Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 18, 2023

Nobody’s Home (2005), by Dubravka Ugrešić, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać

Alerted to the death of notable Croatian author Dubravka Ugrešić (1949-2023) by a Tweet from Declan O’Driscoll, I remembered that her essay collection Nobody’s Home was part of The First 25 book bundle that I bought from Open Letter Books, ages ago in 2014.

This is the book description:

A series of incisive essays from Dubravka Ugresic explores the full spectrum of human existence. From bottled-water drinking tourists with massive backpacks to the Eurovision song contest, Ugresic’s unfailingly sharp critical eye never fails to reveal what has been hidden in plain sight by routine, or uncover the tragic, and the comic, in the everyday.

Born in Croatia in 1949 but eschewing nationalism, Dubravka Ugrešić was a writer, translator and literary scholar with a keen interest in Russian avant-garde culture. She began her award-winning writing career with screenplays and books for children, and translated forgotten and contemporary Russian writers into Croatian. She was best known in the former Yugoslavia for her fiction, novels and short stories, but in 1996 she went into exile in the Netherlands because she was anti-nationalism and anti-war.  As her profile at Goodreads tells us:

In 1991, when the war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, Ugrešić took a firm anti-nationalistic stand and consequently an anti-war stand. She started to write critically about nationalism (both Croatian and Serbian), the stupidity and criminality of war, and soon became a target of the nationalistically charged media, officials, politicians, fellow writers and anonymous citizens. She was proclaimed a “traitor”, a “public enemy” and a “witch”, ostracized and exposed to harsh and persistent media harassment. She left Croatia in 1993.

In exile Ugrešić continued teaching and writing, including novels and books of essays of which Nobody’s Home (Nikog nema doma) is one. Amongst other awards, she won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 2016. Her books are widely translated and translation enthusiasts at Book Twitter are devastated by her early death in Amsterdam at the age of 73.

I haven’t read the whole collection, because Nobody’s Home is a book for dipping into, but I’ve enjoyed some of those with the most arresting titles.  I particularly enjoyed ‘What Is European about European Literature?’ with its droll parallels in the Eurovision song contest, and also her self-mockery in ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’ where she has a panic attack on the famous Gaudi staircase in Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia.

What possessed me to go up it in the first place? How many steps are there left to go? Will I ever get down—or will I be stuck in the bell tower—looking through the narrow little window at a scrap of sky—forever? Ah Gaudi! I waited in line from early morning yesterday for the famous Casa Mila, ‘”La Pedrera,” to open.  Gaudi’s roof, with those astonishing chimneys (espantabruixes) as if it anticipated the future invasion of camera-clicking tourists: no one can escape being caught in someone’s picture. (p.199)

(Yes, *blush*, you can see my enthusiastic camera-clicking at these sites in the slide-show at my travel blog.)

I could also relate to her wry lamentation about visits to cities that can be reduced to the things I haven’t seen.  Unlike Ugrešić, I have seen the Sistine Chapel, but my plans have likewise been foiled by renovations, strikes, airline stuffups, inexperience at being a tourist, and just not having enough time to see, for example, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and the Milan cathedral, St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Rodin’s statue of Balzac in Paris, and anything in Greece because they were rioting when we were planning my Big Birthday trip in 2012 and so we went to Russia instead.

I am likewise glad that I did most of my travel not so much in the less democratic times when airfares were expensive and Ugrešić had the Louvre, Hermitage and Metropolitan to herself, but before the advent of the hordes ticking off their bucket lists with selfies to prove it and the monster cruise ships in Venice.

Because since then the cities, and with them the museums, have been occupied by consumers of cheap airfares: people resigned to every physical and mental humiliation; tourists with nerves of steel and astonishing physical endurance; human specimens outfitted for combat, armed with backpacks, cameras and bottled water; people waiting patiently in long lines, latter-day pilgrims who are paying penance for who knows what sins; hunters on the lookout for tourist relics and collectors amassing cheap souvenirs; people who have taken the metaphor of the world as a global village literally.  (p.200-1)

Ugrešić is not afraid to be elitist (and neither am I when it comes to cultural institutions, though ‘concern for the cost’ is not unimportant when I can’t just ‘hop off’ to London from Australia).

It has always been them and me.  They used to spend their weekends shopping in malls while I visited museums; they sweated buckets, ransacking Ikeas for furniture for their lairs, and I, with no concern for the cost, hopped off to London for the latest exhibitions.  What happened? The last ten years or so they have caught onto the fact that there are cheap flights and now they are flooding my (my!) places. (p.210)

It didn’t take Covid to deter Ugrešić’ from travel. (My last trip was in 2019, and that was only to New Zealand.)

Now I live on the Internet.  And after all, if our lives are already virtual, why should our travel, including our visits to museums, have to be real? I can find everything I want on museum websites.  The Met and MOMA are my favourite Internet destinations. (p.202)

No, no, Dubravka, it’s not the same!

‘Let Putin Kiss a Wet Slippery Fish’ is a take-down of Putin’s penchant for self-image management, observing that in that famous photo he has killed several semantic birds with one stone: he was addressing the gay population; alluding to a heterosexual metaphor for women; and ‘sending a kiss’ to the subconscious mind of the Russian people, who know their fairy tales. Ugrešić’s interpretation of this allusion to ‘By the Pike’s Wish’ is that it was intended to show Russians that they should put their trust in a higher order i.e. him.  It’s easy humour but Ugrešić goes further, noting that this kind of subliminal messaging that signals an ancient potent fraternity is done by all kinds of leaders.

If hundreds of tons of paper and millions of dollars were spent some eight years back when the Clinton-Lewinsky national lottery spun, and if all of America was caught up in measuring the diameter of the stain from Clinton’s sperm on Monica’s dress, why shouldn’t Putin publicly kiss a slippery, wet fish? If Mikhail Gorbachov [sic] can advertise Pizza Hut and Louis Vuitton (photographed by Annie Liebowitz, no less), why shouldn’t Putin have a snap taken with an impressive Caspian sturgeon?

But I am not interested in Putin, or the fish, but in hunger, the hunger for the limelight. What has provoked this massive yearning?  Some twenty years ago, expectations called for the opposite behaviour.  It was once considered vulgar and a sign of bad upbringing to speak of yourself, to tell the public about your private life, to cosy up to people you don’t know, and to show undue interest in the private lives of others.  How did it happen that what used to be vulgar has become an essential part of daily life?

Amazon Echo Dot

When I first went to Moscow many years ago, my Russian friends held to an unwritten rule: the less you said about yourself, the thinner the police files would be.  Why is everyone now rushing to fill their files?  Why do we treat the former bogeyman of the totalitarian system, Big Brother, like a household pet? Isn’t there anyone left in the world who suffers from healthy paranoia? (p.210)

Ugrešić goes on to write about the great paradox that the more we eat, the hungrier we are.  People are frightened of disappearing but the more traces they leave, the faster they are erased.  The more books we publish, the quicker they are forgotten; the more movies we watch, the less able we are to remember what they were called. 

Where our ancestors left behind only a few photographs, we record absolutely everything today:

our inception, life in the womb, emergence from the womb, games, growth, every minute, every month, every year, the operations, excursions, sexual acts, pulling of teeth, concerts—absolutely everything. Even when we don’t do the recording ourselves, there are many services at work recording our biographies: somewhere our every purchase of an airplane ticket is on file, our dinners, the shoes we bought, the times we went to the doctor.  (p.212)

Our archives are full, she says, even before we’re born.  (Well, mine isn’t! The first photo of me is the one you see as my avatar.)

I hope that Ugrešić’s books aren’t forgotten.  In her brief essays, she offers so much to think about.  The very next essay, ‘A Little Story about Remembering and Forgetting’, explores cultural oblivion, and how it gets harder and harder to explain important aspects of how things were to ensuing generations.  In the haste to obliterate the history of communism, some things are lost.  She could not readily explain samizdat literature to her young students:

The East European culture that had been created under communism dwells in a similar limbo of oblivion. This was an intriguing culture and the shared ideological landscape gave it a certain consistency—the landscape of communism.  It was a fact that the finest part of that culture was born of its defiance of communism, split into the “official” and the “underground” sides.  Aspects of that cultural landscape are a part of many of us.  Among us there are many who remember the brilliant Polish, Czech, and Hungarian movies; the stirring theatre; the culture of samizdat; art exhibits and plays held in people’s living rooms; critically orientated thinkers, intellectuals, and dissidents; and great experimental books whose subversive approach was built on the tradition of the avant-garde movements of Eastern Europe.  All of this has regrettably, gone by the board, because all of it has been stymied by the same merciless stigma of “communist” culture.  (p.214)

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I feel like a fool for having left my discovery of Dubravka Ugrešić for so long.

The translation by Ellen Elias-Bursać is excellent.  The prose flows, the gentle mockery never jars.

You can find out more at her website.

Author: Dubravka Ugrešić
Title: Nobody’s Home (Nikog nema doma)
Cover design by Milan Bozic
Publisher: Open Letter Books, 2008, first published 2005
ISBN: 9781934824009
Source: Personal library, purchased direct from Open Letter Books via their First 25 book bundle.

Photo credits:


  1. Oh, I really can relate to that quote about East European culture. Going to certain plays because they’d managed to ‘sneak something past’the censorship, asking friends who were lirry drivers or airline hostesses to smuggle in books or films, watching forbidden films with friends in someone’s living room with on-the-spot translation, school magazines testing how subversive they could be…
    Loved Dubravka, she will be very much missed.


    • She is so brave, she doesn’t bother about being ‘correct’, she blazes a trail.


  2. I think it’s a bit heartless of her to condemn ordinary people for wanting to see beautiful things and taking advantage of the increased opportunities to do so! I wouldn’t blame the tourists; I’d rather focus attention on the package tour companies and airline management who have encouraged individuals to think of travel in this all-inclusive, tick-box sort of way by providing such whistlestop offerings, and by knocking down airfare (though it’s creeping back up again) while it’s becoming more and more obvious that long-distance flights are a major contributor to climate disaster.


    • Well, yes, and no. I agree that ordinary people (like me) can get enormous pleasure from seeing beautiful things. But you can see from their behaviour that many of the hordes are not doing that. I’ve seen it myself. They walk into a gallery, identify the Guernica, take a selfie, and go away. They don’t even look at it.
      I think people are smart enough to think for themselves. They’re not getting sucked in by evil corporates, they choosing to do something of their own volition. And because there’s so many of them, they spoil it for others.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks Lisa – shamefully, I haven’t discovered her at all so maybe now is the time.


    • Isn’t it wonderful though, when the TBR comes up trumps? Serendipitous!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have to confess I’d never heard of her before.


    • *chuckle* That’s how I often feel when I read your posts by some author who’s been in translated into French but not English!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Although I am yet to read anything by Dubravka Ugrešić I have come across her name somewhere – she’s on my wishlist – maybe an International Booker?


    • I don’t know… I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. I used to be on Shadow Juries for that, and I only know her through having received this book in the Open Letter bundle.


  6. I do love good essays, and this sounds like a great collection from a wonderful, provocative thinker. How lucky you had the book on hand – and remembered you had it!

    “How did it happen that what used to be vulgar has become an essential part of daily life?” Love this, except that it has always been like this, methinks. It’s the way of the world. Just think of fashion. What was thought vulgar in 1900, for example, versus what we wear now. I would never give up wearing pants and a nice comfortable, easy to launder t-shirt or blouse for neck to ankle dresses. Or happily wear gloves in all seasons whenever I go to town or church as women did several decades ago. Or wear those bathing costumes like Queen Victoria did (not that I like bathing much, but if I did …!) (Then again I wouldn’t wear a g-string bikini either – how vulgar!)


    • Ah, but I think she’s being very specific about the vulgarity of ‘washing your linen in public.’ Even the young sense this sometimes when they hashtag #TooMuchInformation…


      • Sorry Lisa, yes, I realised that. I was just commenting on the general statement about how does it happen that what was once vulgar is no longer – it happens all the time. I guess I was saying, really, I don’t think “that” question is worth asking – it’s pretty much a given – even though it is worth discussing the point about the sharing of self in such detail and openness. For me the question is less “how did it happen” so much as “what does it mean or say”.


        • Reading between *her* lines, I thinking she’s really asking, how does it happen to them, and not to me. And I don’t think she’s asking this from a PoV of superiority, (though she can be rather superior at times, ha ha) I think it’s a genuine question. How/why am I resistant to this new phenomenon so that I can observe and comment on it, while others absorb it without question or demur? What is it about the way I live my life, or have been brought up, that — though exposed to the same situations/ media/ corporate advertising/ political rhetoric etc — keeps me separate from all this?
          (I could ask this about myself. Why don’t I get sucked into popular culture, sport, leading the cheer squad for WW3 etc? But I know the answer. It was my eccentric upbringing.)
          This is a question that comes through the more I read these essays… why can I see/worry about this situation, and nobody else seems bothered. I think it’s how she felt about Yugoslavia falling apart.


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