The hardest thing for me in writing this post about Croatia is figuring out how to describe the book I read, Dubravka Ugrešić’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. There’s no plot, and the writing doesn’t follow a linear, chronological path. Instead, the book consists of a series of recollections. The shorter ones are numbered, and the longer ones have their own chapter or subchapter names.
The Museum of Unconditional Surrender opens with an item about Roland the walrus, an inhabitant of the Berlin zoo, whose stomach contents were inventoried after he died. The list is too lengthy to go into here, but Roland had ingested a surprising variety of non-food items, including a cigarette lighter, a child’s water pistol, a bunch of keys, and a pair of sunglasses, just to name a few. The narrator is inclined to look for some kind of subtle, secret connections among the objects, and suggests the reader do the same with this book: “The chapters and fragments which follow should be read in a similar way. If the reader feels that there are no meaningful or firm connections between them, let him be patient: the connections will establish themselves of their own accord.”
As I read the book, it became clear that the narrator’s theme is exile and the sense of not belonging. Raised in Yugoslavia when it was still a federation of countries, including Croatia, the narrator has become a writer unable to return to her country because she wrote “something I shouldn’t have” when the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s led to the break-up of the country. She writes of travelling to Lisbon, Portugal, “with a huge amount of luggage, or entirely without luggage, depending on how you looked at it. I had lost my homeland. I had not yet got used to the loss, nor to the fact that my homeland was the same, but different. In just one year I had lost my home, my friends, my job, the possibility of returning soon, but also the desire to return.”
The narrator shares vignettes of many of the places she has visited, both before and during her exile. The book also includes musings by or about her mother, who moved as a young woman from Bulgaria to Yugoslavia. The mother has grown fearful of leaving her house, so her world has shrunk at the same time her daughter’s world has expanded as a result of her exile. In both cases, there is a strong feeling of alienation.
In the end, just as the narrator had promised, the connections among the book’s fragments did indeed “establish themselves of their own accord.”
The text of the book actually includes a recipe, so how could I not prepare it? When the narrator’s mother talks of the poverty of her early married life, she says, “Those were lean years. People shopped with coupons. The only material you could buy was homespun. There was nothing. No-thing! They were hungry … They cooked paupers’ food …”. When the narrator asks what paupers’ food is, her mother replies, “Caraway soup.” And that’s literally what it is: soup made from oil, flour, water, and spices, including caraway seeds, then topped with homemade croutons. I didn’t use the recipe in the book, since I wouldn’t be able to reprint it here without running afoul of copyright laws. Instead, I found a recipe for Croatian flour soup, which is similar, on the Genius Kitchen website. I left out the optional egg white, and made the appropriate conversions from grams to teaspoons or tablespoons (1 tablespoon of oil, ¾ teaspoon of paprika, 1 teaspoon of caraway seeds). I liked the soup more than I expected to, but probably not enough to make it again.
No projects were listed for Croatia on the GlobalGiving website, so I looked to see what I could find on the Internet. I discovered an organization right here in Northern California with the stated purpose of developing “leaders for Croatia’s future by providing financial assistance to highly qualified students of Croatian origin, living in Croatia or Bosnia and Herzegovina, so that they may attend a university in Croatia or in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” More information about this organization, the Croatian Scholarship Fund, is available at http://www.croatianscholarship.org/.
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