Nobody's Home, Not Even You or Me

So I am participating in the "Lost in Translation Reading Challenge" this year.  Basically, another blogger came up with the idea of calling on lit-bloggers to write six reviews of translated books on their blogs in 2009.  Then we post these reviews on our blogs and she reposts them on her Reading Challenge blog.  Sounds like a good idea.  So this is my first one:

Nobody's Home 
by Dubravka Ugresic

I love the title.  At first, I didn't even notice it, like I read the words without really taking time to read their full meaning.  But the wonderful experience of doing a double-take on the title happened to me.  A few essays into it, I closed the book and looked down at the title and realized the multiple meanings.  What a kid says when a person calls the house and asks for the parents and they are
n't home and the kid says "Nobody's Home."  Or what we could imagine a sign saying at a house that wanted a robber.  Or how we feel when we are left on hold for hours by a company's customer service specialists.  Or what we say about someone who just isn't all that bright.  And then finally, the big meaning: that in this postborder world where we all end up moving so much (or some of the us), as it turns out we all end up in a condition of not-being-at-home.  That, as another writer I admire pointed out recently, we all have multiple homes (place of birth, growing up, adulthood, parents' birth, ancestors' graves, etc.) and no home at all.

Dubravka Ugresic writes about all of these homes with an amazing ease.  As she moves across borders in Europe and the Americas, she casually leads the reader with her.  I never thought I would be deeply interested in Amsterdam, but Ugresic makes the city (her exile home) a symbol of all that the "First World" purports to be--efficient and welcoming and stultifying and soul-numbing.  She muses on cities, personalities, peoples' quirks, literary theory, political history, post-Communism in a way that never seems heavy or difficult.  She is kind to her readers (which might be due to the fact that most of these essays appeared originally in newspapers which need to attract readers and keep them and which pay Ugresic for her writing.)

Her musings on memoir are especially interesting, this cultish fad that threatens to make every life worthy of being recounted and that adds to the religion of celebrity the world is invaded with today in outlets from tabloid journalism to blogs to Facebook.  We are all celebrities, memoir would have us believe.  We all have a a story to tell.  Ugresic points out:

While most people around the world are barely surviving (starvation, wars, illness, poverty), and can do nothing but bite their tongues, a powerful minority is howling publicly about their misfortunes.

Ugresic writes about Wynonna Judd's recent memoir in which she purports to write "straight from the heart" and teach the reader some "life lessons."  As Ugresic points out, socialist textbooks insisted that the point of literature was to teach life lessons.  Ugresic has a keen ability to draw the eerie parallels between socialist screed and uber-capitalist products.  As she points out:

The problem is that the genre of memoir is registered as a literary genre, yet all its elements--intention, author, language, substance, interpretation, and reception--are edging over into
 the realm of religion.

Ugresic helped me to understand why I feel so uncomfortable with the public journalling element of blogging and with the explosion of memoir as a genre.  The ability to speak about one's personal life when so many people can't.  Obviously, I don't condemn people who write personal blogs or memoirs, but I do have a great discomfort with this idea that the text is the person is a lesson is a life is the truth revealed.  And yes, there also seems to be something profoundly religious about writing one's story down, i.e. as Ugresic points out: 

The prophetic messages are qualified as authentic if they are a) simple and coherent; b) truthful...; and c) in line with the accumulated wisdom of humanity..., in other words, compilatory.

In another section of the book, Ugresic writes about a strange scene of Vladimir Putin kissing a fish on national television and she uses it to talk about the contemporary hunger for the limelight.  

It was once considered vulgar and a sign of bad upbringing to speak of yourself, to tell the public about your private life, to cosy up to people you don't know, and to show undue interest in the private lives of others.  How did it happen that what used to be vulgar has become an essential part of daily life?

In the end, Ugresic ends up writing a lot of small details of her life of travel and bordercrossing, from rides on trains to her Amsterdam, from her travels in the US to taxi cab drivers in Moscow.  She writes about her very personal experiences of Tito's Yugoslavia (and the anti-fascist creation of that state) and Tudjman's ultra-nationalistic Croatia.  She writes about feminism in pre-"democratic" Yugoslavia and the Brittany Spears Girl Power Eve Ensler Vagina Power feminism of today.  Constantly writing about her self, she illuminates so much more.  Kind of an anti-memoir.  Her self-deprecatory, casual, fast-paced style draws the reader in without cheapening the prose.

Before I close, I should comment on the translation by Ellen Elias-Bursac.  Honestly, it was a pleasure to read the prose because it flowed in such a natural, clear way.  At times, I forgot the foreignness of the subject matter--Tito's Yugoslavia, Amsterdam's suburbs, Estonian tourism--because the tone lulled me into such easy reading.  Thanks.

1 comentario:

LA dijo...

very nice review. makes me want to read the book. i have said for years that everyone should write their memoir, as every life is special and unique, so i don't mind the explosion of memoir genre. you always make me think about why i keep a blog, but it always comes down to something like this: breaking isolation.