# Hardcover: 272 pages
# Publisher: Ecco (February 21, 2006)
# Language: English
# Genre: Fiction
(Translated from the Croatian by Michael Henry Heim)
When the ever- generous Janelle, of Eclectic Closet , offered to share Croatian writer, Dubravka Ugresic's latest book with me, I jumped at the chance to read it because I saw it as a learning experience and an interesting way to read about the break up of Yugoslavia and the effect it had on the people.
The narrator of the book, Tanya Lucic, is originally from the Croatian part of Yugoslavia, but after the civil war and genocide that embroiled Yugoslavia, she moves to Amsterdam (self-exile) where she finds a job in the University teaching a course in Serbian-Croatian literature. With the exception of a few students, her class is mainly made up of other Yugoslavian emigres. The students are enrolled in this class not because of their love of literature but because a student's visa is the only way they can continue living in Holland (the country will not officially recognise them as refugees.)
Realizing the students' hearts are not in their books Tanja does not insist they study their course material. Instead, she encourages them to write personal essays about their time in Yugoslavia, hoping the exercise will keep their memories alive. It is through the teacher-student conversations and these very poignant student essays that the reader gains access to the memories of these Yugoslavian exiles and you see through their perspectives the impact of the war on their lives, their families, their culture and language. However, with everyone remembering all the bad that happened to them these exercises eventually created discord in the class and Tanja was forced to bring them back on track by re-introducing the official curriculum.
I found this book to be an engaging read. Engaging, not so much for the information it provides but for the questions it asks. For instance, how must it feel to be the citizen of a country that officially no longer exists? Think about it (in context to the book) - you are Yugoslavian one day and the next day, you're not and not because you don't want to, or were stripped of your citizenship, but because that country, the country you grew up in, no longer exists!
What about displacement? How does it feel to be forced to leave your home? To have to make a new life elsewhere? What happens to your identity in this case or your sense of belonging? From being Yugoslavian, you are now simply Croatian or Serbian; Bosnian or Slovenian - shouldn't there be a sense of mourning for the other parts of Yugoslavia that are now lost to you? A vaccum in the heart? A phantom pain?
What happens when the language you grew up speaking is slowly becoming invalid? Language is vital - history has shown that when conquerors wanted to successfully take over a land and its people, they would insist on making the colonised speak their (the conqueror's language). Depriving someone of their language is essentially taking away his voice, also, getting someone to write and think in a whole new language changes his/her personality. But, as Dubravka Ugresic challenges, is language even important to an exile? Is there any language that can truly give voice to their feelings?
It's been so long since a book made me think so much and I still don't feel like I've transferred all my thoughts into a cohesive review. I might have to return and tweak this post a little. I guess you could call it a review in progress. For a more complete review please check out Janelle's review at Curled Up With a Good Book.