erasing clouds

Book Reviews

by anna battista

Dubravka Ugresic, The Ministry of Pain (Saqi)

In her volume of essays Thank You for Not Reading, Dubravka Ugresic wrote, “exile is a voluntary job of deconstructing the established values of human life. The exile, like it or not, tests the basic concepts around which everyone's life revolves: concepts of home, homeland, family, love, friendship, profession, personal biography.” In her latest novel, The Ministry of Pain, Ugresic turns into fiction what she wrote in her essay about exiles. The story, part novel, part memoir, narrates the vicissitudes of Tanja Lucic, who leaves Zagreb in Croatia with her Serb partner Goran, from whom she splits when he moves to Japan. After living in Berlin for a short time, Tanja moves to Amsterdam, where she tries to adjust to her new life in The Netherlands, though she finds it very difficult because she seems to be torn by too many contrasts. Even her job - teaching at the Department of Slavonic Languages at Amsterdam University the literature of ex-Yugoslavia to Bosnian, Croatian and Serb students who are as young as her and, like her, exiles attending university mainly to justify their presence in Holland to the authorities - is an absurd task. She is indeed teaching a subject that no longer officially exists, “What we once called jugoslavistika at the university - that is, Slovenian, Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, Montenegrin and Macedonian literature - had disappeared as a discipline together with its country of origin,” she says at some point in the novel.

To find a common ground, Tanja embarks with her students - some of whom work at the “Ministry”, a factory producing stuff for the porn shop market - on a trip through memory, a trip to see if there is anything they can save from loss, from their traumas, and store it in an imaginary red, white and blue plastic bag, one of the cheapest items of this globalised world, usually seen at émigré markets all over the world. During this journey through “Yugonostalgia”, seen as “the remembrance of life in that ex-country” and “another name for political subversion”, Tanja and her pupils put lyrics from traditional songs, lines from poems, or food items, in their imaginary holdall, until the contents of the bag become too much to bear and things precipitate when one of the students kills himself since his father is accused of war crimes.

The Ministry of Pain is a novel about exile, loss and displacement: Tanja and her students never seem to be able to adjust to life in their adoptive country, neither they can go back, since they don’t belong anymore to the country they left. Indeed, when Tanja goes to Zagreb to visit her mother, she feels her hometown has turned into an alien place in which she even gets lost. All the exiles Tanja meets are stuck in a sort of limbo: their identities have been shattered by the war in the Balkans, but they can’t seem to be able to find happiness in Amsterdam. “In emigration you are prematurely old and eternally young,” says one of the students, and this is what is happening to Tanja and her friends, trapped in their love and hate relationship with the West and with their origins. Another theme of the novel is how the first victim of the war in the Balkans was language, “Language was our common trauma,” Tanja claims.

Ugresic writes in a simple but intense and angry prose, and, while the novel is rather easy to read, it is at times painful to go through it. If you’re an exile or you lived far away from your home country for a while for different reasons, you’ll identify perfectly with Tanja, but The Ministry of Pain - the recipient of the first English PEN Writers in Translation Award - has the power to engage also those readers who never moved from their home countries, thanks to the profound and beautiful style the novel is written in and to the universal truths and meditations the book features.

Kudsi Erguner, Journeys of a Sufi Musician (Saqi)

Kudsi Erguner's book is a sort of autobiography, history of Sufism and essay on traditional music from Turkey, all wrapped into one. When Journeys of a Sufi Musician opens, the young Erguner is a child, playing with his friends in the streets, getting bored at school and at times playing truant. Revelation comes to him when he starts going with his father - a well-known and respected musician - to the tekkes, the traditional meeting-places for dervishes, where he attends secret Sufi meetings and learns to play the ney (reed flute) with the help of his father. Soon, music becomes the most important thing in Erguner’s life, and, when in 1968 Turkish whirling dervishes accept an invitation by UNESCO to perform in Paris for the first time, Erguner has the honour of being among the chosen musicians who accompany them.

Throughout the following years, Erguner plays at various concerts in Europe and the United States: during these tours he starts to experience the interest of the West for the Eastern spirituality, an interest that is deeply in contrast with the repressive laws of the Turkish authorities who ban the Sufi orders since they are eager to become modern and secular. While recounting about the political history of his country, Erguner explains how amazed he was to meet so many adepts of Eastern spirituality in the West, among them also many disciples of G. I. Gurdjieff. As the years pass, his career takes off and Erguner records his first albums, and works with major Western artists, among them director Peter Brook and Peter Gabriel, with whom he collaborates to the soundtrack for the film The Last Temptation of Christ.

Journeys of a Sufi Musician is a wonderful book, packed with interesting and sometimes funny anectodes, beautiful meditations, and an accurate analysis of traditional Sufi music. The book also contains two appendixes, one on the ney and another on the ceremony of the whirling dervishes in which Erguner explains their meaning and criticises the attitude of many who see them as mere attractions for tourists rather than as deeply spiritual experiences. The book comes with a CD featuring amazing recordings from Erguner’s archives that perfectly integrate this memoir and evoke the spirit and the mood of the Istanbul tekke.

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