Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic – A Review

Europe_in_Sepia_largeEurope in Sepia
Dubravka Ugresic
David Williams, Trans.
Open Letter, 2014, pg 230

I like the ideas suggested by the title Europe in Sepia, a place that is living on its past and uncertain where it is going. Is it a museum piece or something living, dynamic. And I like the idea of Dubravka Ugresic: a writer who has the insights and bravery to see the problems. As in her previous book Karaoke Culture this is true to a certain extent. Ugresic when confronting the realities of Croatia, her home country, is clear, concise and full of ire at the Croatian nationalism that looks back at mythic times of national purity as a way forward. Her experience as a writer who dares to question the exclusionary policies that come with national pride and to long for not a return, but a reckoning with the peaceful Yugoslav era. How could the Croats and the Serbs share a language and then suddenly not? These questions have led to death threats and she now lives in Amsterdam in exile. These are powerful questions because the flip side to preserving traditions and language, especially in small countries, is exclusion and extreme cases repression of out groups. In Ugresic’s telling, those who do not write about or celebrate the Croatian state are enemies of the Croatian people, even if those heroes were part of the fascist and murderous Ustaše.

When she steps away from Croatia and the Balkans, though, her precision weakens and in some cases she is just so ill informed her arguments are embarrassing. The fundamental problem is in her style. Most of her essays interweave her personal experiences to draw out a larger point. However, her personal experiences are those of an international literati (and as she would insist, one with little influence). She is not an investigator, a journalist, a scholar, or someone who spends time studding a subject. The effect is of one who misses so many opportunities do delve deeper into what is going on, to ask deeper questions, the questions that when you read her takes on Balkans you know she is capable. At her worst we have this

They’re hawkers of cheap souvenirs, angel figurines everywhere, the Slovaks stealing them from the Poles, the Czechs from the Slovaks. Croats sell gingerbread hearts and bags of lavender. Few display and imagination-imagination doesn’t sell. They wan UNESCO to protect their non-material resources; the Croats have already hocked off kulen and sparnik. Yes, they live off souvenirs, like European Indians in a European reservation. Honey cookies, gingerbread, a bit of folklore, embroidery and lacework, olive oil from handpicked olives, traditional local recipes. At the markets in Vienna these Indians (Serbs? Gypsies? Macedonians?) sell fake Roman coins and fibulas. Their squaws—women with bleached hair and faces roasted like Chinese smoked duck (sun beds are sill in fashion)—are ragpickers, traders in “original fakes,” clothing, caps, ans scarves. Everyone sells his or her bric-a-brac. Yes, the future is definitely elsewhere. In the time of communism watches sped ahead, now they go backwards.

On first read it has a certain coherence. But when you start looking at it, it is such as mishmash of ideas that it is irritating. First is the use of the word squaw. I’m not sure if this is the translator at work, but the word is considered offensive. But let’s put that aside because there is a bigger issue here: context. Comparing the American Indians to the groups in Europe with such different histories is lazy writing at best. Instead of asking interesting questions about identity and language and what it takes to maintain these and other elements of culture especially given the different power relationships over time (i.e., subjugation of Native Americans vs. European nationalism), she goes for facile comparisons. And the conclusion of the quote is indicative of her position, too. Given the disaster that the past is she wants to jettison everything about the past. That’ll never happen, and more to the point, there are things from the past worth saving. And I don’t think the slavish devotion to the future is necessarily a remedy either. There are so many potential ideas to work out in this brief quote, yet she just throws them around half developed and that is the greatest problem with her writing, the stutter stop flow of ideas as she comes across something else she doesn’t like. I would have stopped reading her some time ago if I wasn’t always hoping that once, just once, she’d bring it all together.

I have similar complaints with the rest of the book. The notable exception is at the end when she writes about women and writing. She is much more concise here and her arguments are much more narrow in focus and, thus, hold together better. What Is An Author Made of? is the best piece in the collection and one that I would put as a must read, without qualifications. It is so good, I wished it was at the beginning of the book because I almost stopped reading and would have been sorely disappointed had I missed it. Granted, it may only appeal to people interested in literary theory, but it is accessible and compelling. Her core argument is all the theories about the death of the author come at the expense of women and that it is easy for men to play these games with authorship because they have the power and luxury to play them. Moreover, these games tend to silence, or at best sideline, women writers because it diminishes the importance of the author, the voice of a woman who has her own unique things to say, and replaces it with a universalizing kind of literature. She is especially unhappy with the literary establishment that is still too male.

I’ll try her next book, if there is one, but I’m always going to be doubtful. Her essays, with some rare exceptions, just never quite deliver what they promise. That is too bad because she has some great insights.