Last week, Freight Books read…

The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, by Dubravka UgresicThe Museum of Unconditional Surrender, by Dubravka Ugrešic (my copy is by Pheonix), translated by Celia Hawkesworth. This book is hard to come by if you want a new copy, it seems. I think it is only being published in America at the moment, and this is something that needs to be rectified as soon as possible!

I think we’ll kick this off with a quote from a section that comes between the acknowledgements and Chapter 1, but which is very much what the book is about. I hope the author won’t mind me typing out this swathe. First, though, we need this picture:

Roland the walrusIn the Berlin zoo, beside the pool containing the live walrus, there is an unusual display. In  a glass case are all the things found in the stomach of Roland the Walrus, who died on 21 August 1961. Or to be precise:

a pink cigarette lighter, four ice-lolly sticks (wooden), a metal brooch in the form of a poodle, a beer-bottle opener, a woman’s bracelet (probably silver), a hair grip, a wooden pencil, a child’s plastic water pistol, a plastic knife, sunglasses, a little chain, a spring (small), a rubber ring, a parachute (child’s toy), a steel chain about 18″ in length, 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 archeological exhibits. The visitor knows that their museum-display fate has been determined by chance (Roland’s whimsical appetite) but still cannot resist the poetic thought that with time the objects have acquired some subtler, secret connections. Caught up in this thought, the visitor then tries to establish semantic coordinates, to reconstruct the historical context (it occurs to him, for instance, that Roland died one week after the Berlin Wall was erected), and so on and so forth.

The chapters and fragments which follow should be read in a similar way. If the reader feels that there are no meaningful of firm connections between them, let them be patient: the connections will establish themselves of their own accord. And one more thing: 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.

Thank you for bearing with me through that over-long quote, but I’d reckon you’ll be hooked by now. Just a tiny bit? Well, let me see if I can get you hunting down a copy with this small infusion of enthusiasm (an enthusion?).

The book contains a number of different scenarios and characters, each of whom experience the impact of the collapse of the former Yugoslavia into bloody war during the early 1990s.As the characters are scattered around Eastern Europe at the whim of war, we are treated to some truly heartbreaking vignettes of how, without place and a sense of belonging, identity crumbles. This book is a museum of confused biographies and missing histories, which beautifully evokes the sense of being a refugee. At a time when there are two million five hundred and thirty-four thousand seven hundred and seventy-nine registered Syrian refugees, it is an important reminder that being without roots is horrifically traumatic.

This is a book about remembering and forgetting, about the way fragments of time and knowledge can interweave when they appear, like the contents of Roland’s stomach, to have no connection. It is by no means an easy read, but it meant to be difficult, to create the feeling of frustration and fragmentation that is experienced by the characters. If you like Kundera, or enjoyed Nabakov’s Speak, Memory, you will love this.

2 thoughts on “Last week, Freight Books read…

  1. Sounds fascinating. I’m just reading Aleksander Hemon’s memoir ‘The Book of My Lives’ covering similar themes of displacement from Sarajevo and as you say of this book, implies a lot about the condition of exile in general. Thank you! (love the pic too)

    • When I found that photo I couldn’t stop myself putting it in – it is brilliant.I’ll have to get myself a copy of The Book of My Lives – that’s the second recommendation for it I’ve had now!

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