Monday, January 09, 2012

Spreading (the word about) Dubravka Ugresic

This year, I received two copies of Dubravka Ugresic’s novel Baba Yaga Laid an Egg for Christmas, one from my father and one from my cousin, Marissa. Marissa bought it for me because she pulled my name in our family’s annual grab bag; my father bought it for me because he feels compelled to buy me gifts, what with me being his son and all. They were both looking at the same list I provided, a list full of book titles and some desired CDs (I still buy CDs). Part of me assumes that they each chose the book for its odd title and, subsequently, the right to say, “Vince, you have weird taste in books.”

That they both bought the same book bothered me not a whit. My father apologized; Marissa offered to return the book and get me a different one. I told them not to worry. One is a hardback and the other a trade sized paperback, so they are, to me, different. Thus, both are worth owning. (I am sick, I know. I like owning multiple copies of books. At last count I have about sixteen copies of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, two of them in languages I cannot read.) My wife suggested I add one copy to the pile of books and old literary journals I am supposed to be giving to my local book store, The Armadillo’s Pillow. This seemed like a fine idea, but I then promised the book to my friend, Eric. This, I decided, was the best option. I will be giving away a book to a friend, but not just any book. I will give away a book translated from Croatian, written by an “obscure” author. I am doing my part to spread the word about world literature and Ugresic herself.

Ugresic deserves a wide readership. I am happy to promote her whenever I can. Why does she deserve such a wide readership? I could argue that such an honor is due to the misfortunes she experienced in the early 90s when her country began to splinter. Not a nationalist, Ugresic was labeled a witch and an enemy of the homeland. Subsequently, her professional life took some major hits and she went into exile in Amsterdam. Since then, she has proven herself to be an impressive fiction writer, but, more so, one of the most engaging and important cultural critics working today.

Evidence of this last claim is ample in her latest book, Karaoke Culture, a collection of essays as it were, though the book revolves around its first entry, the title essay. That “Karaoke Culture” the essay and Karaoke Culture the book work as indictments of our global campaign to champion mediocrity is implicit in the title. We are shifting our concerns away form the real and toward the imitation. This idea may offend those who feel we are living in advanced times of connectivity. Surely this modern era of smartphones and American Idol (or Bulgarian Idol... read the book and you'll see what I mean) is superior to those eras past, right?

I am not saying otherwise. I don’t think Ugresic is, either. Like all good cultural critics (Neil Postman comes to mind), Ugresic is merely pointing out something that many will overlook: the costs of an advancing society. The costs are often worth paying (I’m willing to accept a certain level of pollution if it means I don’t have to ride a horse to get around town), but there are always more people ready to proclaim that our brave new world is comprised solely of improvements. In such a rapidly changing environment, we need Ugresic (especially now that Postman is dead); we need commentators willing to scrutinize the culture and report on what they see, both positive and negative. More so, we need these thinkers to disseminate their arguments in an entertaining manner. To often the best ideas have been mired in academic jargon, much to the detriment of the collective culture. Ugresic’s prose skips the Ph.D. codes and remains some of the most interesting out there. Even via translation, her work is never murky and more times than not raises a smile.

I have read only two of Ugresic’s fictional works. I loved what she was doing in Lend me Your Character and The Ministry of Pain as much as the non-fiction she wrote in Karaoke Culture and the overlooked Thank You for Not Reading, though if I had to choose I might say that he real strength is as an essayist. Nevertheless, I am very excited to begin Baba Yaga Laid and Egg and am happy to give a book to a friend in the hope that it spreads the word about this fantastic writer.