I’ve been wanting to write about Dubravka Ugresic’s book of essays, Nobody’s Home for a few days now. But I also have not been wanting to write about it. I really liked the book, Ugresic has a great sense of humor and is a penetrating observer. I suppose I haven’t been wanting to write about it because there is so much in this book that I can’t possibly cover it all. She writes about so many different things, from the mundane and everyday to the dangerous and political with frequent stops in between.
My favorite essay in the book is a long one called “Amsterdam, Amsterdam.” The city is Ugresic’s adopted home. In this essay is a delightful section about the Dutch and their bicycles that both awed me and made me laugh. The Dutch have such a close relationship with their bicycles, she says, that she is “surprised the Dutch flag doesn’t have a bicycle on it,” and vexed by there not being a verse in the Dutch national anthem about the bicycle. She’s seen Amsterdammers carry people, TVs, bureaus and bookshelves on their bicycles. While she clearly admires them she is also annoyed with them. Apparently, the majority of cyclists do not follow traffic rules and if you are a pedestrian your chances of being run over by a bike are high, even if you are walking on the sidewalk. I have never been particularly interested in going to Amsterdam, but after this essay I think it would be fun to go if only to watch the cyclists.
Perhaps it is the lazy way out, but here are some quotes from various essays to give you a feel for what the book is like. From “Old Age-New Craze”
If we say that our age is obsessed with youth, what we really mean is that it is obsessed with age. Age has been relegated to the lowest rung on the values ladder. Old age no longer means wisdom, experience, knowledge, or nobility. Old age is ugly, wrong, costly; old age is a necessary evil.
From “Europe, Europe”
A fear of being shut out from the community is one of the most virulent of human fears, and the subtext for the heights and the depths in the history of the human race. Fear of exclusion from the community is at the root of fascisms. In this consumer age of ours there is profit to be made from this fear. We come together through Coca-Cola, Nike, Oprah Winfrey, we come together through information, ethnicity, the state, symbols, the community of equals. Each of us takes care of the individual nuances on our own.
From “A Postcard From My Vacation” in which she visits Goli Otok, an island that served as a Yugoslavian prison between 1949-1956 for people who showed greater loyalty to Stalin than to Tito:
Should everything be scrubbed, polished like a jewel, or left, instead, as is? How to connect the present and the past? How to communicate an old trauma so that others truly understand it? Weren’t we longing to find shade and have a cool drink while we listened to the professor? And what of all we heard did we take to heart? What about me, who is passing on this story? What about my responsibility?
One of the things I enjoyed about Ugresic is that she doesn’t hold anything back; she calls it as she sees it and makes no apologies. She is a writer who believes that pretending things didn’t happen or don’t exist is more dangerous than speaking out about it, even if you are vilified for it by your own government. In her author’s note at the end of the book she says that being judgmental has become a negative trait along with pessimism. We are supposed to be optimistic, politically correct, tolerant, things that in themselves aren’t necessarily bad, but taken too far can mask a myriad of wrongs far worse than being judgmental. She writes:
We live in a time that urges us to behave as if we are in paradise. Yet the world we live in is no paradise. This book breaks the rules of good behavior, because it bickers.
I think that is what I like about this book. Ugresic dares to bicker. And oh, how refreshing that is!