Dubravka Ugresic’s second collection of essays to be translated by Open Letter, Karaoke Culture, enjoyed quite a bit of success on its release in 2011. Since then Dubravka Ugresic’s fans have been rabidly awaiting the release of her next book. Though I haven’t read Karaoke Culture… yet. It’s a lapse that will soon be corrected. A copy was downloaded even before I finished Europe In Sepia.
To truly appreciate the popularity of Ugresic you have to experience her voice. Direct, ironic and slightly irritated. As a citizen (or should I say former citizen? what is exactly is the proper terminology?) of the now defunct nation of Yugoslavia she can legitimately claim the status of consummate outsider. And so she does – with gusto – spending more then a few chapters focusing on the strangeness of her personal situation. There is an unanticipated absurdity that comes with being a woman without a country. Ugresic gets to explore something she calls “Yogonostalgia” in one breath and comment on the quasi-fascism of Starbucks in the next. In a way she’s the Dennis Leary of essayists – raising an eyebrow at her readers as she describes the idiocy she gleefully observes happening around her.
When a bouncy young Starbucks barista asked my name for the first time, I articulated it with conviction and clarity.
“Du-brav-ka,” I repeated.
I said it again, and then again, just louder. The people in line were already bitching. A short while later, a plastic cup with “Dwbra” scribbled on it arrived. I relayed the episode to a countryman who lives in Los Angeles, where my Starbucks initiation had occurred. That was twenty years ago.
“Jesus, what a dumbass! Who told you you’ve got to give your own name?!”
To be honest, it hadn’t occurred to me not to.
“I always say Tito!” he fired.
“And nothing. I just love hearing: Titoooo, your coffee’s reaaaadyyyy!”
I took his advice and tried using Marx and Engels, but the Starbucks crew didn’t get the message I was sending. In the end I chose a regular name. At Starbucks, I’m Jenny.
There’s so much I love about that passage that has nothing to do with the joke (though I love that too): its overall rhythm; the fact that all of Tito’s sentences end in exclamation points; the 3+3 syllabic beats in the closing sentence. (David William’s translation makes it seem impossible that Ugresic ever meant to express herself in any language other than English). And the fact that the particular essay from which it’s taken is about the career challenges Dubravka Ugresic has dealt, perhaps still deals, with: her name, her gender, her nationality, the fact she’s still alive (dead authors command more respect). All inspired by an innocent question from a child.
Great writing. Wickedly entertaining. Not necessarily what you’d expect from a book of essays.
You will become a Dubravka Ugresic fan after picking up one of her books. Don’t bother fighting it. It’s as inevitable as passing a Starbucks in Manhattan.
Europe In Sepia is rare in that it contains complex examinations of human nature and still somehow manages to be funny (and never sanctimonious). This book lingered with me long after I put it down. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself going back to it weeks after finishing, flipping through the pages looking for a passage that’s been teasing at your brain. That’s the whole purpose of a good essay collection – to captivate readers; to make them laugh (if they’re lucky); and, hopefully, to get everyone thinking about the things that matter.
Publisher: Open Letter Books, Rochester (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 89 4
*In full recognition of my own dorkiness: I just made air quotes at my computer screen.