“Baba Yaga is an old hag who lives in a house built on chicken legs and kidnaps small children. She is one of the most pervasive and powerful creatures in all mythology.”
“But what does she have to do with a writer’s journey to Bulgaria in 2007 on behalf of her mother?”
“Or with a trio of women who decide in their old age to spend a week together at a hotel spa?”
By the end of Dubravka Ugrešić’s novel, the answers are revealed. Her story is shot through with spellbinding, magic, involving a gambling triumph, sudden death on the golf course, a long-lost grandchild, an invasion of starlings, and wartime flight, the consequences of which are revealed only decades later.
Hurtling between Weltschmerz and wit, drollness and diatribe, entropy and enchantment, it’s the juxtaposition at the heart of Dubravka Ugresic’s writings that saw Ruth Franklin dub her “the fantasy cultural studies professor you never had.” In Europe in Sepia, Ugresic, ever the flâneur, wanders from the Midwest to Zuccotti Park, the Irish Aran Islands to Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim, from the tristesse of Dutch housing estates to the riots of south London, charting everything from the listlessness of Central Europe to the ennui of the Low Countries. One finger on the pulse of an exhausted Europe, another in the wounds of postindustrial America, Ugresic trawls the fallout of political failure and the detritus of popular culture, mining each for revelation.
Infused with compassion and melancholic doubt, Europe in Sepia centers on the disappearance of the future, the anxiety that no new utopian visions have emerged from the ruins of communism; that ours is a time of irreducible nostalgia, our surrender to pastism complete. Punctuated by the levity of Ugresic’s raucous instinct for the absurd, despair has seldom been so beguiling.
Whether it's commentary on jaded youth, the ways technology has made us soft in the head, or how wrestling a hotel minibar into a bathtub is the best way to stick it to The Man, Ugresic writes with unmatched honesty and panache.
Having fled the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, Tanja Lucic is now a professor of literature at the University of Amsterdam, where she teaches a class filled with other young Yugoslav exiles, most of whom earn meager wages assembling leather and rubber S&M clothing at a sweatshop they call the "Ministry." Abandoning literature, Tanja encourages her students to indulge their "Yugonostalgia" in essays about their personal experiences during their homeland's cultural and physical disintegration. But Tanja's act of academic rebellion incites the rage of one renegade member of her class — and pulls her dangerously close to another — which, in turn, exacerbates the tensions of a life in exile that has now begun to spiral seriously out of control.