Dubravka Ugresic, Who wrote of dislocation and exile, dies at 73

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Dubravka Ugresic, Who wrote of dislocation and exile, dies at 73
She was acclaimed in Yugoslavia. But when that country fell apart, she refused to embrace the nationalism of the newly formed Croatia and was vilified as a result.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Dubravka Ugresic, a novelist and essayist who, after her native Yugoslavia broke apart in the early 1990s, found herself ostracized in the new country of Croatia for refusing to embrace its aggressive nationalism and spent the rest of her life abroad, died on March 17 in Amsterdam. She was 73.

Petar Milat, her principal editor and publisher in Croatia, confirmed the death. Her family did not disclose a cause.

“Ugresic’s writings, both in fiction and nonfiction, are a unique blend of wittiness and compassion,” Milat said by email. “Her passing has resounded strongly in all countries of the former Yugoslavia, where Ugresic was regarded a chief intellectual voice, equipped by an exemplary ethical rigor.”

In the 1980s Ugresic was being hailed as one of Yugoslavia’s best up-and-coming novelists, especially with the release of “Fording the Stream of Consciousness,” which won multiple awards in that country in 1988. It was a satirical story of intrigue about a writers’ conference in the Croatian city of Zagreb, and its multinational cast of characters gave Ugresic, who had traveled internationally and held degrees in comparative and Russian literature, a chance to show off her knowledge of different peoples and of the classics. A banquet staged by one of her characters draws on a feast described in “Madame Bovary,” a flourish typical of Ugresic’s fiction.

“Her (literally) encyclopedic knowledge of literary theory is transformed, in her own creative work, into an ingenious stew of spoof, allusion and absurdist wit,” Jan Dalley wrote in The Independent of Britain in 1991 in a review of “Fording the Stream of Consciousness,” which had just been published in English. “You are so pleased with yourself for the myriad references you think you’ve clocked that you forget to wonder how many you’ve missed.”

But Ugresic’s triumph was short-lived. Soon Yugoslavia was disintegrating and Franjo Tudjman had come to power in Croatia, Ugresic’s home region, which declared independence in 1991. He fomented a strident nationalism; Ugresic, who had admired the multi-ethnicity of Yugoslavia, spoke out against it, lamenting the erasure of Yugoslav history.

In 1991 she took an extended break from Croatia, going to Amsterdam and then spending time as a lecturer at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She returned to Zagreb in 1992 but found herself being vilified in the press and ostracized by colleagues at the University of Zagreb, where she had been on the faculty for 20 years. She was harassed and threatened, she found that she couldn’t get published, and she and four other writers were labeled “the Croatian witches.”

“At first, I was shocked,” she told The Chapel Hill Herald in 1999, when she was teaching at the University of North Carolina, “but then I accepted it as an honorable name. I decided to take my broom and fly away.”

She left Croatia for good in 1993. Her 1995 essay collection, “The Culture of Lies,” which consisted of pieces she wrote from 1991 to 1994, was a blunt dissection of how national and ethnic identities in the region had been manipulated to serve whoever was in power. She wrote about a small town that had once planted a grove of trees to honor the birthday of Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s longtime president. In the wave of Croatian nationalism of the 1990s, residents cut the trees down.

“They say they were removing ‘the last remnants of the communist regime,’” she noted. “The people who cut the wood down were the same people who planted it.”

Ugresic continued to publish fiction and nonfiction after leaving Croatia.

“The Museum of Unconditional Surrender” (1999) was, Richard Eder wrote in a review in The New York Times, “a mix of diary, notebook, commonplace book and memoir; its facts and conversations slide between record and invention.”

That book examined the phenomenon of exiles — “not the gory amputation of refugee flight,” Eder wrote, “but arrival’s grayer course of tissue rejection.”

Exile was also at the heart of “The Ministry of Pain” (2005), a novel about a Croatian writer named Lucic living in the Netherlands.

“Lucic knows her people, and hates them — but loves them more,” Michael J. Agovino wrote in a review in the Times. “Which is why the narrator and, one senses, the author, is heartbroken. This is a work that comes from the gut, one that deserves to be read.”

Ugresic’s 2020 essay collection, “The Age of Skin,” looked at the erosion of cultural memory in recent decades.

For at least a decade, Ugresic’s name often came up when critics and industry watchers indulged in their annual speculation about who might win the Nobel Prize in literature. She never did garner that award, but in 2009 she was on the shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize (which was won by Alice Munro), and in 2016 she won the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

Ugresic was born on March 27, 1949, in Kutina, in what is now central Croatia. She earned her degrees at the University of Zagreb and published her first book at 22. A series of short, poetical stories, it was not intended for a young audience, but it was critically acclaimed as a new form of children’s literature.

In her 1978 novella “A Love Story,” she conjured a narrator who tries to impress a love interest by writing to him in different styles; Ugresic was beginning to experiment with ways to incorporate her literary expertise into her fiction. Three years later she wrote another novella, “Steffie Speck in the Jaws of Life,” that was made into a 1984 movie, for which she wrote the screenplay.

Although some of Ugresic’s writing focused on dislocation and exile, she also turned a critical eye on the United States in “Have a Nice Day” (1995), a collection of essays drawn from her early-1990s stay at Wesleyan that Paul Goldberg, reviewing in the Times, did not find amusing or insightful.

“Judging by this book,” he wrote, “Ms. Ugresic saw little of the United States, made few friendships of any depth and watched television a lot.”

Ugresic’s survivors include a brother, Sinisa.

In a 2002 interview with Bomb magazine, Ugresic talked about her decision to abandon Croatia.

“I deleted my ethnic, national and state identity because there was nothing much to delete there,” she said. “But I found myself in a very ironic position: In Croatia I am not a Croatian writer anymore, but abroad I am always identified as a Croatian writer. That means that I became what I didn’t want to be and what I am not.”

“Still,” she added, “what I can’t delete as easily is my experience. Even if I could, I would not erase it or exchange it for a less traumatic one. That experience is rich and enriching, as well as pretty unique. Not so many people in the world were born in a country that doesn’t exist anymore.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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