Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: 'Nobody's Home' by Dubravka Ugresic

Un-homed by Exaggeration
a review of Nobody’s Home, by Dubravka Ugresic

In a recent critical study, Philosophy of Exaggeration, the philosopher Alexander Garcia Dütmann writes, “Every justified exaggeration is no longer an exaggeration.” Or rather, that in spite of its distorting effect, exaggeration can be useful as well. It tests the limits of both logic and language, it illuminates the boundaries and the definitions of what is plausible. Still, something about exaggeration strikes most readers as imprecision, as a tactic to use when the truth won’t prove what you want it to: the cousin of an outright lie.

Dubravka Ugresic exhibits a tendency for exaggeration in her new collection, Nobody’s Home (Open Letters, 2008). In “A Little Story about Remembering and Forgetting,” she claims that “Typewriters now dwell in the limbo of oblivion: they haven’t yet surfaced in museums, yet they can no longer be found in stores”. But this isn’t true, not entirely. It is a perfect example of her exaggeration. There was, and still is, a thriving typewriter repair shop in my old hometown; typewriters can be bought in supply mega-stores like Staples and Office Depot; and I’ve received innumerable typewritten letters at my work. Certainly they are not common, but typewriters do not yet dwell in the “limbo of oblivion.” It makes one wonder: if this isn’t true, how many of the other ramparts in her rambling essays are also unsound?

In the best possible way, this uncertainty is the tension that keeps these essays from becoming mundane. Ugresic layers cultural insights upon a narrative of her life experiences. The essays are, as has been noted, not unlike the work of Walter Benjamin in their tangential breadth and their anecdotal quality. As with Benjamin, Ugresic uses one topic as the starting point for a much larger discussion. However, Benjamin most often grounded his rangy critiques and insights in a literary text, something unchanging and permanent. His Baudelaire is the same text now as it was then. Ugresic bases her interconnections and insights in more ephemeral and mercurial things: in conversations with hotel workers, slogans, and the arrangement of ethnicities in a marketplace.

Her fluidity of focus allows for the necessary space to exaggerate the details, as she never rests long enough to reveal the distortion, and her use of mainly non-textual focuses gives her insights an immediacy that Benjamin often lacks. Ugresic’s work exists very much in the present. Her premises are more like those of the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, who holds public court on important events in the heat of the moment. However, where Lévy is deeply philosophical, generally methodical, and ruminating, Ugresic is wry, tangential, and brief – if Lévy is a mechanic, Ugresic is a bone-reader.

The anecdote serves as a substitute for proof in these essays, and it gives her experiences an exemplary quality. As with Benjamin, Ugresic’s experience is extracted, broadened, exaggerated, and so her Croatian identity informs this aspect of her writing especially. In some way, her use of anecdotes is an oddly provincial quirk for such a cosmopolitan author. Personal testimonies gain a special power in places disconnected from centers of knowledge, as when a friend returns to their small hometown from the distant big city with stories that soon become truths. Ugresic’s travel writing especially is written from the vantage of being at once inside (the cosmopolitan) and outside (the provincial), as both observer and native.

That dual sense, the feeling of never being at home or at ease, of being un-homed like a crab, flows from her eastern-European identity. It is central to Ugresic’s attitudes, presumptions, and perceptions, especially her obsession with American globalization, which dominates many of the essays and becomes, by the second half of the collection, her most tiring trope.

But, overall, Ugresic’s perceptions are very enticing. They feel right. In the short essays, the best of this collection, her observations and insights have an eclectic range that keeps the reader slightly off-balance. The assertive modernity of these essays is also enticing. When she writes of “the model of the authoritarian parent” that has morphed “into the model of a parent-pedophile” in a piece on the lifelong extension of adolescence, of the world “righting itself – using some internal logic that apparently has nothing to do with ideology or ideological systems” in the multitude of urban nail salons, that “man’s liberation has happened precisely as communism had predicted it would”, she speaks to the reader from across the livingroom. Whether all her insights are at all accurate is debatable – but isn’t finding these central nerves its own kind of talent?

Ugresic shows that it is. Nobody’s Home is a book of, in her own words, “new anthropology,” which “switches perspective between the described and the describer,” a “symbolic reading of the global map of the world” – an integration of cultural criticism, travel writing, and memoir. The author is far from impartial, but Ugrasic’s maybe too-personal feelings of being un-homed are also her greatest asset. They are the filter through which she perceives the oddness of a world that many of us take for granted. In order to make us see them new, in order to un-home the world for the reader, she emphasizes the weirdness through exaggeration. “This is a market-based world,” she writes, “there is nothing left which exists for itself alone, not even at the level of private life.” In these essays Ugresic connects her own life – and, by exaggeration, all lives – with the marketplace that is this new, interconnected global culture.

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