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“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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Hisham Matar and V.S. Naipaul

“All the books on the modern history of the country could fit neatly on a couple of shelves. The best amongst them is slim enough to slide into my coat pocket and be read in a day or two. There are many other histories, of course, concerning those who, over the past three millenia, occupied Libya: the Phoenicans, the Greeks, the Romans, the Ottomans, and, most recently, the Italians. A Libyan hoping to glimpse something of that past must, like an intruder at a private party, enter such books in the full knowledge that most of them were not written by or for him, and, therefore, at hear, they are accounts concerning the lives of others, their adventures and misadventures in Libya, as though one’s own country is but an opportunity for foreigners to exorcize their demons and live out their ambitions.”

  • Hisham Matar, ‘The Return

 

Brilliant… true autobiography arises when a man encounters something in life which shocks him into the need for self-examination and self-explanation. It was natural that a sojourn in India should provide this shock for Naipaul… the experience was not a pleasant one, but the pain the author suffered was creative rather than numbing… tender, lyrical, explosive and cruel.”

  • John Wain in The Observer, on the blurb of V.S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness

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“No, it is not the ‘end of history’”: Henri Alleg’s Algerian Memoirs

“We came to the crossroads where he was to leave us, as we got of the cart, he turned to us, raising his finger like a grandfather giving his grandchildren a lesson: ‘Listen to me and always keep in mind what I am telling you today. France has three enemies – the English, the Bolsheviks and the Jews! Don’t ever forget it!’ As the carriage drove away in a cloud of dust, Alfred let out the laugh that he had been holding back. ‘If only this idiot had known,’ he said, ‘that he had in you his three enemies sitting right beside him in his wagon.”

Like many others, I read Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth in college, and was horrified – yet strangely fascinated – by his prescription for pure, cleansing, anti-colonial violence. Henri Alleg’s Algerian Memoirs describes the crucible in which Fanon was shaped, and in its own way, a journalistic, dispassionate way, helps to make sense of the polemics in The Wretched of the Earth.

Henri Alleg himself was born in France, but went to Algeria in 1939 as an eighteen-year old, and was involved with the Algerian independence movement thereafter. Joining the Communist Party of Algeria, he also founded – and ran – the Alger Republicain, described by him in the Memoirs as the only newspaper at the time that opnely advocated anti-colonial policies. Alleg was eventually arrested, and tortured by the French authorities, and his description of his torture in a tract called La Question caused a storm in France, was censored, and is credited with significantly accelerating the freedom movement. This, in itself, would have made for a full life, but the Algerian Memoirs recounts more than that: beginning with the early years, the onset of World War II, the determination of France to hold on to Algeria after the end of the War, the massacres, the increasingly violent freedom movement, Alleg’s own conviction and imprisonment, his eventual escape from a prison in France, independence and how quickly it soured, and eventual exile again. By any account, we would have to live three or four lives to begin to approach the fullness of Alleg’s!

The consistent theme that emerges out of the book is the brutality and racism of French colonialism. It is a particularly salutary time to be reminded of it. Over the last year, French culture, and the French way of life, have been rightly held up as ideals to strive for, and to protect and defend. But a book like Alleg’s reminds us that the same culture that produced Voltaire habitually tortured anti-colonialists through “the use of sticks and bottles shoved up the anus“; the authors of the Declaration of the Rights of Man belonged to the same society that massacred thousands of civilians demanding independence at the very time the Nazis were defeated in Europe; and that the principles that defined the French nation were never applied to the Algerians, until independence was seized by force of arms. These are well-worn points; but in light of French legislation that expressly required schools to recognise the “positive role” played by French colonialism in North Africa, and the present discourse which seems to deny the constitutive role played by colonialism in both the material and cultural shaping of Europe, memoirs like Alleg’s – once again – are a reminder that we cannot pick and choose our histories.

This is not to say that Alleg’s work is free of its own biases. As a card-carrying communist, he goes to extreme lengths to defend the French Communist Party’s quietism – and in fact, opposition – to Algerian independence. For Alleg, the Communist Party has been misunderstood, its pragmatism mistaken for an indefensible commitment to the continuation of colonialism. History – I think correctly – has not been so charitable.

That blind spot apart, Alleg is a compelling and reliable guide. The journalist’s eye for detail is complemented by – in the tradition of C.L.R. James – an absence of any faux pretences to neutrality. Alleg is anti-colonialist and a leftist, and never bothers to hide the fact that his world-view and assessment is shaped by those ideological forces. And over and above that, he has a sharp sense of humour, one that has not been dulled by decades of repression and censorship. He recalls an event, for instance, when:

“One night, an over-hasty police superintendent exhibited a seizure notice signed by the Prefect of Algiers for an issue that neither he nor his superiors could have read since it was yet to be printed. Despite the grotesque insistence of the police, looking for material proof of the non-existent offence, the staff categorically refused to print a newspaper that was condemned in advance to be seized.”

Asides like these – humorous, but darkly so – are scattered throughout that book, lightening it – and the readers – of some of the burdens that such accounts must inevitably inflict. It’s a burden which, one feels, Alleg needs to get off his own shoulders, by forcing himself to remember the funny side of things:

“One of my friends, Antoine Reynaud, who held a high position in the administration of the post office before his arrest, was talking with an FLN militant from Dra El Mizan in Kabylie. ‘I know it well,’ said Reynaud, ‘I supervised the installation of telegraph poles from Dra El Mizan to Boghni and beyond.’ ‘Oh! You’re the one who installed them. Nice to meet you! I’m the one who cut the connections after 1 November.’”

And who could grudge him that. In a life spent working on a magazine while having “to take refuge in the bathroom, the only relatively safe space, and take the copy to the shop on the other side of the avenue, which was intermittently sprayed by machine-gun fire”; while having to play a constant game of language with the censors, because “using the term ‘patriots’ and ‘moudjahidine’ to describe those who had taken up weapons was obviously prohibited. Since we refused to call them ‘rebels’, ‘bandits’ or ‘fellagha’ – the vocabulary of the newspapers – we were reduced to speaking of action conducted throughout the country by mysterious ‘armed men’. But the readers were not fooled. It was also forbidden to mention the fighting in Tunisia and problems related to the political situation of the country. The same was true for Morocco. Ultimately, we had to give up our effort to cover Tunisia and Morocco when our special correspondents were expelled from both countries”; and of course, a life spent living in a country where the colonisers “complained of the noise they had to endure living near a police station. The screams kept them up at night“: one would take one’s humour where one finds it.

It is almost trite now to quote Chinua Achebe: ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ Alleg is a historian of the lions. An imperfect one, but there are few, probably, who have greater authority to recount the history of the hunt.

A brilliant interview with Alleg can be found on Jadaliyya.

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