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"We prefer them because they are senseless"April 8 1999
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Ugreic aptly cites Voltaire's Ulug asking, "How can you prefer stories that are senseless and mean nothing?" to preface her novel about a literary conference in Zagreb. The novel is a good one, winning prizes in Yugoslavia when it was first published in 1988. But it is not a great one. It weaves together smartly the stories of sundry writers and critics, each with idiosyncrasies and human foibles. It ruminates on the contrasts between westerners and eastern Europeans, a theme that provides grist for both insightful humor and sad cynicism. Ultimately, the book answers Voltaire's question. It is senseless, but it is amusing and has plenty of clever scenes. Pra explaining how he sprained his finger while giving a silly artistic performance and had to go on half-pay and accept a larger state-subsidized apartment; the Russian Troshin's scathing musings about western visitors to eastern Europe, "What was the lure of Moscow? A love of fear?... How quickly they adapted to paranoia as a way of life."; the Croatian critic sizing up an American and concluding, "America's out. Has been for ages.... Europe is in! Mitteleuropa!"; the Czech writer of a stolen manuscript who struggles when the police ask him for a description of the stolen goods, because he can't possibly give a good plot summary in a few lines on a police report. There are some fun plot twists at the end as the role of the Flagus the pompous Frenchman is clarified. The British sensibility of Michael Henry Heim's translation occasionally jars an American reader, particularly when Marc, the prototypical American, speaks with British usages. Ugreic opens and closes the book with a series of real-life journal entries, chronicling her back problems, her travels, and her struggle with writer's block. She is interesting, and she seems to love writers and being a writer. It is this playful joy that carries the book and makes it fun to read, but in the end, it is a bit senseless.