By Inger Bråtveit
Translated by Rolf Gooderham
When Dubravka Ugrešić left her country – or the year when the country left its people – her mother bought a photograph album small enough to fit in her bag. She recounts how her mother tried to cut and paste together a kind of family life with photographs she had collected from several generations, and how she sat there in her chair without identification papers, without a passport, but with the album in her lap while the civil war raged just outside. When you now travel, her mother said, people will ask about your family. If you don’t take the album, you have nothing. The country Ugrešić left was Yugoslavia and the Balkan peninsula in 1991.
She let the album remain behind. At the immigration desk she said: “I don’t come from any country, I have no passport to show.” When she later met other refugees from the former Yugoslavia, they said: “Refugees fall into two categories, those with and those without photographs.” Her attitude is that an author is not tied to a national identity or a specific ethnic blood group.
In her novel The Museum of Unconditional Surrender(1996), Ugrešićwrites about war criminal Ratko Mladić, who shelled Sarajevo for months from the surrounding heights. One day he took aim at the house of an acquaintance, called him up and told him he had five minutes to collect his photograph album before his house was blown up. “The general who had been shelling the city for months knew perfectly well that it was the memories he was destroying. Therefore he was so ‘magnanimous’ that he spared an acquaintance’s life and gave him the right to keep his memories. His bare existence and some family photographs.” Ugrešićwrites from the reverberations of a war, and takes the reader into the disintegrated life of the exile after Yugoslavia as a country was lost and broken up into new nations.
The album symbolises the idea of friendship between people, a non-institutionalised comradeship which differs from the kind you find in art or on film. The private photograph is not intended to be art, or a documentary, or about war, or on towns and landscapes, but to be an image from a life. The family album is an underground museum where people sign in for all time. The photograph documents a high point in a fragmented personal history, but as time passes also becomes a death mask.
One day the moment will come when the photograph is the only evidence that we have existed. Without memory, without documentation of our own history, we have nothing to point to or display, we are without documentation, without history or context. The war in the Balkans smashed truth into a thousand pieces, but – like literature – the truth is thrusting and processing, never final and dogmatic, but ambiguous and transitory, headed for a larger and more complex experience. As photographs reveal life, perhaps more attractively than life actually was, so Ugrešić’s writings reveal a more complex and imposing truth.