Workers must command
A Bulgarian grocery store opened for business in my Amsterdam neighborhood. On the inside of the plate-glass window they hung a Bulgarian flag, making the store highly visible from the outside, but dark inside. They sell overpriced Bulgarian groceries. And the same can be said of almost all the ethnic markets. First come the migrants, and after them—the markets. After a time the ethnic food markets disappear, but the migrants? Do they stick around? The number of Bulgarians in the Netherlands is clearly on the rise; two Bulgarian markets have opened recently in my neighborhood alone. And as to those with a “Balkan tooth,” they have famously deep pockets as far as food is concerned; they’ll happily shell out a euro or two extra to satisfy gourmandish nostalgia. The markets sell Bulgarian wine, frozen kebapcheta and meat patties, cheese pastries (banitsas), pickled peppers and cucumbers, kyopolou, pindjur, lyutenitsa, and sweets that look as if they’ve come from a package for aid to the malnourished: they are all beyond their shelf dates. The store is poorly tended and a mess, customers are always tripping over cardboard boxes. Next to the cash register sits a young man who doesn’t budge, more dead than alive, it’s as if he has sworn on his patron saint that nobody will ever extract a word from him. The young woman at the cash register is teen-magazine cute. She has a short skirt, long straight blond hair, a good tan. Her tan comes from her liquid foundation; her cunning radiates like the liquid powder. She files her nails, and next to her stands a small bottle of bright red nail polish. The scene fills me with joy. She grins slyly. I buy lyutenitsa, Bulgarian (Turkish, Greek, Macedonian, Serbian) cheese, and three large-size Bulgarian tomatoes. Dovizhdane. Довиждане.
I know that every European right-wing heart warms to this description. True, the “Easterners,” the Bulgarians, Romanians, Poles, not only steal, drink, and lie, but they bring with them their own pickles, their own swill. They can hardly wait to milk our welfare system, move into our subsidized housing, which they then sublet to others while they go back to their houses and lounge and laze around with the money they’ve ripped off from us taxpayers. Of course the Bulgarians, Romanians, and Poles think the same of their Roma; and until recently the Bulgarians thought likewise of their Turks. Ever since educated Bulgarian women have been rushing off to Turkey in droves, however, to earn a little pocket money as housekeepers, the constellation of products and the erosion of stereotypes has shifted to the advantage of the Turks.
The division into those who work and those who do not—the hardworking and the indolent, the diligent and the ne’er-do-wells, the earnest and the couch potatoes—is hardly new, but over the last few years it has become the basic media-ideological matrix around which revolve the freethinkers of the general public. Joining the category of the indolent, ne’er-do-wells, and malingerers are the ranks of the jobless (for whom the employed claim they are simply incompetents and bumblers), along with the grumblers, indignants, and the groups defined by their country, geography, and ethnicity (Greeks, Spaniards, Romanians, Bulgarians, Serbs, Bosnians—all shiftless riffraff!), anticapitalistic elements, hooligans, vandals, terrorists, and Islamic fundamentalists.
In response to the question of how to become a multimillionaire, one of the wealthiest Russian oligarchs replied, “Don’t you forget, I work seventeen hours a day!” The very same answer is given by criminals, thieves, politicians, porn stars, war profiteers, celebs, mass murderers, and other similar deplorables. They all say seventeen hours a day, my career, and my job with such brash confidence, not a twitch to be seen. On Meet the Russians, a TV show broadcast by Fox, young, prosperous Russians, many of them born, themselves, into money, fashion models, fashion and entertainment industry moguls, pop stars, club owners, and the like, all use the following phrases: I deserve this; everything I have, I’ve earned; my time is money; I work 24/7; I never give up.
The media (they, too, work 24/7!) have managed to persuade the nonworking majority that this is so. And while the lazy majority has no career, or profession, or first and last name, or even a face, the faces of the hardworking minority are with us twenty-four hours a day. As far as women go, of course, the ass often replaces the face. The ass has its (ethnic) identity, and a first and last name (Guess whose gorgeous ass this is?—a regular headline in Croatian newspapers). And meanwhile the ne’er-do-wells have become Earth’s burden, they slow its rotation, nobody knows how to jettison them, and they’d be best off taking matters into their own hands. This is why the movie Ilo Ilo, directed by Anthony Chen, begins with the unambiguous fall of an anonymous body from the balcony of a Singapore apartment building. The movie speaks about the impact of the Asian financial crisis on the “indolent”: they turn to drink, plunge from their balconies, kill themselves.
Short news items, such as a report from Rexecode, the Parisian center for monitoring macroeconomic development, sometimes snatch a little column space in the media in places like Croatia and Serbia, tucked in between the bigger headlines such as: “You won’t believe the gorgeous asses vacationing this summer on the Adriatic beaches.” The results shown by the Rexecode research project on the hours people work in Europe show that the lazy Romanians are the absolute record-holders in terms of the number of hours they spend on the job. The lazy Greeks come in second, and the lazy Bulgarians, third. After them come the Croats, Poles, Latvians, Slovaks, Estonians, and Cypriots. Working the least are the diligent Finns, while the legendarily industrious Germans are somewhere mid-scale. Such news flashes do little, regrettably, to uproot the deep-seated prejudices, in fact they reinforce them. The diligent have won the day, not only in real terms, but symbolically as well. The indolents are despised by all, and most of all by the indolents themselves. They themselves look up to, even deify, the hard-workers (meaning: the superrich). The news that there are no more than two hundred hard-workers in little Croatia, while everybody else is indolent (whether jobless or working, they are all equally hungry) has prompted Croatian legislators to propose a new labor law, with the blessings of the hard-workers; the new law apparently strips the indolents of all rights, except the right to the barest of existences.
The native armed with bow and arrow, railway line, village, town, may the country thrive and grow, long live, long live work. These are the lyrics of a song that was sung during the Socialist period, when workers’ rights were much greater than they are today. I confess I never made sense of these verses, perhaps because I didn’t try. What possible connection could there be between a native armed with bow and arrow and railway lines, villages, and towns, unless the lyrics are an anticipatory tweet about the eons of history of the human race: in other words, thanks to the appeal of hard work, natives traded in their bows and arrows for railways, villages, and towns. Or, perhaps, it’s the other way around: without the redeeming balm of work, those same natives would have to return to the age of bows and arrows, while weeds would engulf the railway lines, villages, and towns. Although the everyday life of socialism in ex-Yugoslavia was like a hedonistic parody of the everyday life in other communist countries, Yugoslavs shared with them a packet of the same values, a set of common symbols, and their imaginary. And at the center, at least as far as symbols and the imaginary go, was work. Work was what persuaded the native armed with bow and arrow to evolve from the ape, and the “peasant and worker” and “honest intellectuals” evolved thereafter from the native. “The workers, peasants, and honest intellectuals” were the pillars, in the socialist imaginary, of a robust socialist society and were cast in a powerful positive light, especially because the honest intellectuals were separated from dishonest intellectuals just as the wheat is winnowed from the chaff. The “bureaucracy” was the necessary evil, the “bureaucracy” flourished, while feeding, parasite-like, on the people. In any case, the word “work” was heard everywhere: in the news shorts that played before films in Yugoslav movie theaters, in the images of eye-catching, sweaty, workers’ muscles, in my elementary school primers where the occupations were unambiguous (male miners, female nurses, male blacksmiths, female backhoe-operators, male construction workers, female teachers, male engineers, female tram-drivers), in the movies, and in the First-of-May parades—pagan-like rites, honoring the god of labor as tons of sacrificial steel, coal, wheat, books were rolled out. The heroes of the day were the record-breakers, the men and women who went above and beyond the norm. The heroes of today are pop stars, Marko Perković Thompson and Severina, and the many clowns who surround them.
Today the vistas I see are post-Yugoslav. Perhaps the view is better in the postcommunist countries like Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary … I hope representatives of other postcommunist countries don’t hold against me my geopolitically narrow focus. Everything I’ve said refers only to little Croatia, little Serbia, little Bosnia, little Macedonia … And this crumb of badness in the sea of postcommunist goodness can easily be ignored, can it not? Although to be honest, research from 2007 shows that fewer than half of the Germans living in what used to be East Germany were pleased with the current market economy, and nearly half of them desired a return to socialism. As a return to the previous order is now unimaginable, the lethargic East German grumblers have been given a consolation prize, a little nostalgic souvenir, a MasterCard and on it the face of Karl Marx, designed and issued by a bank in the city known today as Chemnitz, though earlier it was called Karl-Marx-Stadt.
The Russian oligarch who said “Don’t forget, I work seventeen hours a day!” seems to have forgotten a lesson he’d imbibed in his earliest years. In Russian fairy tales, Ivan the Simple earns his happy ending and wins the kingdom and the queen. Does he do this by working seventeen hours a day? No he does not. He does this thanks to his cunning and his powerful helpers: a horse able to traverse miles and miles at lightning speed, a magic shirt that makes him invincible, a fish that grants his wishes, Baba Yaga who gives him sly advice, and powerful hawks and falcons for brothers-in-law. Even our hero—Ivanushka, grimy, ugly, slobbering Ivanushka Zapechny, he who is the least acceptable, who lounges all the livelong day by the tile stove—even he, such as he is, wins the kingdom and the princess without breaking a sweat. Our modern fairy tale about the seventeen-hour workday has been cooked up as consolation for the losers. Who are the majority, of course.
The young woman at the cash register in the Bulgarian market knows all this; she files her nails and waits for one of the hard-workers who will turn her from a frog into a princess. Her seventeen-hour workday at the cash register at a neglected ethnic grocery in Amsterdam will not deliver her the transformation she’s hoping for.
In the movie This Must Be the Place, Sean Penn plays the role of a rich, aging rock star who says: “Have you noticed how nobody works anymore and everybody does something artistic?”
—Translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać
Dubravka Ugresic is the author of seven works of fiction, including The Museum of Unconditional Surrender and Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, along with seven collections of essays, including Thank You for Not Reading and Karaoke Culture, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. She has won, or been shortlisted for, more than a dozen prizes, including the NIN Award, Austrian State Prize for European Literature, Heinrich Mann Prize, Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, Man Booker International Prize, and the James Tiptree Jr. Award. In 2016, she received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (the “American Nobel”) for her body of work.
Ellen Elias-Bursać has been translating fiction and nonfiction by Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian writers since the eighties, including novels and short stories by David Albahari, Dubravka Ugresic, Daša Drndić, and Karim Zaimović. She is the coauthor of a textbook for the study of Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian with Ronelle Alexander, and author of Translating Evidence and Interpreting Testimony at a War Crimes Tribunal: Working in a Tug-of-War, which was awarded the Mary Zirin Prize in 2015.
From The Age of Skin, by Dubravka Ugresic, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać. Used with the permission of Open Letter Books.