Translating Dubravka Ugrešić’s The Red School, Vladislav Beronja

The word translation comes from Latin, meaning “to carry across.” Let’s first dwell on the verb “carry.” It suggests that one should be careful and not spill, break, shatter, whatever object one is transporting from one shore to the other. Here the cargo is especially precious to me. Ugrešić has been one of my favorite writers ever since I picked up The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, her 1997 novel that uses Berlin’s scarred cityscape as a meditation on war, memory, and loss. Taking the form of an émigré’s suitcase, the novel is also filled with verbal photographs—transportable, fragile memories of an interrupted life and a former homeland (Yugoslavia). It was the Croatian original that had left a primal scar on me, a mark of both its beauty and power, but I have since read and reread Celia Hawkesworth’s English translation and been deeply seared by it. Other originals and translations followed. The Ministry of Pain in Michael Henry Heim’s polyphonic improvisation—a novel about masochistic attachments to loss and the anodyne power of forgetting; Baba Yaga Laid an Egg in Ellen Elias-Bursać’s spirited rendition—a feminist reworking of gendered archetypes in Slavic mythology and folklore; and David Williams and Elias-Bursać’s transposition of Ugrešić’s wily Fox—a book of multiple, defiantly female self-portraits nested inside one another like Matryoshka dolls. Her collections of essays are no less precious, intricate, architectural: The Culture of Lies, Thank You for Not Reading, American Fictionary, Nobody’s Home, Karaoke Culture, Europe in Sepia, and the most recent, The Age of Skin. In all these works, Ugrešić has distilled so much history, so many cultural references, so much feeling and reflection into a miniature object—a printed book. To read Ugrešić is to commune with a sensitive, playful, deeply intentional consciousness compacted into the space of a bookshelf; to trace the routes of her peregrinations through Berlin, Zagreb, Amsterdam, New York, Moscow, Naples and Tokyo; and to partake in her melancholy reflections on the detritus of history left in the wake of “progress.” So, when Dubravka had agreed to collaborate on the last issue of harlequin creature with her multimedia work, The Red School, Meghan and I were overjoyed. This is a writer we both cherish with a project that fit perfectly into harlequin creature’s commitment to women writers and artists, to translation as cultural labor, and to sophisticated combinations of image and word that, in this case, recalled the history of experimental and bespoke bookmaking. It also offered an exciting challenge to us as printers. We were already doing the work of translation in our heads. But taking on this role, in more sense than one, was also daunting. How do we carry this precious object across different languages and forms? What if something spills on the way, shatters and loses its essence?

The essay re-printed in the chapbook originally accompanied the 2021 exhibition of Ugrešić’s artworks, titled The Red School. The exhibit was held at the Filodrammatica Gallery in the Croatian port city of Rijeka as part of the European Capital of Culture 2020 program. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the show had been delayed a year and could be accessed virtually as well as in person from February 23-March 26, 2021.

In many ways, The Red School is an extension of Ugrešić’s literary practice into the realm of visual arts. The artistic procedure is relatively simple—copying and rearranging the iconography of forgotten school primers from socialist-era Eastern Europe into new compositions. Its more complex intellectual roots, however, can be traced back to the mid-20th century avant-garde aesthetics. At one moment, Ugrešić calls these assemblages “interventions,” a term that recalls the vocabulary of appropriation art from which she drew her inspiration. As her influences, she mentions Ilya Kabakov, Alexander Melamid, and Dušan Otašević—the doyens of Soviet and Yugoslav Pop or “Sots” Art—as well as celebrated “outsiders” like Henry Darger. While the Pop aesthetic suggest cool irony and a pose of calculated detachment, Darger’s work is all sincerity and pure play, the self-enclosed world of an expansive imagination. In The Red School, these tendencies combine to produce unpredictable results, both poignant and subversive.

Our challenge from the beginning was how to translate the exhibit into a relatively compact chapbook and thus give the American readers a sense of Ugrešić’s overall project. Here, we took inspiration from the original catalog published in the Biblioteka Skhole series and masterfully designed by Damir Gamulin, with its minimalist red covers and striking red text against the white background. We also wanted to include the image of the red star—its iconic shape deconstructed and reconstructed into new forms—as a nod to Ugrešić’s whimsical repurposing of communist iconography. Finally, we are providing a color template based on the original collages above so that the new owners of the chapbook can color in the line drawings on the vellum themselves, thereby preserving the interactive and childlike magic of the originals.

I printed most images and the cover on the letterpress in Austin, Texas while Meghan printed the text on the Riso in New York City, where the copies were assembled and hand-bound with the additional help of friends and family. As the ink spread over the heavy rollers and the polymer form, which finally impressed itself on the fragile vellum, I would think of the complex work of memory: its material manifestations and phantom apparitions, its lightness and weight, its multiple copies and elusive originals. The intricate memories imprinted in The Red School have traveled across great stretches of time and space, picking up new meanings along the way and losing others. Temporally, they recall the fragments of Ugrešić’s childhood, a time pregnant with a utopian vision of the future. This optimistic world of the 1950s socialist classroom peeks through the opaque layer of the white vellum like a landscape through a frosted window, rendering our “present” moment of perception complex, layered, contaminated by ghostly visions of the past. Spatially, Ugrešić’s essay and artworks take us from Yugoslavia (a country that no longer exists) to Amsterdam (her chosen place of exile), back to Croatia (a former Yugoslav republic), where The Red School exhibit was staged in 2021 and for whose citizens it was originally intended. With harlequin creature’s edition we can add Austin and New York City to this list of places as well. Together, these spatial nodes form a complex network of friendships, memories, and commitments that runs against the frequently arbitrary albeit heavily policed borders between the “east” and “west,” between the 20th century dominant ideologies of capitalism and communism, and between what initially appear to be distinct and separate cultural identities. Indeed, this connection is perfectly captured in the wooden model of a red schoolhouse, which Ugrešić purchased at an antique store in Amsterdam long ago and which she cites as an initial inspiration for her project. In this particular image, the former socialist world of Eastern Europe and the U.S. come together in a politically charged constellation, recalling a cherished piece of Americana while adding a subversive note to the iconic color of the little red schoolhouse. Thinking of this image, I’m reminded of a satirical song by Rambo Amadeus, a performance artist, pop singer, and Ugrešić’s compatriot: “America and England Will Soon Be the in the Hands of the Proletariat!”

This brings me back to the preposition “across” in that labor that we in English call by its Latin name—translation. The image that immediately comes to my mind here is the bridge connecting two shores, frequently over troubled waters. Like translations, bridges are paradigmatic in-between spaces, maintaining the movement “across.” But as the experience of the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s has shown, a topic that Ugrešić returns to over and again, bridges are also fragile structures, liable to be destroyed, blown up by militants and the politicians that arm them. The translator is also a type of bridge, straining perpetually, elegantly, lovingly to sustain a connective tissue over two distinct spaces, two consciousnesses, two or more complex systems, like human languages. These days, it seems increasingly difficult to occupy that in-between space. In fact, we are much more comfortable choosing already defined sides, living and thinking in the givens rather than creating a new position, a “third space.” Here I’m not referring so much to my own translation of Ugrešić’s essay as to Ugrešić’s work as a whole—a magisterial corpus that is distinctly defined by the labor of translation, in-betweenness, and what she has once called “anti-politics:” the refusal to accept the prevailing languages of power and the courage to create one’s own literary and artistic idiom outside the dominant categories of thinking. Like her other works, The Red School not only disrupts the imposed borders between the past and present, text and image, self and other, “east” and “west,” but also remakes and repairs those connections in less violent, less definitive ways—so that the past can find a voice in the present, the image in the text, the other in the self, and the “east” in the “west.” With harlequin creature’s edition, we hope that The Red School makes its journey across safely, without losing too much of its precious essence.

We would like to thank Petar Milat for allowing us to reiterate this project in a different form and setting, and Dubravka Ugrešić for honoring us with the rights to re-publish The Red School as part of harlequin creature’s last issue. The original catalog, designed by Damir Gamulin with an introduction by Petar Milat, was published by Drugo more (Rijeka) and the Multimedijalni Institut (Zagreb) in the Biblioteka Skhole series.

October 2021 in Austin, Texas

this online publication is a part of the tenth and final issue of harlequin creature: hcx. click the “HCX” tag above the title to read/see/hear other contributions to the issue, and go to our “magazine” page to order a copy of the print anthology, which includes eight distinct book projects.

more on hcx and its contributors here.

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