A Gentle Saboteur 

April 10, 1994

A Gentle Saboteur


To the Editor:

As the chairwoman of the International PEN Women Writers' Committee, I was interested to see Edward Allen's review of Dubravka Ugresic's "Fording the Stream of Consciousness" (March 20). Though the novel, written in 1988, shows few signs of the war clouds soon to burst over the former Yugoslavia (as Mr. Allen points out), political events have had a pronounced effect on the author's subsequent career, and your readers deserve to know how.

Satirists are seldom beloved by ruling elites. Ms. Ugresic, though gentle in tone, is a hilarious post-modernist saboteur of inflated pretensions, patronizing males, passive women and political cant on all fronts. She is particularly sharp on the absurdities of writers, romance and romance fiction; her best efforts on these subjects can be found in another volume, "In the Jaws of Life and Other Stories." Though she had never been involved in politics, when some of her fellow writers suddenly became figures of state in the new Croatia, she could not resist pricking a few holes in their pomposity. As the war deepened and control of the press tightened, her criticisms became more serious.

An orchestrated campaign began against her, part of what another targeted intellectual, Rada Ivekovic, calls "intellectual cleansing, the ideological equivalent of ethnic cleansing." The two are among the "five Croatian witches" (the other three are Jelena Lovric, Slavenka Drakulic and Vesna Kesic), who, because of their non-nationalist opinions, their success in publishing abroad and the feminism of some of them, have been systematically persecuted in the Croatian press.

Perhaps because of jealousy, Dubravka Ugresic, who is considered the best fiction writer in her country, was particularly vilified. Members of the Croatian Writers Union duplicated press attacks on her and sent them to academics in other countries with whom she had worked professionally. Her colleagues at the university ostracized her, and her department chairman attacked her in print as a traitor. She got anonymous phone calls suggesting she leave Croatia. Finally, a newspaper printed her unlisted phone number with a sexual characterization that could have led to considerable unpleasantness had she not left for Germany. She is temporarily living in Berlin.

Her two wonderful books should be read not as prophecy but as writing in the sand from a vanished civilization, once the site of the most lively and sophisticated discussion of gender in Europe. Driven unwillingly from their own countries, looking for homes, the intellectuals of the former Yugoslavia may in time play as great a civilizing influence on the rest of the world as did the intellectuals who fled the Weimar Republic. Still, the pity of it.