- Demystifying Nationalism: Dubravka Ugresic and the Situation of the Writer in (Ex-) Yugoslavia
I envy the ‘Western writer.’ I envision my colleague the Western writer as an elegant passenger who travels either without luggage or with luggage that is elegantly invisible. I envision myself as a passenger with a great deal of luggage all pasted with labels, as a passenger who is desperately trying to rid himself of this burden which sticks to him as if it were his very fate.— Dubravka Ugresic, “Baggage and Belles Lettres”
These lines exemplify Dubravka Ugresic’s refusal to be plotted in the recent narratives of national revival proliferating throughout Croatia and the other republics of (Ex)-Yugoslavia. Dubravka Ugresic is the author of three novels—Stefica Cvek u Raljama Zivota (Stefica Cvek in the Jaws of Life); Forsiranje Romana-Reke (Fording the Stream of Consciousness); and Zivot je Bajka (Life is a Fairy Tale)—as well as of short stories, screen plays, and anthologies and criticism of Russian avant-garde literature. Her fiction is not overtly political but her playful obliqueness is in itself the expression of an implicit political stance.
What seems frivolous on the surface has serious implications in the context of Balkan politics today. In all her writing, Ugresic rejects the nationalistic fiction of a fixed and immobile identity constructed through blood, the secret soil of one’s origin, the distinctiveness of national character, the metaphysical privileging of one’s ethnic group, and other monolithic discourses. Like Deleuze and Guattari, Ugresic sees literature as being fundamentally “like schizophrenia: a process and not a goal, a production and not an expression” (quoted in Massumi 179). Ugresic is a “nomad,” perpetually traveling on the border between “high” and “low” culture, between “kitsch” and “art.” She “deoriginates” her fiction through the use of clichés, of a multiplicity of genres, and of a continual masquerade of styles. She challenges the unity of the nationalistic narratives that have recently proliferated throughout ex-Yugoslavia; she stands and moves in the borderlands, occupying sites of difference in the strategic manner described by Homi Bhabha: “never entirely on the outside or implacably oppositional...a pressure, and a presence, that acts constantly, if unevenly, along the entire boundary of authorization” (Bhabha 297).
Ugresic has written of two opposed currents in the Yugoslav literatures: “one which contests the so-called tradition of national literature, demystifies the notions of so-called great literature, usurps entrenched systems of genres, defends the autonomy of literature, and bespeaks a cultural cosmopolitanism— while the other, its antipode, endorses the very same notions that the first group questions” (“Made in Yugoslavia” 10). In unapologetically embracing the first of these currents, Ugresic responds to the totalitarian currents which have manipulated literature in Eastern Europe. After 1948, Yugoslav literature was fairly free from the aesthetic norms of socialist realism advocated in other Eastern European countries. Post-war Croatian and Serbian literature was known for creative explorations of different genres and styles. The Yugoslav writer was placed on the border between East and West. This border culture allowed the intermingling of traditional political concerns with avant-garde and later postmodern aesthetics. Such a culture was also premised upon a promiscuous cross-fertilization of the various Yugoslav nationalities. Ugresic herself is a product of this intermingling of styles and cultures. She observes that the “Yugoslav writer lived in a common cultural space of different traditions and languages that intermixed and intercommunicated. It meant knowing Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, reading Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian, and Slovene writers. It meant living in Zagreb, having a publisher in Belgrade, printing a book in Sarajevo, having readings in Ljubljana, Skopje, Pristina. It meant living in different cultures and feeling they were his own” (“Intellectuals as Leaders” 679).
Nonetheless, for fifty years, discourse in Yugoslavia was subordinated to the demands of a hegemonic Titoist politics. “Bratstvo i jedinstvo” (brotherhood and unity) was all too often an excuse for demanding narrow-minded conformity. But in the last few years, the clichés of Serbian and Croatian nationalism...