Dubravka Ugresic’s The Ministry of Pain

In its style, Dubravka Ugresic’s new novel The Ministry of Pain is markedly different from her earlier work. Gone is the fanciful surrealism present in much of her fiction, including her 2002 novel The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. There, Ugresic creates an angel whose feathers cause forgetfulness in human beings. The angel scatters some of his feathers among a group of friends who, in turn, must scatter when their country, Yugoslavia, comes apart. Nothing as strangely light as those feathers can be found on the pages of Ministry of Pain. When, in this novel, a group of men and women from the former Yugoslavia are sent from their war-torn country into exile, they appear to be disconnected from the divine protection of angels. The forces governing their fates seem as capricious as a breeze sending feathers in every direction.

But the forces that destroyed Yugoslavia were not of nature but of mankind. In Ministry of Pain, no one is spared the effects of the violence, not even those who manage to flee the war. The narrator of the novel, Tanja Lucic, has left the city of Zagreb and now lives in Amsterdam. The time is two years before the 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade, and Tanja has landed a job at the University of Amsterdam teaching Serbo-Croatian literature. Almost all of her students, like her, grew up in the former Yugoslavia. “They’d come with the war,” explains Tanja about her students. “Some had acquired refugee status, others had not.” They support themselves with menial jobs. Some of them are “playing tennis,” which is slang for housekeeping; others work as dishwashers or waiters. “But the best-paying job you could get without a work permit,” says Tanja, “was a job at ‘the Ministry’…soon the whole gang was working there. It wasn’t strenuous: all you had to do was assemble items of sadomasochistic clothing out of leather, rubber, and plastic.”

Tanja starts out teaching the class with what seems like sympathetic leniency. Attendance is not mandatory, and those who do come to class don’t have to think about literature. Their only homework is to write down their memories of a now non-existent Yugoslavia. But as the months progress, Tanja’s attitude toward her students changes. She becomes harsher, and this shift in her behavior gives the reader a new perspective on the kindness that she showed her students at first. The essays that she assigned at the beginning of the year start to seem passively cruel when questions about memory and trauma arise. Do her students even want to recall their past, or do they want to forget about their destroyed country and move on with their lives? With a fascinating blend of boldness and subtlety, Ugresic exposes the limits of Tanja’s nostalgic point of view to give the reader dramatic insight into the powers of memory and forgetting.

In Ministry of Pain, forgetting is connected not to angels but to the earth, specifically to the Dutch landscape. As one of Tanja’s students says: “Flat, wet, nondescript as it is, Holland has one unique feature: it’s a country of forgetting, a country without pain. People turn into amphibians here. Of their own accord. They turn the color of sand; they blend in and die out.” Ministry of Pain is a novel of survival and succumbing to death, of pain and the numbness offered by oblivion. Through a masterfully simple approach, Ugresic reveals the complexities of paradox.

Originally posted on 3.15.2006