The Curator of Oblivion

With The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, Dubravka Ugresic makes an exhibit out of wartime exhaustion

The Bosnian war of atrocities that so gripped our brief attention spans has all but disappeared from newspapers and editorial pages, leaving "the former Yugoslavia" to settle back into the indiscernible gray mass that is, to so many U.S. citizens, simply "Eastern Europe." The Serbs and Croats were soon enough replaced by the Kosovars and now the Chechens as the disaster du jour.

While the horrors of war are what grabs our interest, they tend to obscure the day-to-day character of a place, exoticizing it with bombs and enormous emotional watersheds. In her new book, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (New Directions), Croatian author Dubravka Ugresic cuts through the vague language of the nightly news and CNN, and brings us an intimate look at the underlying texture of the Serbo-Croatian conflict. By not dwelling on the particulars of the war's politics, or even taking sides, she strips the war--and all wars--of heroics. To this author, and her family and friends, the fighting is a sad repetition of historical events that they endure as they would any natural disaster. Without nationalistic fervor or the martyred stance of the exile, Dubravka Ugresic exposes the meaninglessness of such notions and the lies that they force people to live. This leaves no room for confident proclamations or even passionate antiwar preaching. Instead, Dubravka Ugresic digs through the debris, allowing chance connections and the lives of individuals to create their own meaning, beauty, and political consciousness.

Named after a Russian museum in Berlin, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender gathers the thoughts of a single narrator, a middle-aged woman from Zagreb, on topics from photo albums to tarot cards to the stories of her own family history, giving this book the tone of a memoir that is intelligent and cutting. Comprised of so many fragments, chapters, and sections, Museum also works as a commonplace book, gathering potent quotations from authors such as Shklovsky, Gogol, Sontag, and Brodsky, and arranging them into the narrator's own enigmatic exhibit. The overall tone is of emotional exhaustion, and yet the book is compelling, even magnetic. It lures the reader down many broken roads that lead nowhere, but it is fueled by an underlying sense of struggle and an unshakable desire to go on.

Dubravka Ugresic intersects her meditations on the past and her life in Zagreb with brief segments on Berlin, where her narrator has provisionally settled. The collage technique is most playful here, as each numbered passage relates, often indirectly, to a simple German phrase, such as Ich bin müde (I am tired) and Was ist Kunst? (What is art?). She introduces her Chinese neighbor, the Russian minimalist Lyova, the postman, and the city as characters. A recurring figure in these chapters is the artist Richard, who makes sculptures out of brooms, plates, and other things he collects in the flea markets. "Richard expresses love between incompatible materials, marries unconnectable things," she writes, telling him, "I'd like to be able to do that." Her modus operandi is perfectly mirrored in Richard's work, but also in the city of Berlin itself.

Despite the author's faithfulness to the tactile and practical world of exile, she does allow for occasional slips into the otherworldy, making room for visits from angels and inexplicable coincidence. While the less literal idea of the angel floats in and out of the book, the one time it appears in the flesh, like something out of a Wim Wenders film, Dubravka Ugresic seems most out of her element. But this doesn't last, nor does her whimsy. It simply gets folded into the current of the narrative, taking its place among the other moments, filed somewhere between the bombings and the streets of Berlin.

"And one more thing," Dubravka Ugresic writes, at the end of the book's prelude: "The question as to whether this novel is autobiographical might at some hypothetical moment be of concern to the police, but not to the reader." In this coy but intriguing disclaimer, Dubravka Ugresic gently chastises any reader who demands that the book be one or the other. It simply doesn't, or shouldn't, matter. Without presuming to call this nonfiction, she uses the device of the novel to tell as much "truth" as she can bear.

Part reportage, part philosophy, part diary, Museum begins to mend the broken pieces of war, of aging, and of memory's transience. To say it renders meaning out of loss, or wholeness out of oblivion, would ascribe it more power than the book itself seems to deem possible--not because Dubravka Ugresic fails as a writer, but because to her such a vision is simply unimaginable.

 
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