East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Recommended reading: Dubravka Ugresic's The Ministry of Pain

I know you've read too much immigrant fiction, but you mightn't have read any with the depth of analysis this novel possesses. Set in the mid-Nineties, the tale is narrated by Tanja Lucić, a Croat in self-imposed exile, teaching the politically (not linguistically) ridiculous subject of Servo-Kroatisch at the University of Amsterdam. Her students, all exiles themselves, remain at the edge of her understanding. She knows they don't care about lit, and throws out the course for pseudo-theraputic exercises in Yugonostalgia, letting them write about bags and trains and food from the old country. But she has even less of an idea of what her students need than they do. The book's particular answers to the eternal questions of what one should and shouldn't recall are informed by Yugo and Dutch specifics determining which memories are available and which are confiscated.

Anthropologists studying migration have taken over the term "sleeper" from popular spy novels. Sleepers are emigrants who make "normal" lives for themselves in their new environment: they learn its language, adapt to its ways, seem fully integrated -- and suddenly they have an epiphany. The fantasy of a "return to the motherland" takes over with such a vengeance that it makes them into robots. They sell everything they have acquired and move back. And when they realize the mistake they have made (as most do) they go back to the land where they had "slept" for twenty or however many years, forced to relive (as they would on a psychiatrist's couch) the years of adjustment until -- twice broken, yet twice restored -- they make peace with their lot. Many live a parallel life: they project the image of their motherland on the neutral walls of the land where they are living "only temporarily" and experience the projected image as their "real" life.

My students were far from being "sleepers", nor could they ever dream of becoming them. They belonged neither here nor there. They were busy building castles in the air and peering down to decide which place suited them better. Of course I was up there with them. I too belonged neither here nor there. The only difference was that I couldn't bear to look down. I had vertigo.


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