A Croatian intellectual’s flight to the Netherlands from the ruins of Yugoslavia yields striking vignettes of emotional shellshock, linguistic displacement and limbo-like stasis.
Tanja Lucic arrives from Zagreb armed with flimsy prospects (she’s been offered a job teaching the no-longer-extant “Yugoslav literature” at the University of Amsterdam), biting wit and nightmares for memories. As the international trial of Serb leaders gets underway next door in the Hague, Lukic turns her class into a kind of group therapy for her spooked and feral compatriots. Luckily for the reader, Yugoslavian-born Ugresic is not your average immigrant author relating banal travails of assimilation; she is worldly, skeptical and refreshingly cranky. The first-person narrator has a fictional name, but the narrative’s language and the attitude are markedly similar to those displayed in Have a Nice Day (1995), the author’s memoir of an academic stint in the United States. That tale unsparingly condemned Americans as infantile joy addicts; Ugresic, who now lives in Amsterdam, is somewhat more charitable toward the Dutch. Here, they essentially form a colorless mass of extras against whom to better etch broken silhouettes of “ours,” as Tanja calls her fellow expatriates. Passionless about passion—a one-night stand is a “minor transaction of mutual aid involving the commixture of bodily fluids”—Ugresic’s heroine burns with love for her native language and fury toward those who divide it into parochial subdivisions. Toward the end, the plot veers into unexpected and not entirely welcome psychosexual melodrama, as Tanja enjoys a sadomasochistic encounter rife with all sorts of neat Kundera-esque significance (cf. the title).
Ironically, with all the high tragedy in the wings, it’s when Ugresic’s sharp gaze turns to the minute and the arcane (a female character speaks with “high-pitched sh’s and sch’s”) that her novel achieves inimitable, devastating clarity.