The Museum of
(New Directions)Dubravka Ulgresic is fascinated by angels, angel wings, photographs, photograph albums, soot, turning apples into roses, notebooks, threads, her mother, and those glass balls that you shake up and the little village comes to be inundated with snow.
She also hangs out with strange and wonderful artists, such as one named Sissel:
Obsessed with her own sense of space and her place in that space, Sissel has sent a quotation from Winnie the Pooh (where Winnie, having found the North Pole, asks Christopher Robin whether there are any other poles in the world) to many embassies all over the world, asking them to translate the quotation into the language of their country. Sissel now possesses a collection of translations of the same quotation in many of the world's languages. In the original the fragment goes: There's the South Pole, said Christopher Robin, and I expect there's an East Pole and a West Pole, though people don't like talking about them.
Ugresic is an original and funny and weird writer. She has compiled "chapters and fragments" in The Museum of Unconditional Surrender and she wants us to think of them as being not unlike the contents of the stomach of a walrus, named Roland, of the Berlin Zoo, who died in 1961.
A pink cigarette lighter, four ice-lolly sticks (wooden), a metal brooch in the form of a poodle, a beer-bottle opener, a woman's bracelet (probably silver), a hair grip, a wooden pencil, a child's plastic water pistol, a plastic knife, sunglasses, a little chain, a spring (small), a rubber ring, a parachute (child's toy)
etc etc. "If the reader feels that there are no meaningful or firm connections between them, let him be patient: the connections will establish themselves of their own accord." She concludes, archly:
The question as to whether this novel is autobiographical might at some hypothetical moment be of concern to the police, but not to the reader.
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We might dispute that this is a novel --- at least in the classical sense. We would rather think of it as a long free-verse narrative --- or even a dramatic poem. The subject is the confusing, violence-
besotted, object- acquisitive, wonderfully literary western world in all its strangeness. Symbols appear and disappear as if by magic; themes crop up, often unexpectedly --- then (at times) sentences or ideas will be repeated exactly (or almost exactly) as they were before. For instance, crumbling the air with her toes is a charming phrase that we meet early on. Then we get, at random, the following cinematic scene, featuring the author's mother in her apartment (presumably back in the former Yugoslavia, where Ugresic grew up):
She turns off the television, goes lazily to the bathroom. There she sits on the toilet for a long time, crumbling the air with her toes, urinating. In the half-darkness she listens to her own sound...
From the bathroom she goes to the kitchen. She doesn't turn on the light. She opens the fridge, stares at the illuminated display, looking for something. On the white wire shelves are a yogurt, a carton of milk, a little piece of cheese --- a mouse's supper. She closes the fridge, without taking anything.
She goes over to the window, touches the velvety leaves of the African violets in the dark. She leans against the window sill, smoking, gazing into the darkness. Beneath her, large green leaves rustle and glint. Illuminated by the moonlight, they look like silver trays. In a year or two the green trays with a metallic sheen will reach right up to her window. Large-leaved trees grow so quickly...
She hears her heart beating in the darkness. Pit-pat, pit-pat, pit-pat...she feels touched, as though there were a lost mouse inside it, beating in fright against the walls. She strokes the velvety leaves of the violets, soothing her heart.
This is a fine example of Ugresic's style. It's not only an astringent poetry --- it is, too, an apparently random series of photographs, conjoined with symbols from other parts of the book. Her mother, her mother's random boredom, the mouse, the flowers, the "crumbling," the African violets --- all appear elsewhere, and one is reminded of Sissel, who "makes holes in pieces of paper and threads the pieces on a line, like washing:"
Light passes through the holes and Sissel spends hours gazing enchanted at that little starry sky.
The author professes some dislike of photographs, even though she begins Part II with a quote from Susan Sontag, "Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt."
The author says that she doesn't much care for the making or the collecting of them:
I never liked the whole business of taking photographs. I found tourists, armed with cameras, objectionable, I found looking through other people's albums or watching their slides a torment.
Yet The Museum is nothing less than a series of photos snapped by the author, individual visions shaped into words, presented one after another, as in an album. Her writing is so precise, so pictorial, that we find the images flowing; perhaps we should think of it as being like a movie, where thousands of photos move by at so many frames a second: shots of her mother, of her friends, of her angels, of her fellow artists --- projected into the back of our minds. This kind of paradoxical love/hate of technology does please Ugresic. Her rendering of it pleases this reviewer, too.
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Yet I have to confess to a strange experience that I came to me as I worked my way through The Museum. Ugresic's writing feels...how can I say it?...masculine. So for me, until page 126, since there were no references whatsoever to make me think differently, I had a mental picture of Ugresic as a middle-aged, extremely talented, obscure, probably very thin, maybe even anorexic, cigarette-smoking male writer from Fitt or Sat or Krk --- one of those obscure little ports on the Eastern side of the Adriatic. (For those of us unfamiliar with proper names in that corner of the universe, the name "Dubravka" registers as neither masculine nor feminine.)
Sexist me! At the exact mid-point in the narrative, she reports the visit of her grandmother, who came to see "her granddaughter for the very first time." Oh no, I thought. I was put in mind of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, the noble male who suddenly, mystically, mid-way through the book, with great apologies from the author, turns into a woman. I wouldn't want to put it past the devious Ugresic of having this in mind all along.
§ § §
One last point. The computer language most of us use has yet to introduce the finer points of Eastern European orthography. Up to this point in this review, I have been, technically, misspelling the author's name. With the ten or so thousand of characters available on your standard software font file, there are still no carats around to hang above the "s", no accents for the "c." We know the author cares. At one point, she reports a friend who had written her in Croatian, but on an English typewriter.
The content of the letter sincerely touched me, but I could not suppress my laughter as I read its lines...All the seriousness of the message was destroyed by the absence of the necessary diacritic marks. ("With those little guys on top?" as an American official had once put it when she tried to write my name and surname.)
With that in mind, I did what --- I am sure --- the author would want me to do. I took a picture of Ugresic's name out of the title page, reversed it, gave it a tiny frame --- and I present it to you forthwith:
--- Lolita Lark