“…stimulating the memory was as much a manipulation of the past as banning it.”
The Ministry of Pain (Ministarstvo boli) explores what it means to be a refugee, to live in exile from your country. Told through the eyes of Tanja Lucic, a temporary teacher in the Department of Slavonic Languages at the University of Amsterdam, Dubravka Ugrešić’s novel follows Tanja’s journey as she and her students explore their memories of a lost country, language and the meaning of language.
Throughout The Ministry of Pain, Ugrešić invokes the idea that the life of an exile is like living in a fairy tale or a parallel world. Early in the novel Tanja states:
“I had the feeling I might well – if like Alice I should lose my footing and fall into a hole – end up in a third or fourth parallel world, because Amsterdam itself was my own parallel world. I experienced it as a dream, which meant it resonated with my reality. I tried to puzzle it out just as I tried to interpret my dreams.”
Fairy tales provide resolution, heroes winning and justice prevailing. In a world of chaos, Ugrešić expresses that the simple plots and “literary heroes who are brave when ordinary people are cowardly, strong when ordinary people are weak, noble and good when people are mean and ignominious” are what appeal in a country where “languages were used to curse, humiliate, kill, rape, and expel.”
For émigrés, exile means defeat and dysfunction. On her return from a trip to Zagreb, Tanja meets another émigré who councils her to forget anything as a way to create a new life for herself. Through his voice, Ugrešić suggests that for émigrés time moves slower than reality. Those left behind have moved on and adapted to the new reality while émigrés are still stuck in their own time. The return home means a return of the memories and a search for a fairy tale land that no longer exists. To achieve peace and a release from the past, émigrés must forget, using the “miraculous little erasers we all have in our brains.”
Ugrešić’s fundamental questions appear to be these: For those lost in time and place, does forced remembrance equal torture? Can pain lead to a reconciliation, a penance that allows émigrés to live outside their former country without guilt? Ugrešić has created a novel that leaves the questions without answer, compelling each reader to search inside for an answer.
In The Ministry of Pain, there is much discussion among Tanja’s students on the value of Yugonostalgia: the yearning for a country and culture that have vanished into the maw of history. Ugrešić’s gift is in creating a novel that functions both as Yugonostalgia and a paean to the resilience of the human spirit.
Dubravka Ugrešić was born in the former Yugoslavia (Croatia), left her homeland in the 1993 and currently resides in The Netherlands. A novelist, essayist, and literary scholar, The Ministry of Pain is her seventh work to be published. Her books have been translated into over twenty languages. Ugrešić has received several international awards, including the Italian Premio Feronia 2004 (previously awarded to José Saramago, J.M. Coetzee, Günter Grass, Ismail Kadare, and Nadine Gordimer).
Michael Henry Heim, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at UCLA, translates works written in Russian, Czech, German, Serbo-Croatian. The Ministry of Pain is the fourth work by Ugrešić in whose translation he has been involved.