A couple of years ago, Open Letter Books published Dubravka Ugresic’s Karaoke Culture, a collection of essays examining culture from a wide variety of perspectives. Deservedly, that book went on to become a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. We now have the great fortune of a new book of Ugresic’s essays: Europe in Sepia (Europa u sepiji, 2013; tr. from the Croatian by David Williams, 2014).
In some ways, the book’s main theme is nostalgia, though not in a conventional sense. Ugresic continues her examination of today’s culture, albeit tongue-in-cheek. Things are not what they used to be:
Blessed were the times of totalitarian dictatorships and information blockades!
I pulled that quote out of context. When she says the above, Ugresic is talking about the information revolution and how, every day, she is unnerved by some “disturbing piece of news,” almost making thoughts of that time when such a vast amount of information was inaccessible seem like a good dream.
Of course, the simple time she longs for was only a subjective, personal illusion enforced by brutality, and Ugresic, who was born and raised in Yugoslavia (in a region that is now part of Croatia), has been politically active and self-reflective for some decades. In Europe in Sepia, Ugresic examines her own relationship to this old brutality as well as our cultural relationship to many new forms of brutality that have, often in a more quiet manner, taken the old form’s place.
The first piece in the collection, entitled “Nostalgia,” takes us to Zuccotti Park in October 2011, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Ugresic went to visit at that time and found herself thinking more about her own revolutionary spirit, old accusations of “Yugonostalgia” (initially, Ugresic advocated reform within Yugoslavia rather than its dissolution), and her own relationship with the media that ridiculed and demonized her in the early 1990s. She calls the Occupy Wall Street participants the Zuccotti kids, and she feels for them. At the same time, they are small, their drums only echoing around the world because “[i]n those few days the Zuccotti kids were photographed so often that thirty years’ worth of Japanese tourists haven’t managed to take more photos of Mannekan Pis, the famous little peeing boy of Brussells.” It’s clear that, while Ugresic is compassionate and sympathetic to the movement, she doesn’t think it’s going to go far. In fact, in the end, the “kids” will probably just be eaten up by the media. But, for now, at least there is some drumming.
It’s an excellent essay in an excellent collection in which Ugresic finds herself, by virtue of living long enough, in the “brighter future”:
It’s entirely possible that as a child I had been wound not according to Greenwich time, but rather to a socialist clock, one always rushing on ahead into the brighter future, toward progress, a tomorrow envisaged as a majestic fireworks display of a thousand shapes and colors.
And yet, in the same essay, she finds herself taking pictures and making them look like the past. She finds herself in an airport bookstore buying her third copy of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, the first because “I was curious, the second and now third time simply to suppress any urge to buy Fifty Shades of Grey.” In another essay, all of the themes come together (again) when she talks about a YouTube video clip that used to be used as propaganda in Croatia in the 1970s, showing Zagreb’s economic boom in the late 1960s.
The Internet is like the ocean — every day it washes new debris upon the shore. The clip in question is just one such piece of detritus. Viewed by anyone able to claim it as part of his or her own mental baggage, it’s bound to prompt a reaction. My Zagreb acquaintance complains that her husband just sits there on YouTube all day, watching the clip over and over, bawling his eyes out. “He’s completely lost his marbles! How can someone cry over a bunch of sepia shots of factory halls?!” she protests. Her husband used to work at the factory. In the “transition” period it went belly-up, and he was forced to take early retirement.
Is the brighter future simply brighter because the past is in sepia? What brighter future do we now promise ourselves — if we even do?