Blesok no. 64, January-February, 2009

Stories about the Otherness, Identity and Housing
(post-colonial reading of the novel The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugrešić)

Aco Gogov

At that moment, all stories were mine.
Dubravka Ugrešić: The Ministry of Pain

Constituting itself first as a re-examining and critical reviewing of the academic discourse, that is, those methodological streams that strive towards completion, finalization and system, the post-colonial approach in literature in time started dealing with a whole scope of categories such as: the otherness, identity, home and housing, textualization of the knowledge, inter-cultural ties, etc. The category of Otherness is one of the key categories that the post-colonial criticism operates with.
    In her study Imagining the Balkans, the Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova indicates that the establishment of this category is related to the typification process; a process that has existed as early as ancient Greece – those who speak in an illegible language were considered Barbarians by the old Greeks, the “others”. The typification is based on purely practical reasons – it is conditioned by our deep inner need to establish meaning and order in the world. The events and phenomena in the world are marked with categories that group these very same events and phenomena. As Maria Todorova says, this is a “naming activity”, which in itself contains the knowledge and predictability, but reductionism as well.
    Therefore, the categories I-The Other are a result of this typification process. Then, the market Other, depending on the context in which it is used, can have different signified. This Other can be the Balkans, but it can be the Orient as well. That this is more a process of reduction and simplification is indicated by Edward Said in his cult work Orientalism: “Can anybody separate human reality, as it actually seems to be divided indeed, to clearly determined different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races, and humanly survive the consequences of this?”
    In a somehow different context, writing about the ideas of the province to the so called organic culture, Radomir Konstantinović, in his study The Philosophy of the Province notes: “So, the foreign is evil: 1) by the very fact that it is foreign (inorganic), and 2) it is evil because evil is always foreign…”[2]
    The current neo-colonial division of Europe and the Western Balkans, to Us and Them, to civilized and barbaric is thematised to the maximum in the novel The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugrešić. The narrator (Tanja Lucić) in the novel, via her friend Ines, manages to find a job as a professor in Yugoslavistics in Amsterdam; her students are immigrants, refuges from former Yugoslavia, aged between 20 and 30. The narrator uses, throughout the whole novel, the possessive “our(s)”, marking the category Otherness with it. This is how the narrator focalises the category of Otherness at the beginning of the novel:
    Ours went around with an invisible slap on their faces. They had the special look from the side, the “rabbit-like” one, the special kind of body tension, the animal numbness, that sniffs the air around it as if trying to detect which side the danger was coming from.
    Tanja Lucić's student, emigrants from the Balkans are quite aware that, from the Dutch perspective, they were marked as the Other:
    Here, in the Netherlands, they felt marked as “foreigners”, “refugees” or “political asylum seekers”, as “Balkans”, “primitive”, as “post-communism children”.
    Developing in a direct link with the imagology, one of the comparativist disciplines that deals with the process of image creation, the post-colonial approach especially deals with the “mirages” of this kind, that is, the deformed, extreme presentations about a region, people or culture… [5] One of the narrative strategies of Dubravka Ugrešić's novel is this “playing”, “recycling” of these images – both with respect to oneself and the others. The method of creation of auto-images, images that a group has for themselves is especially used here. A whole chapter of the novel is created as an auto-image that the people from the Balkans have for themselves:
    We are Barbarians. The people of our tribe carry on their foreheads the invisible stamp of Columbus's deceipt. We travel westwards and we always arrive to the east; the more we enter the west, the more we have reached the east, our tribe is cursed.
    The narrator reports that in the new historical context even heterotopias, that is, the excluded/other areas (madhouse, prison, etc.) have become acceptable places for some kind of existence; she tells about the case of a Bosnian, who, facing the possible deportation back to Bosnia asked for a false referral for a psychiatric hospital, and she lived there for a while.
    Writing about the basic values of any human existence, Erich Fromm writes in his essay “The Values, Psychology and Human Existence” states that one of these values is identity: “Man, who is torn out of nature, who was given the gift of reason and imagination, has the need to shape an idea about himself, has the need to say and feel: I am I”.[7]
    Criticizing the traditional understanding of identity, determining it as tribal, Amin Maalouf supports the thesis of identity as a string of elements, and in this sense he speaks of a “composite identity”: the identity is a collection of elements and there is a hierarchy among these elements. At one time, one elements can be imposed as a dominant one, and in some other historical context, another element can become a dominant one. Maalouf determines the identity as a dynamic process, a subject of changes and not a static one. One can, conditionally, speak of a horizontal and vertical identity. The vertical identity is made of those elements that come from the tradition itself, the religious and national affiliation. The horizontal identity, as opposed to this, covers those elements that the individual has, and which are related to the contemporary life: way of dressing, taste in music, way of life, etc. The characters of Ugrešić's novel have the following vertical identity:

Character    Vertical Identity
DARKO    Croat
LAKI    Croat
MELIHA    Bosnian
ANTE    Croat
BOBAN    Croat
SELIM    Bosnian
ANA    Serb
UROŠ    Serb
IGOR    Serb
ZOLE    Serb

Facing the so called syndrome of forgetting their ex-Yugoslav past (“The people were invited to deny their former life and forget it.”), Tanja Lucić, a professor of Yugoslavistics, a subject which practically ceased to exist with the breakdown of SFRY, proposed a “project” to her students, a class game, work on cataloguing the former Yugoslav everyday life. Each of the students tells a fragment, some “Yugo-nostalgic” exhibit, some personal experience of his former country – Yugoslavia. They started by reconstructing an imaginary museum of “Yugoslav-hood”. Instead of the classical figure of the Teacher, whose key attributes were authority, knowledge and power – professor Lucić started a “group therapy”: telling stories and memories of the “former” life was in the function of putting together the jigsaw called – identity. Unlike the so called sleepers, emigrants who establish a normal life, learn the language, get integrated, adapt and live a life without bigger doubts, Lucić's students are in a space in-between: on one hand there is the imperative to forget everything that used to be, and on the other hand, in the new space – the Netherlands, they still have no identity:
    We did not want to belong to those over there nor to these here. At moments we were identifying with this dim collective identity, at moments we rejected it with disgust.
    The search for one's identity thus obtains an ontological value. This “in-between space” seems to be quite precisely determined by Amin Maalouf: “As if you have no feeling that you live in a world that belongs to others, in a world where you are but an orphan, foreigner, freak or despised.”[9]
    The category of subalterality, which determines an individual or groups that are particular/inferior with respect to the universal, is actualized in the novel in the category of Home. The sublater individuals or groups live on the border between two or more homes. The home for the sublater ones is a metaphor for the yearning. The home as a yearning!
    The home in the novel The Ministry of Pain is de-centered, binary, realistically-imaginary. The very housing has a character of search, of a movement through a labyrinth. Amsterdam, the new home of the narrator, Tanja Lucić, is presented as a labyrinth via the metaphor of the spider's net:
    I saw Amsterdam and its heart, which had a shape of a spider's net cut in half.[10]
    In her dreams, the narrators experiences her own home in Zagreb as a labyrinth:
    I knew in my dream how to discover some stairs, some doors, some passage that will take me to a parallel part of the house which I never knew existed.[11]
    Besides being a real space for existence, the home also appears as an imaginary one:
    I thought about living in the biggest doll house in the world, where everything is only simulations and where nothing is real.[12]
    After finishing the first semester in Amsterdam, the narrator leaves for a short visit to her mother, her home in Zagreb; then she comes to realize:
    “Home” was “home” no longer.[13]
    The home of her mother is a space of self-suffocation. The woman-daughter is under the pressure of the obsessive care and domination of her mother figure. The traditional understanding of home as a place of being rooted in is fully redefined; there is no single home for the subaltern ones. Housing is a metaphor for the search, the movement from one place to another, one home to another.
    Provocative, disturbing and exceptionally brave is the end of the novel! Via an essay-ised narration, the narrator “settles the bill” with the new neocolonialism, whose main representatives are: the “transition mutants”, new people of the new time; people who speak several languages and have PhD-s; people “quick at self-defining and self-positioning”, people for whom the main terms are: “flexibility”, “mobility” and “fluidity”; specialists in other's misfortune – emigrants, Gypsies, prostitutes, minorities; planners of others' lives and their own careers. The “new speech” of the new time, which is nothing else but a subtle way of colonizing, is “dismantled” to its real essence!

1. Амин Малуф, „Погубни идентитети“, Матица Македонска, Скопје, 2001
2. Дубравка Угрешиќ, „Министерството на болката“, Сигмапрес, Скопје, 2005
3. Edward W. Said, Orientalism, New York, Pantheon, 1978
4. Елизабета Шелева, „Културолошки есеи“, Магор, Скопје, 2000
5. Mарија Тодорова, „Замислувајќи го Балканот“, Магор, Скопје, 1999
6. Радомир Константиновиќ, „Филозофија на паланката“, Лист, Скопје, 2000
7. Антропологија, (Зборник текстови), Догер, Скопје, 2000

Translated by: Elizabeta Bakovska


1. Edward W. Said, “Orientalism”, New York, Pantheon, 1978, p.45
2. Радомир Константиновиќ, „Филозофија на паланката“, Лист, Скопје, 2000, стр. 175
3. Дубравка Угрешиќ, „Министерството на болката“, Сигмапрес, Скопје 2005, стр. 19
4. Угрешиќ, стр. 54
5. Елизабета Шелева, „Културолошки есеи“, Магор, Скопје, 2000, стр. 90
6. Угрешиќ, стр. 213
7. Фром, стр. 326


8. Угрешиќ, стр. 24
9. Амин Малуф, „Погубни идентитети“, Матица Македонска, Скопје, 2001, стр. 77
10. Угрешиќ, стр. 229
11. Угрешиќ, стр. 207
12. Угрешиќ, стр. 208
13. Угрешиќ, стр. 98

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