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from the November 2018 issue

Atrocity at a Distance, Absurdity Up Close in Dubravka Ugresic’s “American Fictionary”

Reviewed by Jeff Tompkins

In this book of essays, Ugresic juxtaposes reflections on the fate of her country with observations on everyday life in America.

When Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, invited Dubravka Ugresic to serve as a guest lecturer in the fall of 1991, the timing was fortuitous, to say the least. Ugresic’s homeland, Croatia, was caught up at that time in a virulent nationalist movement that demanded independence from the crumbling Yugoslav Socialist Republic and was part of a surge of separatist insurgencies which would soon lead the whole region into open conflict. In the following years, the Yugoslav wars dismembered the former socialist state, killed an estimated 140,000 people, and displaced millions. Ugresic left to teach in the US months before the world started to hear the expression “ethnic cleansing” in connection with the war in the Balkans.           

But escape came at a price. As Ugresic writes early in American Fictionary, “At the time I didn’t know that horror cannot be erased by distance.” Regular phone calls to her mother in Zagreb, who had to hide in a bomb shelter several times a day, kept the trauma front and center in the author’s head. Soon she was watching on American TV as the destruction overtook Dubrovnik and Sarajevo as well. Being thousands of miles away only heightened the unreality of the unfolding catastrophe: “A whole country had been reduced to an encyclopedia entry and, like Atlantis, it moved into the Dictionary of Imaginary Places.”

Partly to keep herself sane, one suspects, Ugresic started writing a weekly column about her experience for a Dutch newspaper. The columns, which provide the basis of this book, took the form of a fictional “dictionary” that juxtaposed Ugresic’s reflections on the fate of her country with observations on everyday life in America. The texts were first collected in a book in 1995 as Have a Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream, a glib title (imposed by an American editor) that telegraphed everything that was arguably most dubious about Ugresic’s original conception. The new edition that is now being published by Open Letter Books revises the original text and appends a long coda in which the author looks back on the events of 1991–92 from the perspective of twenty-five years later.

Many of Ugresic’s observations on American life read as slightly too familiar humanist critiques of US capitalism. She baldly declares, for instance, that “Americans shop as though they were taking an important exam.” It’s the kind of generalization that appears too often in the early pages here, where long passages about plastic organizers and muffins strain under the metaphorical weight Ugresic assigns to those modest signifiers, and where we’re also brought up to speed on America’s “dictatorship of happiness” and “culture of the self.”

Fortunately, American Fictionary becomes much more incisive when Ugresic narrows her satirical lens. She is scathing on the blithe condescension her status as a European fleeing a war-torn country elicits in many of the Americans she meets. The intelligentsia comes off worst of all: one American journalist confidently decides for Ugresic that “As an East European writer and intellectual you surely have far more interesting things to talk about than literature.” An editor from a top publishing house tells her, “You write, how can I put it, ‘literary’ literature. From a moral standpoint it would not be right to publish something like that now that your country is at war.”

A poignant, unrequited love underlies Ugresic’s frustration with her host country. One of the best entries in this “fictionary” is the chapter “Yugo-Americana,” which describes how American popular culture saturated the Yugoslavia of her childhood. She and her friends may have been dutiful Pioneers, but Eastern Bloc ideology was no match for Esther Williams at the local movie house and Peyton Place on TV. “Esther, of course, had no idea that her shapely swimmer’s legs had symbolically kicked shut the door on an uninvited guest—Soviet Socialist Realism.” Such memories make it all the more painful when Western media coverage of the Yugoslavia crisis conforms to the hoariest prejudices:

The television shots of desperate, wretched, disheveled people, their eyes wild, dovetail perfectly with the Balkan stereotype. And no one seems to ask why so many of these desperate people have a decent command of the English language.

Here, as in the rest of the book, the translation by Celia Hawkesworth and Ellen Elias-Bursać fluently captures the lucidity and dry wit of Ugresic’s reflections.

The coda, where Ugresic reconsiders her experience at the time from her present perspective, foregrounds her second main theme, which is actually one of the best reasons to read her book. Because in its new guise, American Fictionary is the story of how a cultivated European in her middle years becomes an honorary New Yorker. A “permanent émigré” after the events of the early ’90s, Ugresic ultimately settled in Amsterdam. But she returns regularly to New York and seems right at home there. In a feat of imaginative sympathy, she can perceive the vendors who used to clog West 14th Street with their costume jewelry and off-brand electronics as spiritual kin to the peddlers of her native Zagreb. Later we find her scouting out the best Chinese dry cleaners and seamstresses and chatting in Russian with the Bukharan Jews who run a Brooklyn hair salon. At the book’s close, she enjoys a contemplative moment, building to epiphany, on Roosevelt Island’s aptly named Meditation Steps—Roosevelt Island, which once housed, she reminds us, “human refuse,” petty criminals, prostitutes, the mentally ill.

There is a bitter irony attendant on the author’s honorary New Yorker status. Watching the Twin Towers collapse on TV, Ugresic responds to 9/11 as a personal trauma: “I felt the whole world was crumbling. From that moment on, anything was possible, moreover everything began speeding up.” Flash-forward through the ensuing decade and a half, with its cavalcade of atrocities and their effects on thinking people around the planet:

We have all grown accustomed to scrambling to our feet, mentally brushing off the dust, thanking whoever each one of us thanks that we have survived (again!) and moving on, while forgetting the next second what just happened.  

The implication is unmistakable: the Yugoslav Wars were a preview of our fracturing twenty-first-century world.

Uneven but bracing, American Fictionary led me to ponder what Ugresic calls the “protective shields of indifference” most of us adopt when faced with terrible events taking place somewhere just over the horizon. Reading it, I thought of the centrifugal forces pulling Europe apart in 2018; about Syria; and about Myanmar’s Rakhine State. I thought, in short, about a lot of people who will never be lucky enough to find their own Roosevelt Island Meditation Steps.    

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