Born in the same year as I was, Ugresic is my chronological compatriot. As my paternal grandfather emigrated to Australia in 1924, I can also understand, due to the legacy of the stories my father told to me and my brother about his youth, the sense of rootlessness described in this book.
The feeling of closeness that displaced people have when they encounter one another — and they unerringly hone in on each other in the street and in cafes — reminds me of stories that my father used to tell us around the Sunday lunch table, of his father’s chums visiting their house in Melbourne on weekends. “His cronies,” he called them.
Apparently my grandfather was something of a big-wig back home. His father had been the chief of police in Lourenco Marques (the capital of what was then Portuguese East Africa, now Mozambique). Unlike Ugresic, he deliberately escaped long before the violence started. But, like her, he often felt ill-at-ease in his new surroundings.
Nevertheless, my grandfather always spoke English at home, and never taught his children how to speak Portuguese. He was a keen assimilationist in an age when there was no such thing as multiculturalism. He tended the gardens of the rich and sold hamburgers to the local cops. He fit in. He worked at it. Occasionally he would blow his top and make a spectacle of himself in the public street.
I also understand something of the dynamics of this book because I lived for nine years in Japan. There, I was definitely the ‘outsider’ (although I never did make a spectacle of myself in the street).
In Holland, where we find ourselves at the beginning of this ‘novel’ (it is mercilessly autobiographical), Tanjica Lucic parts company with her husband, Goran (who is offered a teaching position in Japan), and fortuitously lands a job teaching her native language in the Department of Slavonic Languages at the University of Amsterdam.
Her students, apparently, admire the work of outcast poet Charles Bukowski. (I never knew he was so famous in Europe, but he seems to be very well-known there.) She delineates their outward styles in an effort to accurately depict the harsh and sometimes comical realities of an existence as contingent as theirs. It reminds me of the reminiscences of Nabokov when, in possession of a ‘Nansen’ passport, he lived in Berlin and Paris prior to emigrating to the United States in 1940.
Tanjica asks her students to reminisce in words. The resulting productions catalogue a past life with fondness, with anger, with passion, with regret, with humour. This is very skilfully done, and Ugresic adopts a variety of styles to perform these pastiches. The exercise produces a sampling of treasures, mostly domestic, now consigned to the dustbin of history. They can never return. Tanjica wonders if she is doing the right thing by urging her charges to write in this way.
Ultimately, she follows through with the exercise because it flies in the face of what those societies were, at the time, trying to achieve: a sort of amnesia. So she feels that what the class is getting up to is provocative and anti-establishment. They thumb their noses at the current orthodoxy of the countries they came from: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia.
Returning ‘home’ for a visit, Tanjica stays for a week with her mother in her small apartment. She also visits Goran’s parents, who she calls Mama and Papa. Papa needs a catheter to be permanently inserted in his penis and has taken to verbalising his frustrations (a senior public servant, he spent three years in a prison camp during Tito’s reign before being relegated to teach at a small school), even when noone is in the room.
Dysfunction permeates the scene. Her mother has become diabetic and, worse, resents her daughter’s life in Holland. Only as Tanjica is entering the lift to go down to the cab that is waiting to take her to the airport for her flight back to Amsterdam does her mother finally say ‘I love you’ (in English).
On the aeroplane Tanjica sits next to an architect, also an expatriate (he lives in the United States), with whom she has a disturbing conversation.
The balance of her life deteriorates further when she returns to her life of exile. One of her students has committed suicide in her absence: his father has been brought before the tribunal that is trying war criminals in The Hague. Shame has sent him packing. Literally. He is found at the end of the weekend by his landlady surrounded by seven toy suitcases that are filled with odds and ends, and he is completely naked.
Another student goes with her to The Hague to observe the trial proceedings in person. They are unnerved by the spectacle and leave before the end of the day, stopping off to look at Vermeer’s famous painting, Girl With the Pearl Earring, in a museum. They argue.
Arguments abound. Before leaving for Croatia, Tanjica and her students celebrate her departure at a pub, but after all the songs (one of the boys has brought an accordion that he plays) and the reminiscences, one of them goes off the deep end after reciting a famous Communist-era poem about a German atrocity, smashing his glass with his fist and head-butting the table.
Tanjica muses on how war and the crimes it facilitates affect ordinary people, creates chaos instead of normality. There seems to be no respite from the pain. In this novel, which causes you to fret (there is so much suffering), the invisible threads that connect generations, along which forces tug people this way and that, are made visible. It’s more than just resenting exile (although the ‘Yugos’ make jokes at the expense of their hosts, the Dutch), it is a palpable feeling of injustice that follows individuals across time and across borders.
There is no escaping it. All you can do is cope as best you can. Tanjica copes by, on one occasion, picking up a stranger in a bar. Waking up the next morning, she finds money but no man. Laughing, she remembers that she lives very close to the red-light district.
She also visits her old friend from back home, who is married to Cees, the head of the university department where she works. But Ines’ incessant chatter disgusts her, and Cees has some bad news. It looks like she will be given a full-time job, however, later on in the year, because the government has made the decision to segregate Croat and Serb students at different universities.
Things don’t turn out exactly as planned, however. One of her students, Igor, visits her in her apartment. Another student offers her her rent-assisted apartment, as she has decided to return to Belgrade. Igor out of class is a different person, vindictive and ironic. He desires something that also reflects the damage that the war and displacement have done to him. Tanjica is left stranded, but she seems to get her revenge.
There is no such thing as mercy, no such thing as compassion; there is only forgetting; there is only humiliation and the pain of endless memory. That is the lesson we brought with us from the country we came from, and it is a lesson we have not forgotten. Screaming and shouting are like Pavlov’s bell to us; we are deaf to everything else. Catching the scent of terror is child’s play to us; nothing tickles our nostrils more.
Having survived a year teaching Slavic languages, changed apartments, been assaulted, been patronised, worked as a baby-sitter, Tanjica emerges on the other side with a partner we would never have imagined could live with her. When things get too much, she shoots out of the apartment and heads for the flat Dutch beaches.
There, she screams her curses into the unheeding winds.
I watch them curl into tiny tubes, loop the loop, and nosedive into the wall of water, where they dissolve instantly, like Alka Selzer.
Ugresic has written a hymn to exile. The chords reverberate after we have closed the final page against its brother. There are 254 of them and they flow like a wide river down our mental synapses, into the complex lobes of our brains, and lie there, waiting for a chance to come out. One day we might need them.