel mini-bar, which she calls "a totalitarian shrapnel snugly nestled into a cosy space that's devoid of all ideology--the hotel room. The minibar is the last bastion of totalitarianism, its invisible nest. Struggle against the minibar is possible, but only as a personal guerrilla action."

Ugresic puts her satirical gifts aside when taking on the phenomenon of nationalism, a subject she knows from the inside. When war broke out in Yugoslavia in 1991, she took a principled anti-nationalistic stand. She was proclaimed a "traitor," a "public enemy," and a "witch." To save her life, she had to flee Croatia for Amsterdam, where she lives at present.

Nationalism, she feels, turned Yugoslavia on its head, "becoming a snake devouring its own tail, a hook on which many necks hung, a silver bullet that ripped apart the 'vampiric' heart of federal Yugoslavia. Former brothers rushed to gouge each other's eyes out."

Nationalism, she adds, has turned ex-Yugoslavia into a hodgepodge of semi-fascist states contemptuous of democracy, freedom, equality and brotherhood. "This is the result of a general social lie, a profound moral and mental disturbance, a madness which their milieu continues persistently to treat as though it were normal."

Tough words from a brave, bold writer.