“Dragging with us a heavy burden of unspoken words…”: Dubravka Ugresic’s “The Museum of Unconditional Surrender”

“I have no desire to be witty. I have no desire to construct a plot. I am going to write about things and thoughts. To compile quotations,” wrote a temporary exile a long time ago. His name was Victor Shklovsky.

  • Dubravka Ugresic, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender

In his essay on Milan Kundera, “To Forget History“, Johannes Lichtman writes that “while the struggle of man against power is still the struggle of memory against forgetting, this struggle is not nearly as compelling, to Kundera, as man’s struggle to reshape his own past into a livable present.” Lichtman reads Kunder’s famous line – that the struggle of man against power is still the struggle of memory against forgetting – into the domain of the personal, where individuals struggle against the pull of memory so as to shape their past into a liveable present, as against its more traditional reading, where power is the State, and the struggle is to remember.

Memory and forgetfulness, the search for meaning, the need to arrange one’s life into a coherent pattern in the face of shattering events – these are at the heart of Dubravka Ugresic’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. With the Yugoslav War as its fulcrum, and theme of exile shaping its form and structure, Museum is an arrangement of disparate, even contradictory genres – memoir, aphorism, reminiscence, quotation, realism, magical realism – “things and thoughts” compiled in no particular order. “Rilke once said that the story of a shattered life can only be told in bits and pieces…”, one of the characters says, in one of the many instances where Ugresic quotes one of Rilke, Joseph Brodsky, or Victor Shklovsky. From life in pre-war Yugoslavia to exile in Germany, Museum, the story of exiles, is told in bits and pieces. “There is no reason why a well thought-out story should resemble real life; life strives with all its might to resemble a well thought-out story,” Ugresic says, quoting another writer (Isak Babel). Museum is a conscious exercise in the failure of either life or the story to approach anything like a “well thought-out” sequence.

From this melange, however, a few clear themes emerge. The first is Lichtman’s interpretation of Kundera’s line – the urge to forget memory in order to rearrange one’s past “into a livable present.” “In the verbal album arranged for her friends,” writes Ugresic of one of her characters, “Mirek’s picture had been touched up on its journey from Zagreb to the American suburbs. The not quite five seven Mirek had grown into six foot Miroslav; the colour of his eyes had changed from brown to blue, and an ordinary Zagreb youth had become an unforgettable lover and the imaginary property of the participants in the hen party. Like shooting stars long since extinguished, here, on the other side of the sky, Mirek shone in his full glory.” This is reminiscent of that moment in Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz, where the protagonist reshapes a brutal wartime rape into a romantic love story, to make the past and the present but more bearable. But, like Fuentes, Ugresic is merciless about the futility of the effort: “… memory resembles a library in alphabetical disorder, and with no collected works by anyone,” she quotes Brodsky, to make the point that “the conviction that we are somehow remembering the whole thing in blanket fashion, the very conviction that allows the species to go on with its life, is groundless.”

The Museum of Unconditional Surrender is a book about exile, and it is for the exile that the two contradictory readings of Kundera’s aphorism become two sides of the same coin. There is the urge to forget in order to rearrange one’s life into a coherent pattern: “…the conviction that we are somehow remembering the whole thing in blanket fashion, the very conviction that allows the species to go on with its life…”; and there is also, of course, the urge to remember – to remember what was left behind:

“Here, in Gustav-Meyer Allee, on Saturdays and Sundays, the country that is no more, Bosnia, draws its map once again in the air, with its towns, villages, rivers, and mountains. The map glimmers briefly and then disappears like a soap bubble.”

Dubravka Ugresic

There are echoes of Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah here, and echoes also of Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun, where Palestinian exiles recreate their cities in the refugee camps of Shatila and Shabra; closer home geographically, that urge to remember – against an “official standard” that seeks to erase – is reminiscent of the work of Ismail Kadare, where “maps in the air” are the only defences against the erasure of the map of reality. But while Kadare is ambivalent about the enterprise, Ugresic is as skeptcial about the effort of collective memory as she is of individual forgetfulness:

“But if the country has disappeared, then so has collective memory. If the objects that surrounded us have disappeared, then so has memory of the everyday life that we lived. And besides, memory of the former country is tacitly forbidden. And when the ban is one day lifted, everyone will forget… There’ll be nothing left to remember,’ I say.”

In this world, then, what are we left with? Ugresic’s tentative – and hesitant – answer, at times, seems to be “art” (“… because the invention of reality is the job of real literature”):

“In a way I think that Nina moved completely into literature. She wandered through the pages of Bely, Bulgakov and Platonov as over the sea and she does not wish to come into port.”

At another point, one of her characters makes the sentiment clear:

What is art, Richard?” “I don’t know. An act which is certainly connected with mastering gravity, but which is not flying.”

This sense of art as means of partial – but only partial – escape from a personal and political reality that is defined by its oppressiveness comes through most vividly in one of the most striking passages in the book, a passage that combines the starkest realist imagery of Danilo Kis with Kadare at his yearning best:

“We lived in a town where the flats were small and the ceilings low; where people were immobile as salamanders, because they were born and died in the same flats; where family histories were remembered and preserved like cheap souvenirs from which the dust was regularly brushed, where even old flags were kept, because one never knew when they might be needed… we lived surrounded by inhabitants whose genetic code was clear and simple: how to survive. We lived in a town where people walked slightly sideways (and looked sideways, like rabbits), their cheek always on the alert because you never knew what side a slap might come from. We lived in a town where hatred was cultivated like a house plant (like an ugly, dusty, eternally green rubber plant). We lived in a town of dark corners, where lives were spent quickly, because they were cheap; where hatreds never quite healed over, and loves were lukewarm; where the curtains on windows were always drawn (so that our neighbour shouldn’t peer into our dinner plates) and always slightly parted (so that we could keep an eye on theirs). We lived in a town where lives were nothing but brief biographies, and life’s turning points just an insignificant touch-up… presumably that is why ‘we walked ten centimeters above the ground.’ In our language that sentence signified a distinction between people. And while the majority endeavoured to keep their feet firmly ‘on the ground’, we defended our right to those… ten centimeters. Being involved with literature helped us for years to maintain a light step.” 

But here again, even as she opens up a window of momentary possibility, in the same breath, Ugresic closes it. She finishes the paragraph by observing that “later we would come down to earth. It would turn out that the force of gravity was after all insurmountable.” Soon after that, she writes of the lives of the seven women characters who attempted to “walk ten centimetres above the ground”, that:

“Before, we used easily to add pictures, colours, symbols to a reality from which we could expect a lot. Now that reality had become dry, which is perhaps how it had always been, but our imagination too lost its moisture… with time we learned that life usually offers the cheaper variant, we no longer had the energy ourselves to illuminate the pictures and words with our own inner glow…”

The Siege of Sarajevo

In our personal quest for meaning, we try and cheat memory to reconstruct an imaginary, bearable past – and we fail. In our political quest for meaning, we try and cheat power to keep memory alive – and we fail. We seek sanctuary in literature from these failures – where we fail a third time, when “the intransigence of reality… [triumphs over] plasticity of language.” [Charles Segal]. So then what remains of meaning? Ugresic’s choice of form – unpolished, unpatterned, doubling and tripling back upon itself, unconcerned with spatial or temporal coherence – suggests that the attempt to force existence into a pattern is itself misplaced. The Museum of Unconditional Surrender possesses an artistic integrity of its own – but that integrity stems from that very acknowledgment of failure. And that, perhaps, is the only – and unsatisfying – answer that Ugresic is willing to give. “But to me he gave tattered remembrance,” she has one of her characters declare. The Museum of Unconditional Surrender gives us tattered narrative, a “story [that] broke, burst, slipped away and twisted like deceit itself” – but for all that, a story. And that, perhaps, is the only consolation.

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