American Fictionary

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

The Croatian writer Dubravka Ugresic is The Flying Dutchman of contemporary literature. Driven out of Croatia by rabid, blood-thirsty nationalists who took exception to her critical remarks, Ugresic wandered from one country to another before finally settling in Holland, where she has resided for the past twenty-five years.

In 1994 she published a book which described her disturbed state of mind as she shunted between France, Holland, Russia and the USA, "Have a Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream." Now Open Letter has republished that book with an updated last section which catapults her story into the 21st century. Called AMERICAN FICTIONARY it is a worthy addition to her impressive body of work, which includes seven novels and five essay-collections.

Although Ugresic calls Holland home, she is essentially a woman without a country, having been uprooted from her birthplace by a fascist-like government that threatened to murder her for writing the truth about it. She also received death threats from the other ex-Yugoslav countries who fought each other for religious reasons in the Balkan war of the 1990s. Her crime? Having described their citizens and leaders as crazed and evil.

"I wonder where this appalling evil came from, this cruelty, this mindless destruction," she asks in AMERICAN FICTIONARY. "What is this dreadful need to destroy everything that was built up, to burn, raze it to the ground, where does it come from? What is this urge to kill for the sake of killing, without reason or aim, where does it come from? "

What also enrages her is the incomprehension of almost everyone she meets in the West about the Balkan war. That includes the shrink she goes to in New York for help with her despair and fury. "I presented her with a brief history of Yugoslavia's debacle. I talk about mythic, tribal thinking, about primitive savagery, illiteracy, the criminal mentality, about theft, lies, the legitimation of lies, about the culture of lies, the pigheadedness, the new-fangled rural psyche that weeps as it murders and murders as it weeps."
The shrink's reaction? "Give me something more concrete," she begs. "I don't understand a thing you're saying."

Much of AMERICAN FICTIONARY deals with Ugresic's attempt to adjust to life in the West, especially in the USA (where she taught for some years at Wellesley). She writes trenchantly but also wittily about her attempts to cope with life in New York: Donald Trump, Coca-Cola, TV, consumerism, jogging, "the dictatorship of happiness" churned out for years by the media and now "imitated zealously by life."

She goes on to ask, "Will Americans begin to wonder how it is that they--who have believed their whole lives in ideologemes about individualism, individual choice, personalness--are so remarkably like their next-door neighbors? The American media market, which anticipates all problems by immediately giving them voice, offers its new, great, global safeguarding idea of self-esteem. Work on self-esteem (national, professional, age-specific, physical, private, sexual) anticipates the awareness of defeat, the awareness that something isn't quite right after all--because this implies in advance that something is wrong. Work on self-esteem is a form of ego-training as a safeguard, a new fashion product on the American market of ideas."

There are insights like that on just about every page of AMERICAN FICTIONARY. Ugresic never fails to edify and engage, thanks to her humor and wisdom, her honesty and humanity. Here's a typical sample of the way she looks back on her life in exile, taken from the final section of AMERICAN FICTIONARY:

"Since that long-ago 1991 when I found myself in New York in mid-October, when a war that would last for the next four years was just beginning in my homeland, I have been without a homeland. I have a home, though not in the country where I was born, so I am not homeless. I have a passport and a tax ID number, so I am not stateless, nor am I country-less. The condition of 'exhausting mental and emotional simultaneity,' the 'frenzied crisscrossing of parallel worlds,' with which I diagnosed myself in 1991 at the time of the war in Yugoslavia and my sojourn in America, became, in time, my lifestyle. So I travel, I collect places, people and situations as if they are souvenir-substitutes for a "homeland." All these places (people and situations) stir in me a feeling that eludes translation into language. The feeling is closer to melancholy than nostalgia, closer to presentiment than regret. The most compelling part is how arbitrary this is. I can never predict what this feeling will evoke, just as I don't know whether I am a hunter out to snare capricious "homeland" sentiments or whether I am their prey, whether I'm the "adopter" or the "adoptee."