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The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugrešić
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's review
Jun 08, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: life-is-shit, fiction, chosen-by-the-air
Read from June 07 to 08, 2010 — I own a copy

Memory and what might be better forgotten.

So, today, 7/11/2010, I unintentionally wound up walking past the tourist trap known as the World Trade Center site, aka Ground Zero, aka whatever it is called. Roughly it had been 8 years, 10 months and five and a half hours, give or take some minutes since I last happened to be in the neighborhood. My first response to realizing we (that would be Karen and I) would be getting to see that spot was annoyance. As in, what the fuck, I wasn't expecting this today (and I wasn't, stupid me didn't put two and two together and realize that the Fulton St. subway stop was the same stop that I used to take to that area, under a slightly different name). Annoyance shifted to wonderment, as in where the fuck are we exactly? And even though we passed the old church and shit it wasn't until we were near Century 21 that I realized oh, shit we aren't just at Ground Zero, we just passed over the spot where I stood and thought really fucked up things and saw some equally fucked up things that left me sort of feeling all fucked up. I sort of pointed this out to Karen in a very inarticulate way, because I don't talk well about this, rather I talk around it. And even as I told her this, and I realized exactly where I was and looked around nothing felt right about the spot. Nothing was as I remembered it. I'm not just talking a few buildings missing, because obviously those were gone, but lots of other details seemed missing, or changed. My memory really only being orientated by the location of a department store. I trust that my memory is relatively accurate of a) that neighborhood as I was aware of it 8 years ago and b) my experiences of that day. The details of the present space and the space in my subjective experience of it are not the same though. I don't know how much of that is change that happened in the actual physicality, change due to differences of perception (the area seemed more open, lighter, airier, but could that just be the absence of those grotesque and decaying monoliths?), or the ways memory is not to be trusted. Is what I remember an edited version, a directors cut that never was aired in theaters and is different from anything anyone will see until the DVD release?

In another act of what humans are capable of doing to one another, throughout much of the 1990's the people who used to live in the country once known as Yugoslavia went a little nutso and started to do some horrific and barbaric shit to one another. Raping and killing and death camps and snipers and all kinds of awful things among people who one would call 'civilized' Europeans. Our collective disgust at what happened here is fairly low, even at the time it was happening we didn't show too much concern or interest in it all. And when we started to bomb them in the late 90's at a time when Clinton just happened to be having some PR problems very few people paid any attention that we were bombing some people and blowing up things like hospitals all because our President was having allegation (x) dropped on him (Fuck that Wag the Dog apologetics bullshit, that since it was a movie our President would never actually blow some shit up just to get his ass out of hot-water. He seemed to rev up the bombers all the time when his personal life threatened to mess with his power... in a perfect world he would hang at Hague for these misuses of power, along with the Bushes, and our current War-Criminal in Chief. Wheeee, the typical Yugoslavia rant from me). Anyway, this time in our collective history is a bleak one if you want to look at the way civilized people can treat one another. At the time a popular explanation for it all was the remnants of ancient tribalism, left-over pre-history bullshit that has no place in our clean and shiny Fukayama post-history time. This is an explanation that turns the whole country and it's problems into a capital oh, Other; sort of in the same way that the whole Africa / Darfur 'murdering asshole problems' can be safely cognitively treated in a similar vein (with 75% Dissonance! ). What treating these 'aberrations' as pre-history / tribal-esque problems does is make it something foreign to ourselves. It lets you and I, and yes even you over there, not have to face the awful fact that we may all be potential state-sanctioned mass-murders, SS guards in waiting, that with the right little push we'd kick in our neighbors door and gang-rape their 10 year old daughter, then the mother, torture the son to death and then castrate the father. But if we can make the people who end up doing things like this so different from us that we (as a people) can never let that happen (again), then, well, that is comforting. In my stupid opinion, the events of the former Yugoslavia are much more of a global tragedy than 9/11; but 9/11 has since put on the mask of a grand global tragedy of nightmarish consequences in the form xenophobia and irrationality, while any lessons of Sarajevo have had dirt kicked over them like cat shit in a litter box.

Anyway this novel deals with the aftermath of the events that destroyed a country and dispersed its people. The author was one of the people who had to leave, went into an exile and became a person without a homeland. Her novel is about confronting the memories of a place before a tragedy, and a tragedy itself. It's about confronting people who don't want to remember, and those who remember too much. Dubravka Ugrešić is a great and cynical writer. And I wholeheartedly recommend reading her, although I might recommend you start with Thank You for Not Reading.
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04/11/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-24 of 24) (24 new)

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message 1: by David (last edited Jul 11, 2010 07:32PM) (new)

David Ooh. This review makes me feel uneasy. I don't really like weighing and measuring tragedy too much. As if they are cuts of beef being handled by a butcher. But also... I don't think it's a good thing (on the whole) to boost the case for one tragedy by diminishing the case for another tragedy (relatively speaking). In other words, if what happened in Kosova and Bosnia and elsewhere was terrible and went unnoticed, then that's a tragedy unto itself and really doesn't have any bearing on 9/11, in my opinion. The time devoted to tragedies might be a precious commodity, in other words, but it's not being wasted on 9/11; it's being wasted on television, football, and the detonation of pyrotechnics to celebrate the birth of one's nation, just to name a few idiotic distractions from what's truly important.

I think it's also important to emphasize that 9/11 happened to 'us' and as a consequence of the natural narcissism of societies -- all societies, not just ours -- it of course will take precedence (with 'us') because of its physical, emotional, and psychological proximity. And I don't think this is a failing of the human species; it's merely an extension of the instinct for survival (of the family, clan, community, society, nation, etc.).

message 2: by karen (new)

karen yeah, but then we had del's lemonade, against impossible odds, and it kind of made everything better.

also, lobster.

Greg I didn't mean to downplay 9/11 at all. I generally don't talk about 9/11 at all, so I'm wordier about other topics. I also didn't mean to be dismissive about Darfur, I only meant to be dismissive about the way I think we view the problems there and in the Balkans, by making them clanish / tribal problems and ignoring that at least in the case of the former Yugoslavia (as it's referred to in this book) they are 'civilized' people, people who lived lives not that all different from ourselves who did these things to one another. The picture we get though isn't that it was people like us.

I should go and edit the review.

message 4: by Jasmine (new)

Jasmine interesting greg.

I commonly feel really bad on 9/12 because I completely spaced the fact it was 9/11, I actually think last year someone pointed the date out to me and I responded "so what". I guess that always reminds me how much people just didn't care where I was when I found out. I think that not caring, which is really what happens with genocides is scarier than anything else.

Greg Elizabeth wrote: "I'm not sure I'd like an author who tries to make a distinction about who commits horrors, and whether or not they were "civilized," they still committed horrors."

I think i might have really screwed this whole review up! Ugrešić doesn't bring up this whole civilized thing at all, this is all my doing. Her book is about exiles living in Holland who are in a class together in a Yugoslavian literature class and questions of what it means to have a literature for a country that no longer exists, what role memory plays in how the exiles relate to the past and each other.

message 6: by Jasmine (new)

Jasmine Greg wrote: "what it means to have a literature for a country that no longer exists"

this is a very good question.

Greg I changed a few small parts where I could have been clearer.

message 8: by karen (new)

karen oh, now i don't like it anymore. unvote!

message 9: by Jasmine (new)

Jasmine that's because you hate america.

freedom fries or death!

message 10: by karen (new)

karen i just hate change. i had gotten used to that review, and now it is different.

message 11: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell karen wrote: "i just hate change. i had gotten used to that review, and now it is different."

What did he change?

message 12: by karen (new)

karen i was just kidding, he just made his point clearer because david and elizabeth were thinking he was saying something he wasn't. greg's EMOTIONS got in the way of his clarity.

message 13: by Moira (last edited Jul 12, 2010 05:40AM) (new) - added it

Moira Russell karen wrote: "greg's EMOTIONS got in the way of his clarity."


I think that quite frequently happens to men, you know, it's something about monthly hormones.

message 14: by David (new)

David Greg has powerful emotions. When I met him, he flew into such a seemingly unprecipitated rage that I had to lift my gangly arms to defend my brain center against his wrathful punches. He's irrational and a bully.

message 15: by karen (new)

karen you should see what he did to the waitress yesterday when she brought the wrong appetizer

message 16: by David (last edited Jul 12, 2010 07:01AM) (new)

David karen wrote: "you should see what he did to the waitress yesterday when she brought the wrong appetizer"

I'll bet! He probably quietly ate the wrong appetizer. But angrily, furiously. And then on the way home he beat a homeless man nearly to death. (Someone had to pay for those nachos!)

message 17: by Jasmine (new)

Jasmine David wrote: "karen wrote: "you should see what he did to the waitress yesterday when she brought the wrong appetizer"

I'll bet! He probably quietly ate the wrong appetizer. But angrily."

that sounds like greg.

message 18: by Lesley (new)

Lesley dammit, you guys had lobster??
sounds like goodtimes at ground zero.

message 19: by karen (new)

karen ooh, lesley, yes! i had lobster salad on a bed of diced exotic fruits. with cilantro!!

greg had crabcake sliders

we went to the seaport!! and they have del's lemonade there!! ambrosia only made and sold in rhode island - suddenly here!! you must go get some. on break.

message 20: by Greg (new) - rated it 4 stars

Greg I forgot about the wrong appetizer. Neither of us even noticed until the bill came. So yes, I had to take out my rage on a homeless man.

message 21: by karen (new)

karen i was wondering where the avocado was, but it was so tasty, i just as quickly forgot.

message 22: by Rachel (new)

Rachel Powerful review...

message 23: by Vicki (new)

Vicki G It hasn't put on a mask of global tragedy for me or my family. It's always been personal, and I've never cared about what the country thinks it's gone through since then.
Everyone always thinks they've experienced it exactly the way we do. Whenever they mention it they say 'It changed everybody.'
I'll never know what it's like from the standpoint of an American citizen. All I'll ever know is that my former husband and daughter's current dad died in Tower 1, and I'll never be able to think about it philosophically, much less be able to talk about it in the same vein.
For 10 years we've seen it used as fodder for intellectual, philosophical and religious debates; fuel to give an undeserved second election a burst of speed. We've seen it used in all these other ways, but the one way they've never discussed is how it affects the surviving family members to have lost a part of their family forever to a reason that never makes sense, b/c everybody keeps changing the rules and anything else they can think of altering.
For example, there was no such thing as a "9/11 Truther" in 2001 and 2002. It didn't start going that way until 2003. Now everybody uses THAT as a point of continuing debate.
And they think we remember him once a year, but never think of him at any other time, and we've been told with more than a person's mouth (they speak through their actions) that it's inappropriate to even mention him.
All of this crap currently makes me sick. And I don't see how ANYone can think the continued natterings of people who don't care about it on a personal level can be anything even remotely resembling a positive experience.

Jonfaith I chose not to read the comments. September 11 2002 I happened to be in Belgrade, Serbia. I made it a point not to encounter any English media that day. My time was spent on holiday and I was madly in love: I would in fact be married ten days later. I appreciate your deft juxtaposition. I relate to it outside of your review periodcally. It happened. The references are there, within. There remains a poetry to who we are. It likely doesn't merit recitation. It alludes to we are.

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