Extract as it appears in Making the World Legible
They called me Professor Lucić at first, but once we’d settled into our topic for the first semester they switched to Comrade, ‘drugarice’, affectedly drawing out the final e and raising it at the end like a verbal tail. The word
‘comrade’ became a kind of intimate password between my new students and me, linking us, one and all, to the school benches we had long since abandoned, to times long past and a country no longer in existence: ‘comrade’ was the word used by Yugoslav children in the fifties and early sixties to address their teachers. Here in Holland it was not so much a word as the tinkle of a Pavlovian bell. And although I addressed them with the formal ‘you’, I referred to them as my ‘pupils’ or ‘kids’. It was all a humorous bit of make-believe: I wasn’t and never had been anybody’s ‘comrade’; they weren’t pupils. Nor were they kids, most of them ranging between twenty and thirty, which made me only a few years older. Meliha was my age, and Johanneke and Laki were older than I was. The only thing reminiscent of the rules of the game, therefore, was my use of the formal ‘you’.
They’d come with the war. Some had acquired refugee status, others had not. Most of the guys, the ones from Serbia and Croatia, had left to avoid military service; some had come from the war zones; others had gone along for the ride and stayed on. There were also those who had heard that the Dutch authorities were generous with welfare and accommodations for Yugoslav refugees and came to exchange the dicey currency of their lives for the hard stuff. And there were those who had happened upon Dutch partners.
Mario had met a Dutch girl in Austria – where his parents had sent him, fearing he’d be conscripted into the Croatian Army – and she took him back to Holland with her. ‘Maybe I married her for the passport and fell in love with her after the fact, ‘ he once told me with a smile. ‘Or maybe I was in love with her to begin with and made it official because of the passport. I can’t remember.’
Boban had gone to India on a package deal with a group of Belgrade matrons, followers of Sai Baba. The trip had been engineered and financed by his mother, whose only concern was to save him temporarily from the army. In India he’d ditched the tour and wandered about for two months, but then he picked up dysentery and boarded the first plane out. He landed in Amsterdam, where he was to change planes for Belgrade, but somewhere on the way from one loo to another in Schipol he’d had a brilliant epiphany and asked for political asylum. It was still a possibility back then. For a year or two the Dutch authorities were lenient: anyone coming from the former Yugoslavia could use the war as a credible motivation. But in time things changed and the gate slammed shut.
Johanneke was Dutch. She spoke ‘our language’ fluently and with a Bosnian accent. Her parents were Dutch leftists who had built roads and railway tracks with international youth brigades after World War II. Later they went to the Dalmatian coast as tourists. During one of their stays Johanneke visited Sarajevo, fell in love with a Bosnian and was stranded there for a while. Now, divorced and the mother of two little girls, she had
made up her mind to get a degree in Slavonic languages. She was an accredited court interpreter from ‘our language’ to Dutch, which turned out to be highly useful: she would translate and authenticate any document
our kids needed.
There were those who showed up once or twice and quietly disappeared. Laki was from Zagreb. He remained in my memory because he was the only one who called me Mrs: Mrs Lucić. He clearly considered ‘comrade’ to be ‘Yugoslav’, ‘Communist’, and therefore ‘anti-Croat’. He had a Zagreb way of talking that got on my nerves – the la-di-da stress on the last syllable, the constant use of reflexives, verbal forms referring to the self, that made him sound intimately related to everything on earth. Like so many others Laki had come to Amsterdam for the cheap pot. He had come before the war and studied Slavonic languages and literatures for years, living on welfare and in heavily subsidized public housing. The kids all said that he was a paid police informer, that he bragged about translating the bugged telephone conversations between Yugoslav mafia members the Dutch police had under surveillance. The kids called him Laki the Linguist because he claimed to be working on a Dutch-Croatian dictionary for which he could never find a grant. He refused to acknowledge the existing Dutch-Serbo-Croatian dictionary.
Then there was Zole, who had set up house with a Dutch gay partner to qualify for a residence permit, and Darko, from Opatija, who really was gay. The Dutch authorities were particularly generous about granting asylum to those who claimed they had been discriminated against in their home countries for ‘sexual difference’, more generous than to the war’s rape victims. As soon as word got round, people climbed on the bandwagon in droves. The war was a fig leaf for everything. It was something like the national lottery: while many tried their luck out of genuine misfortune, others did it simply because the opportunity presented itself. And under such aberrant circumstances winners and losers had to be judged by new criteria. They studied Servo-Kroatisch because it was easy. If you didn’t have a refugee visa, you could prolong your stay legally by enrolling in a university programme. Some had begun or even completed programmes at home, but they meant next to nothing here. Servo-Kroatisch was the fastest and easiest way to come by a Dutch diploma, not that even a Dutch diploma would get you very far. If, like Ana, you had another language as your ‘major’, you could pick up a few effortless credits with Servo-Kroatisch, but if what you were really after was student loans and scholarships, then Servo-Kroatisch was your ticket.
They coped. Most of them ‘played tennis’. Playing tennis in their group slang meant house-cleaning. It paid 15 guilders an hour. Some worked as dishwashers or waiters in restaurants. Ante picked up small change playing the accordion in the Noordermarkt. Ana sorted mail in the post office every morning. ‘It’s not so bad,’ she would say. ‘I feel like the dwarf in Čapek’s Postman’s Tale.’
But the best paying job you could get without a work permit was a job at the ‘Ministry’. One of ‘our people’ found work at a place where they made clothes for sex shops and soon the whole gang was working there. It wasn’t strenuous: all you had to do was assemble items of sadomasochist clothing out of leather, rubber and plastic. Three times a week Igor, Nevena and Selim went to Regulateurstraat in Amsterdam Nord where the Atelier Demask, purveyor to the many-faceted Dutch porno industry, was located. There was an S/M porno club in The Hague called The Ministry of Pain, and my students took to calling their porno sweat shop the ‘Ministry’. ‘Those S/M types, Comrade, they’re real snappy dressers, ‘ Igor would joke.
‘They don’t think the most beautiful body is a naked body. I wouldn’t forget that if I were a Gucci or Armani.’
The kids did a good job of coping – considering where they came from. They dragged their former country behind them like a train. People said the Yugomafia was responsible for a third of the criminal activities in
Amsterdam. The papers were full of its thefts, prostitute trafficking, black marketeering, murders and vendettas.
Nor did they know what to make of the country’s current status. If they mentioned Croatia and Bosnia, it was with great caution. If they mentioned Yugoslavia, which was now the name for Serbia and Montenegro, it was with great agony. They couldn’t deal with the names the media kept throwing out. Rump Yugoslavia, for instance. (‘Where’d they get that one from, for Christ’s sake?’ Meliha would cry. ‘Is it because they hacked it up like a steak?’) Yugoslavia, the country where they’d been born, where they’d come from, no longer existed. They did their best to deal with it by steering clear of the name, shortening it to Yuga (as the Gastarbeiter, the migrant workers in Germany, had done before them) and thus ‘the former Yugoslavia’ to ‘the former Yuga’ or playfully transforming it into Titoland or The Titanic. As for its inhabitants, they became Yugos or, more often, simply ‘our people’. The possessive pronoun also came in handy when referring to the language they spoke together (none of them being Slovenian, Macedonian or Albanian): to avoid its former, now politically incorrect name of Serbo-Croatian, they called it simply ‘our language’.
From The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic
Translated from the Croatian by Michael Heim (Saqi 2005)
Dubravka Ugresic is the author of several novels, short story collections, and books of essays, including The Museum of Unconditional Surrender and Thank You For Not Reading. Her books have been translated into more than twenty languages and she has received several major international literary awards. The Ministry of Pain was shortlisted for the 2006 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
Michael Henry Heim is Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at UCLA. He is well known for his translations of Milan Kundera, Danilo Kiš and Thomas Mann. He is also the Founder of the Association for the Translation of Central European Literatures, USA.