Europe In Sepia

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Open Letter also publishes another remarkable European writer, Dubravka Ugresic, who came to literary fame with her last book, Karaoke Culture. Now she has returned with another collection of essays, EUROPE IN SEPIA (translated by David Williams).

Ugresic was born and raised in Croatia, but had to flee from there when the civil war broke out across Yugoslavia and she refused to espouse a party line. Her anti-nationalistic stand made her the target of thuggish politicians and media tycoons. Afraid for her life, she took off and became a vagabond for the next ten years, living mostly in Germany and the USA. Now she resides in Holland, a tolerant country that has granted her citizenship.

Wherever she goes, Ugresic looks out at the world around her with an unsentimental, uncompromising gaze. She writes well about politics and economics, but she's at her best when commenting on the zeit-geist of our times. Here, for example, is what she had to say about 21st century Europe:

"Once two zones separated by a pretty decent wall, in the space of twenty years Europe has become a chaotic mega-market. There are now no walls, and no coordinates either; no one knows where the West is, and where the East. The West is settling in the East, the East is surging into the West, the north heading South, and the South, well, it's mulling its options. Young Spaniards are abandoning their homeland en masse; young Greeks seeking out relatives long dispersed to far corners of the earth; trying to extract themselves from the ever-widening quicksand, young Croats recently snapped up three hundred Canadian working visas in a record forty minutes. The Spanish coast is flooded with refugees from Africa, most of whom live crammed into refugee camps. There's no place to go anymore. The Albanians have given up on Italy--there's no room since the Chinese hordes invaded. Highly-qualified Bulgarian women work in Turkey as cleaners. The few remaining Austrian elderly who can afford it hire highly-skilled caregivers from Slovakia. The Russians are making a big noise just about everywhere, doing deals in Austria, living large in England, summering in Montenegro."

This explains why Ugresic sees Europe in sepia; its once-bright future has faded. No new utopian visions have emerged from the ruins of communism; in its place has come a wave of nostalgia for the past (such as the popular film "Goodby Lenin"). Not that Ugresic has much use for nostalgia: "It wipes its tracks, deceives its hunters, sabotages its researchers' toil, never remaining what it is or was."

More and more, she finds only absurdity everywhere, plus an abiding sadness and disillusionment. She can laugh at these things, but always through bitter tears.