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The state of exile has the structure of a dream

The state of exile has the structure of a dream

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Richard Byrne reflects on the essays and fiction of Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić @ The Common Review.

Once upon a time there was a magical empire of letters called Central Europe. Its borders were fuzzy but recognizable. Vienna was its capital. The receding Ottoman Empire provided more of its territory. It was a place that existed largely in cafés and castles, train stations and brothels. The empire’s writers found inspiration in the uneasy play of imperialism, capitalism, and burgeoning nationalism in its borders. Psychoanalysis and Marxism and Zionism overlapped and clashed and conspired, depending on whom you asked. Austria’s defeat in the First World War did not end that empire— far from it.

The new states formed after Versailles solidified and expanded its reach. The sustained and vicious assault of Nazism could not eradicate it, either. Many of its leading lights survived even that horror, through Holocaust and exile, to find themselves at the front lines of the Cold War, their fame fanned by the exigencies of dissidence and samizdat.Dubravka Ugrešić, daughter of a Croatian father and a Bulgarian mother, was born into that Central Europe in 1949. It was a literary empire built by the likes of Franz Kafka, Jaroslav Hašek, Robert Musil, and Karl Kraus, and its expansion had writers from Yugoslavia—Miroslav Krleža, Ivo Andrić, and Meša Selimović—busy discovering new vistas.

But that Central Europe, which survived two wars, did not survive a third—the Cold War that ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ironically, the greatest writers of the empire when it finally disappeared—Václav Havel and Danilo Kiš—were outsized figures in events that led to its vanishing. Central Europe’s end, though sad, was largely peaceful—the empire itself dissolving fizzily in the great political and economic scramble westward to the European Union and NATO. The difference that was dissidence was erased. Central Europe’s writers found themselves the wards of small nations competing in the larger European marketplace. But in the former Yugloslavia, Ugrešić’s neighborhood, the empire collapsed in a spasm of blood and fire. Many of her fellow writers sought protection by dividing themselves into competing camps. But Ugrešić did not join a pack. She stood aloof at first, and then ran off to the woods, shouting aloud about the perfidy and terror of it all. By doing so, she became so strange and powerful that those whom she would not join branded her a witch. Ugrešić and four other women writers were attacked in a prominent Croatian newspaper as “unpatriotic” and as “witches,” and the novelist found herself ostracized and isolated in a newly independent country that she never wanted to live in—cast into exile.

Image: Amtk @ Paper Darts/

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