The novel-as-essay can combine an array of discursive forms, from the philosophical meditation to the rant, with characters and action that, with luck, embody the novel’s ideas. Dubravka Ugrešić’s Ministry of Pain makes pointed reference to Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a brilliant example of the essay-novel. (Tanja Lucic, Ugrešić’s narrator and protagonist, has read the book twice and breaks down watching the movie.) In Kundera’s novel, the concepts of lightness and heaviness keep deepening. The Ministry of Pain’s central idea, however, remains unwavering: war damages everyone who comes into contact with it. The novel, an account of Croatian-Serbian-Bosnian-Albanian exiles, is a catalog of the possible effects of this damage.
The story moves quickly at first: having left Zagreb, Tanja attempts to settle in Berlin with her husband, then winds up alone in Amsterdam. Through accident and loose connections, she becomes a lecturer in servo-kroatisch (now officially three languages—with “fifty or so words that distinguish… them”). Many of her students are studying their own language to extend their visas, and most, like Tanja, are not officially refugees but are displaced and damaged, sometimes fatally so. Tanja is easygoing with her students, but after a tragic incident and a possible betrayal becomes increasingly demanding, even vicious. One student retaliates in a dramatic fashion, and Tanja, humiliated and, perhaps coincidentally, out of a job, strikes back and sinks further and further into a state of dislocation.
To summarize in this way gives no sense of the circuitous maneuvers of the book, which often seems impatient with the fiction-making machinery of a novel—characterization, the workings of plot—and eager to return to its cataloguing, rants, philosophical generalizations, and summing up of the nature and habits of “our people” both in the “former Yugo” and abroad. It’s as if the very structure of the novel is asking, “What do individual relationships matter in the face of disaster?” Characters are introduced and then disappear. With apparently small provocation, central characters move from a flirtatious friendship into attempts to do each other real harm. In the epilogue, though, they’re domestic partners, with only a brief summary to hint at whatever emotional transitions happened offstage. Tanja and her mother are the only truly rounded characters in the book: Tanja’s mother, a touching figure, is a diabetic narcissist addicted to Brazilian soap operas, gossip, and her sugar charts. When Tanja returns “home” to visit, the novel resolves into a series of moments of pain, longing, and disconnection. Here, the war is almost peripheral. And yet it’s in these scenes that the sense of loss becomes most vivid.
Another of the most engaging and moving aspects of the novel comes, ironically, in the actual essays by Tanja’s students. They write about “the homely terrain of the day-to-day life we had shared in Yugoslavia”: the cheap red, white, and blue striped carryall bags; a monthly shopping trip for fresh coffee beans and chocolate wafers; a favorite comic strip; tea dances; a recipe for Bosnian hotpot; a Macedonian poem, a photograph of Tito—all the relics of peace that these “anonymous Yugos” have lost, along with their country and the unity of their language. Instead, they’ve acquired a profound and permanent sense of horror, along with an uncontrollable desire to wound and curse the world.