Every now and then I’m tempted by a geographical method of book organisation. In the past I’ve always been put off because of pernickety concerns about categorisation (do I consider where authors were born or where they lived when writing? What about dual nationality? What about Soviet Russia?) Then I read ‘The Ministry of Pain’ and realised I’d missed the ultimate issue: what about countries that no longer exist?
Ugresic’s novel is set in the aftermath of the Balkan wars and is a book about Yugoslavia. The narrator, Tanja, teaches her ex-country’s literature to a class of fellow exiles:
‘I was, naturally, well aware of the absurdity of my situation: I was teaching a subject that officially no longer existed. What we once called jugoslavistika at the university – that is, Slovenian, Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, Montenegrin and Macedonian literature – had disappeared as a discipline together with its country of origin. Besides, the students I was assigned had no particular interest in literature: they were interested in their Dutch papers. I was hired to teach the literature of a country (or the literature of countries) from which my students had fled or been expelled‘.
Tanja sees her role as a therapist and mentor. She has no faith in formal higher education to cure the damage suffered by her students, and instead spends class time exploring memories and common ground. As the quotation above shows, her position is highly political, Tanja does not want to move with the times and accept a new reality in which her country and language do not exist. She still believes that she teaches one language (it used to be called Servo-Kroatisch) and one literature to her students. It’s a fantasy, but then Tanja has been given temporary accommodation with her job: an apartment on the edge of the red light district of Amsterdam. What better place to indulge in fantasies and escape from the ‘real’ world?
Adding to the confusion between myth and pragmatic acceptance, the title of the novel, ‘The Ministry of Pain’, is the name of an S&M porno club in The Hague. (The most coveted job amongst Tanja’s students is making clothes for sex shops, they jokingly call it ‘a job at the ‘ministry’‘). The book never takes us inside the club, but Tanja does go on a troubling visit to The Hague. In part 3, she enters ICTFY, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, to view part of the case against one of her students’ father. Ugresic positions Tanja very much as a viewer rather than participant in her country’s conflict. The line between observer and voyeur however gets increasingly confused as reality forces itself on Tanja’s cordoned-off existence.
‘The Ministry of Pain’ is an incredibly powerful book of loss and trauma. Contrasting with many books I’ve read that deal with loss of language as a metaphor and of exile as a universal human condition, this is the first novel that has made such a compelling argument for specificity, never pretending to explore a situation shared by different cultures around the world. More than any novel I’ve read, it defies classification based on nationality, despite being all about nationality and cultural heritage. It’s a book I really want to categorise as great Yugoslavian literature, despite the incongruity of such a construct; and for this reason above all others, I think it’s a book that everyone should read.