EUROPE IN SEPIA by Dubravka Ugresic

Book Quote:

“Every day the world we’re living in is increasingly turning into…a circus. Yes, I know, the comparison’s a dull one. It’s what people used to say in ancient B.G., (Before Google). It’s a compete circus! My life has turned into a circus! Politics is a circus! The word ‘circus’ was an analogy for chaos, madness, unbecoming behavior, for events that had gotten out of hand, for life’s more grotesque turns. It’s possible, though, that the word might soon regain currency. Let’s remember P. T. Barnum for a second, father of the circus and American millionaire, and his declaration that ‘no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.’ Barnum’s cynical declaration naturally doesn’t only apply to Americans. The circus is global entertainment.”

Book Review:

Review by Jana L. Perskie В (FEB 21, 2014)

Dubravka Ugresic’s new collection of cultural essays deal, primarily, with “Nostalgia,” the title of her first piece.

Ms. Ugresice is a Croatian, formally a Yugoslavian, who now lives in Amsterdam.

Her essays delve into politics, history, popular US, Yugoslavian and European culture from the 1950’s to the 21st century, as well as her own thoughts and flights of fancy. She is branded a “Yugonostalgnic,” by many of her fellow countrymen and women. This is a derogatory term, a synonym for those who long for the days of the Yugoslavia of yore under the reign of Tito; dinosaurs who look back fondly to the slogan “brotherhood and unity.”

Her “Yugonostalgia” began before the death of Tito, before the unified country of Yugoslavia broke up into six different states: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Serbia. “Back then I was haunted by an unnerving premonition that the world around me was about to suddenly vanish.” She wonders if she has developed what psychologists call LAT, or “Low Authoritarianism Syndrome.”

The collection’s first essay, which really captivated me, has the author visiting New York City in 2011. She is searching for Zucotti Park during the “Occupy Wall Street” protests. She asks a stranger, “Excuse me, where’s the ah, revolution.” She wonders if “a long dormant rebel virus” was stirring in her.

She visits Washington Square in New York City’s Greenwich Village and laments the absence of the “dropouts, the refuseniks, the superfluous men and women, the alcoholics and smokers, the homeless, the pickpockets the vagrants, the hustlers, the grumblers grumbling to themselves, the idlers, the losers, the dreamers,” of before…the Washington Square Park as she remembers it.

The author was born in 1949, around the time when Marshall Josip Broz Tito, a statesman, revolutionary and authoritarian head of the post WWII state of Yugoslavia, told Soviet dictator Stalin “NO!” He modeled his economic development plan independently from Moscow, which resulted in a diplomatic escalation followed by a bitter exchange of letters in which Tito affirmed that although his country would follow the examples of the Soviet system, his country would remain separate from Russia and the Eastern Bloc Countries. Ms. Ugresic seems to be having trouble with what the future has brought. She asks herself, “What in her lifetime of civil war, new passports and fractured identities, betrayals, etc., had actually been realized of all the things promised to us by communists’ ideologues.”

She reflects on a post Soviet Union world, “a BG, (Before Google),” world. However, although she paints the past with artificial colors, (which she is very much aware of), she really doesn’t want to turn time back, but is not happy with life in the present. The author quotes Peter Sloterdijk, a German philosopher, cultural theorist TV host and columnist, “Europe no longer loves life. The radiance of historical fulfillment is gone, in its place only exhaustion, the entropic qualities of an aging culture,” a reign of “spiritual nakedness.” Yes, she agrees, “Europe is in decay.”

With a wry, often quirky sense of humor, she does riffs on 21st century Europe – western and eastern. The essays contain comments on the Netherlands, where undocumented immigrants are not wanted. Here Poles are branded as thieves – they are blamed for everything that goes wrong. Even the Polish prostitutes flourish, taking work away from Amsterdam’s ever famous “ladies” who work their trade in the infamous red light district. As far as Hungary goes – they are “anti-Semitic and despise the Roma, (gypsies).” She muses on formerly great Russian literature and Europe’s neglected film industry, where only yesterday directors, i.e., Luis Bunuel, Ingmar Bergman, Lina Wertmueller, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Goddard, Sergei Eisenstein, Michelangelo Antonioni, etc., created cinematic masterpieces. She even mentions the popularity of aquarium ownership among wealthy young men, to the marginalization of unattractive people.

There are also pieces ranging from her travels to USA’s Midwest and her native Zagreb, from Ireland to Israel. There are lots of personal anecdotes here. Her insights on the people she meets in her travels are perceptive. Like an anthropologist, she analyzes the norms of the times and writes of “Lookism.” ” ‘Lookism’ is a widespread and very powerful prejudice based on a person’s physical appearance.” It is discriminatory. Fat people are targeted as ugly. Even Sak’s Fifth Avenue has closed their plus-size department. Fat people and smokers are “intolerable social evils.”

The “Sepia” from the title refers to the past…to old photographs in sepia.

These essays are passionate, intriguing, and skillfully written. They should appeal to those who are curious about the take on today’s world by a woman who is the product of both a communist regime and the “now” of the 21st century. Highly recommended. (Translated from the Croatian by David Williams.)

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 1 readers
PUBLISHER: Open Letter Books; Reprint edition (February 18, 2014)
REVIEWER: Jana L. Perskie
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Dubravka Ugresic
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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February 21, 2014 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags: , , ,  В· Posted in: Croatia, Europe, Non-fiction, Translated, World Lit, Yugoslavia

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