The Ministry of Pain
by Dubravka Ugresic
translated from Croatian by Michael Henry Heim
This book started really strong for me and then tailed off. It has a lot of interesting things to say about language, story and identity, but two unfortunate decisions toward the end undermined my pleasure. This is my Netherlands read for the EU Reading Challenge.
Tanja Ludic left her home in Zagreb during the 1990s Yugoslav civil war. A few years later she is teaching Servo-Kroat at the University of Amsterdam, a temporary contract and almost certainly a temporary subject. She quickly realises that all her students are floundering, most of them like her are refugees from a forever-changed homeland. So she expands her course to cover “Yugo” culture, in fact any memories that her students will share with her and each other.
Initially, the novel flits between these recollections and Tanja’s musings on language, on life in Amsterdam, on being a migrant. As she gets to know her students, they become a larger part of her life and the story. But events conspire to prevent this from becoming the cosy situation she craves.