THE MUSEUM OF
By Dubravka Ugresic
Translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth
New Directions. 238 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by John Balaban
A Croatian historian of the last century referred to his country as reliquiae reliquarium, a remnant of remnants, a reliquary for fragments of past empires: Roman and Holy Roman, Tsarist, Turkish and Austro-Hungarian. Included in the remnants, of course, are the many ethnic groups left in the wake of early migrations and imperial collapse: Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Albanians, Bulgarians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Hungarians, Romanians, Gypsies, Slovaks, Slovenians, Ruthenians and even Swabian Germans sent forth long ago by the Empress Maria Theresa.
Today, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent wars in the former Yugoslavia, that notion is still alive, although its applications have shifted. This is a book about remnants, including the marvelous and many fragments that shine forth with human significance in the post-Soviet world of Eastern Europe. The Museum of Unconditional Surrender -- the title refers to a strange Soviet museum in East Berlin that once memorialized the Nazi defeat -- is a novel written close to the bone of reality, and includes real people, including the author, an exile from the devastation of Yugoslavia.
The novel, Dubravka Ugresic's fifth, is set in Berlin, and is beautifully translated by Celia Hawkesworth. English readers will have encountered a similar world of exile and remembrance in Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory and in his wonderful short stories, such as "First Love." Like Nabokov, Ugresic affirms our ability to remember as a source for saving our moral and compassionate identity. The book begins with a walrus -- or rather the stomach contents, displayed in a glass case, of Roland, a walrus who died in August 1961 in the Berlin Zoo, where he had swallowed, among many other things, "four nails (large), a green plastic car, a metal comb, a plastic badge, a small doll, a beer can (Pilsner, half-pint), a box of matches, a baby's shoe, a compass, a small car key, four coins, a knife with a wooden handle, a baby's dummy, a bunch of keys (5), a padlock, a little plastic bag containing needles and thread." "The visitor stands in front of the unusual display, more enchanted than horrified, as before archaeological exhibits."
Similarly, we are more enchanted than horrified with the details of this novel. Nothing much happens in it. There is no movement of rising action, climax and denouement. In a sense, everything has happened already and is happening again in the narrator's reconsiderations. Ugresic gives us things to study, remnants of human struggle: little stories of ordinary lives before and after social calamity, photos examined and re-examined for what they seem to tell, an old woman's diary jottings set against parallel words of Eastern writers like Danilo Kis, Georgy Konrad, Joseph Brodsky and Peter Handke.
Events in the novel seem guided by the invisible hand of the angel of nostalgia as a spiritual world of memory, of loss and of moral reckoning is opened up in these arrays of remnants, variously viewed. Perhaps the most powerful elements looked at are photographs and photo albums. (Among its many surprising elements, the book contains a brilliant disquisition on the function of photographs.) The value of photographs is set early on in a story about the war criminal Ratko Mladic, who, while shelling Sarajevo, noticed an acquaintance's house in the next target. "The general telephoned his acquaintance and informed him that he was giving him five minutes to collect his `albums,' because he had decided to blow the house up. When he said `albums,' the murderer meant the albums of family photographs. The general, who had been destroying the city for months, knew precisely how to annihilate memory. That is why he `generously' bestowed on his acquaintance life with the right to remembrance."
The difficult work of human preservation is something that Eastern European writers know firsthand and can share with us, as Vaclav Havel seemed to suggest in a recent speech in Poland, published in the New York Review of Books. "What could we and should we possibly have given to the wealthy, developed Western democracies?" Havel asked. "The benefit, both in intellectual and pragmatic terms, of the unique experience given to us by life under totalitarian conditions, and by our resistance to those conditions." He went on to say that such a gift should be accepted "for reasons that concern the general standards of civilization."
The Museum of Unconditional Surrender is part of that civilizing gift. n
John Balaban is working on a novel set in Romania. He teaches at the University of Miami.