Archive for the ‘Dasa Drndic’ Category

Canzone di Guerra

June 16, 2022

Dasa Drndic, who was first translated into English only ten years ago, is gradually being acknowledge as one of the most important voices of this century, although her focus often lay in the past – in Croatian and Serbian complicity in the Holocaust in the 1940s, and the conflicts which erupted in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, from where she drew lessons still unlearned. Now we finally begin to see some of her earlier work with the translation by Celia Hawkesworth of Canzone di Guerra, originally published in 1998, and centring on the experiences of refugees from the former Yugoslavia in Canada. Drndic’s books are always, in a sense, ‘timely’, tied as they are to uncomfortable truths about humanity, but with war raging in the Ukraine and refugees numbering in millions, Canzone di Guerra (‘war song’, here subtitled New Battle Songs) arrives at a point when understanding what it means to be a refugee is as important as ever.

Canzone di Guerra is narrated by Tea Radan, a writer, partly a surrogate for Drndic in the way Andreas Ban is in Belladonna and E.E.G. But the novel is not a straight-forward first-person narrative; instead, it is a patch work of stories and genres, accompanied by numerous footnotes. Take, for example, an early chapter on pigs designed to lead us, via stories of peasants in newly socialist Yugoslavia taking their pigs with them when they move into towns, towards this conclusion: “confined pigs, forcibly moved away from their familiar surroundings, die abruptly.” Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs are later mentioned in relation to the fad for adopting them as pets in America, and then, when the fashion changes, abandoning them:

“They came into parks, they reached the suburbs, the rubbish tips and – the butchers.”

In both cases, the link to Drndic’s wider theme of refugees is clear.

For Tea, and her daughter Sara, the move to Toronto is not their first migration, having already moved from Belgrade (Serbia) to Rijeka (Croatia). In some ways, Tea says, that move was harder – for Sara learning a completely new language, English, was easier than understanding the differences between Serbian and Croatian which are “essentially the same language”, and, in Canada, Tea’s accent is seen as “charming” rather than a sign she is from what is now a different country. The book’s best description of being a refugee, however, appears in the words of another as ‘Branko’s story’:

“Overnight you become a person without anything. A person without property, without money, without land. You have nothing. First there were some gunshots, then you could hear shelling in the distance. That sounded like fireworks. Exactly like fireworks.”

Tea’s story often involves dealing with bureaucracy – “Canada,” she says, “is a land of papers, that is a land of thick, rich forests, which are cut down in order to turn them into paper.” Registering for social support she is told that Sara’s father’s name cannot be left blank- eventually she suggests ‘Croaticus Magnus’. Later she and Sara attempt to adopt a cat and another lengthy form is required. When asked for reasons for adopting a cat, Tea replies “personal” –

“What were your personal reasons?

“I said: They’re personal.”

She refuses to have the cat neutered, a condition of adoption. Her obstinacy is a minor resistance which highlights both the possibility of independent thought and the difficulty of acting on it. It demonstrates that the rigidity of authority can be found not only in Eastern Europe, but in the West – a point Drndic makes about surveillance as well:

“And Big Brother is till here. He is multiplied in countless Little Brothers who conceal themselves in invisible information bases from where they monitor everything we do… Orwell is naïve material these days.”

Tea’s personal story is interspersed with her historical research – largely, but not exclusively, Croatian. She reveals the faults in her home country originating in the Second World War between those who supported the Nazis and those who resisted. This history is both personal and impersonal – some of it is told through letters her grandparents send to Tito. It contains both horror and farce – such as when Croatian nationalists insist that Grandfather Frost is replaced by Grandfather Christmas: “attitudes to Grandfather Frost had suddenly become a political question.” (See also the so-called ’culture wars’ taking place the UK today).

But no country escapes Drndic’s scrutiny. Canada, too, is not blameless when to comes to the Holocaust, for example allowing around two thousand former Ukrainian soldiers who fought for the Nazis to into the country to work. Typically, Drndic is able to distil this to a single case to make her point: Haralds Puntulis, responsible for thousands of deaths, sentenced to execution in Latvia, but allowed to die naturally in Toronto in 1982. This can make Drndic’s work seem depressing, almost nihilistic, in discovering cruelty and injustice wherever she looks, but the indefatigable resistance, and refusal to be cowed or to look away, of her and her characters allows the reader hope. If you wish to understand the world today, reading her work is a good place to begin.


October 25, 2018

Dasa Drndic’s Belladonna ends with the writer, Andreas Ban’s, attempted suicide. A final chapter, in the voice of his son, Leo, tells of fruitless attempts to contact his father, but concludes;

“Andreas Ban must appear somewhere, he cannot leave me with such a burden. This burden oppresses me, Andreas knows that, he will come back because of me, to make it easier for me. It’s hard to completely erase history and memory, history and memory like to come back.”

Now, in her final book, E.E.G. (that is, electroencephalogram, a recording of brain wave patterns) Ban returns, declaring, “Of course I didn’t kill myself.” It is, naturally, tempting to read Ban as a version of Drndic, but Ban himself soon dismisses the idea of autobiography, “as though my life could be pressed between the covers of a book,”

“Autobiographical books don’t exist, autobiographies don’t exist, there are multigraphies, biographical mixes, biographical cocktails, the whole melange of a life through which we dig, which we clear out, from which we select fragments, remnants, little pieces that we stuff into our pockets, little mouthfuls that we swallow as though they were our own.”

Drndic (or Ban) is dismissive of narrative writing in general – “I’m not offering ‘a story’, because I write about people who don’t have ‘a story’, not about those or for those who are looking for other people’s stories in order to find their own in them.” She is scornful of critics who “randomly dish out threadbare platitudes, worn-out assertions that a writer should create ‘rounded, living, complex and convincing characters’.” Instead her books consist of “fragments, remnants, little pieces”, an urgency of digression in which the detours become the journey. In this, Drndic argues, she is simply reflecting reality:

“What kind of continuity? What continuity? Everything around us, including ourselves, it’s all in patches, in spasms, in ebbing and flowing, our whole envelope, this whole earthly covering, it’s criss-crossed with loose stitches, which keep coming undone, and which we keep persistently trying to tighten.”

As we know from Belladonna, Ban has an uneasy relationship with his homeland – “an illiterate, haughty, puffed-up nation” – part of a larger distrust of nationalism and its selective relationship with history. The novel begins with his return to his parents’ house, and his sister, Ada:

“I found her in a bad way. Buried in the cellar of the family house we had sold for peanuts in the early 1990s to some Italians.”

It is difficult not to feel that the basement is where the past has been placed; while the building above is freshly painted and plastered – “in fact, the whole street has become well-mannered” – it remains dark and neglected even in summer. It is also from there that the past resurfaces: a game of chess with his sister leads Ban to recollect the many chess players reduced to madness and suicide, and then the story of chess throughout the Second World War, those who played ion for the Nazis and those who were murdered by them:

“Why have I strayed so far? The paths of human thought really are mysterious.”

The main focus of E.E.G. however is Latvia, to which Ban is linked by a ballerina he once knew, Leila who was born there, and also a family secret;

“For me Latvia became a riddle only some ten years later, when a half-truth, long unspoken in my family, acquired outlines when, like wormholes, those penetrations into space and time, into new spaces and a new time, it began to create shortcuts towards a journey, that often dangerous and destructive journey, the end of which cannot be seen.”

He pieces together a story of his uncle, Karlo Osterman, who fails to convince a young Jewish violinist, Frida Landsberg, to leave Riga with him after the Nazi invasion:

“The situation was clear to Karlo Osterman, for Karlo Osterman it was a reprise, racial laws in Croatia had been in force for two months…”

Landsberg’s story begins the story of Latvia under German occupation, which is the story of another country which has forgotten or rewritten its past.

As with any summary of Drndic’s work, however, this imposes a neatness absent in the original, which also takes Ban to other European countries (much as he visited Holland in Belladonna), and tells us of the last days of his father in a care home. Typically there are lists, most extensively this time a list of confiscated libraries (the focus on chess, music, and libraries suggest Drndic is particularly concerned with the destruction of culture or intellect – a theme that runs parallel to that of madness). Drndic’s novels are simply unlike that of any other writer being both kaleidoscopic and monomanic at the same time. Occasionally overwhelming, a tidal wave which does not cleanse but retreats to reveal the forgotten debris of the past. Though her best known work has been written in the twenty-first century, she is in many ways the vital voice of the twentieth.


June 27, 2017

Belladonna will be the third of Dasa Drndic’s novels I have read; like Trieste, it approaches four hundred pages in length (Leica Format is relatively brief at three hundred). And of those thousand pages I can say that there is not a single one I have enjoyed reading. I’m not suggesting that Drndic is the only writer who uncovers uncomfortable truths, though her spade is perhaps sharper than most, but everything she does – even audacious literary acts that would thrill in another novel – seems intent only on making her reader squirm. Why, then, continue with this literary masochism? The answer is, of course, in the question: the discomfort, the unease, is that of facing what you would rather forget, what Europe would rather forget, and what, as Drndic continues to insist, must be remembered.

Belladonna shows no sign of shying away from pain. Its main character, Andreas Ban (a writer and psychologist) finds, in old age, pain is his only companion. “You have severe degenerative changes,” a doctor tells him, “how do you manage to walk at all, this is your spine, the spine of a ninety year old.” He falls and breaks all the small bones in his hand and wrist. He discovers a lump on his breast which is cancerous and must have an operation, followed by radiation treatment. As if these physical ailments were not enough, Ban also finds himself alone, living on a meagre pension, the result of being caught between nationalities when Yugoslavia collapsed, having been born in Paris but never registered as a citizen there, and educated in Belgrade:

“When Yugoslavia was falling apart, Andreas Ban returned from Paris to Belgrade, where else would he go? And is dismissed. Now you are an enemy of the state, a Croat. He has his name, he does not consider the fact he is a Croat significant. But someone does.”

In Belladonna Drndic continues her exploration of the atrocities of the Nazis and the atrocities of the Balkan conflict of the 1990s; above all, she rages against forgetting. The lives of both the innocent and the guilty are taken from the margins and moved centre-page. (Victims, once again, in the form of pages of names). Walter Henisch, for example, an Austrian photographer who became “part of Goebbels’ machinery”:

“Then, after 1945, Walter Henisch first worked free-lance (because no newspaper would employ him with his wartime past), and much later placed himself at the service of the social-democratic press. Walter Henisch had received several awards for his work already during the war, including several of Hitler’s Iron Crosses. But then came the Austrian new sunlit age, followed by the tsunami of oblivion.”

By the 1970s Henisch is being praised for his work by a member of the Austrian government, the war years carefully omitted from his “exceptionally reduced biography”. It is this “tsunami of oblivion” which Drndic seeks to resist. According to Niklas Frank, son of a German Nazi:

“For a long time after the war, Germany bathed in collective denial of individual responsibility for the war.”

This matters to Croatia because it, too, is implicated in Nazi genocide:

“Everything would (perhaps) have been alright…had those emigres [that is, fascists who had fled to Argentina] somewhere, somehow, publically apologised to their victims, had their children and grandchildren at least glanced back at their forebears’ ideology of blood and soil. But no. Muddy little islands of poison continue to float through the Republic of Croatia.”

This refusal to face up to the past feeds into the conflict which erupts as Yugoslavia disintegrates:

“It’s hard to completely erase history and memory, history and memory like to come back. They get under people’s skin and penetrate their bloodstream.”

Focussing on this one particular theme may make it seem as though the character of Andreas Ban disappears from the novel, but this is not the case. As a writer one can’t help but suspect he is, in part, a stand-in for the author, but that makes him the most fully rounded of Drndic’s characters yet. It is this aspect that provides the novel with what passes for light relief when, in Amsterdam, he encounters a number of other (real-life) writers, and also critiques the novels he is reading. (I won’t spoil the fun by revealing any more).

I continue to be astonished that Drndic does not receive more praise for her work. It seems only Trieste has been published in the US, and Belladonna has not received a mainstream press review that I can find in the UK. Hopefully Celia Hawkesworth and MacLehose Press will continue to make her work available in English until she gets the recognition she deserves.

Leica Format

September 30, 2015


Dasa Drndic’s Trieste was one of the stand out novels of 2012, and so I was delighted to discover that MacLehose Press was publishing one of her earlier novels this year (albeit with a different translator, Celia Hawkesworth). Leica Format originates from 2002, some five years earlier than Trieste, but Drndic’s documentary style is very much in evidence. The title refers entirely to Drndic’s approach: this novel is about many things but not photography. Leica Format is a more elusive novel than Trieste; although it shares to some extent that novel’s geographic unity, it is thematically more diverse. Whereas the material in Trieste created a moving testament to the Holocaust, and Leica Format also features its own share of Nazi barbarity, in the latter this is diffused among a more general examination of medical experimentation, itself subsumed into a meditation on memory and forgetting.

The novel begins with the story of a middle-aged woman who leaves her family and home town and presents herself at the Academy of Music where she once studied under the name of another student. She works at the Academy for five years, and only when recognised as an imposter by another ex-student is she reunited with her family. “Who are you?…I don’t know you,” is her response: she has not been impersonating another person but believes she is that person. From there we move to the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, who famously wrote under the guise of many different characters, and on, via bonsai kittens, to the anatomical remnants of Nazi medical experiments in Austria:

“…those jars, which have been waiting on shelves for half a century and more in the dank cellars of Europe, the dark cellars of Vienna, those jars where children’s brains float, no-one knows exactly how many, how many children’s brains, some say AROUND 500, others AROUND 600, yet others AROUND 700 brains.”

The novel itself seems to work on the same principle, with its separate components in their jars displayed upon its narrative shelf. The reader walks along observing, attempting to make connections. See for example the narrator / writer’s description of the town where she lives:

“The town has many constricted parts, a lot of small organs, it has an appendix, but you can get by without an appendix.”

It would be fair to assume that the narrator, if not Drndic herself, is a writer as so many other writers are quoted, especially in those early pages, as she is trying to reconcile her dislike of the town she lives in with the experience of others. “Gyorgy Konrad,” we are told, “adores his city, although all kinds of horrors happen to him constantly there.” This discomfort with her place of residence is presumably linked to her Serbian origins:

“Sometimes they ask me: Are you Serbian? Sometimes they lean over the counter and say softly, I’m Serbian. Then we both smile.”

The impression we have is of someone who would reject these definitions – references to Toronto and Paris suggest a more international mind-set – but is at the mercy of provincial attitudes. Paradoxically, this is also a town where Drndic suggests the past is too easily forgotten, where both Nazi occupation and civil war are swiftly consigned to history and a new identity adopted.

This is perhaps one reason why Drndic tells, in parallel, the story of Ludwig Jacob Fritz, a visitor to the town in 1911, on his way to the USA. In this way two versions of the town, almost one hundred years apart coexist. Fritz’s exploration of the town coincides with detailed information about its streets and buildings. This reveals how everything is both rooted in history but equally how that history can be shrugged off:

“In socialist days Ferenc Deak was fugued into Boris Kidric Street…Boris Kidric is now called Krajl Kesimir…”

Fritz’s existence is later verified by the discovery of a postcard inside a book.

Leica Format is not an easy book, but there are moments of astonishing power to be found within it, in, for example, her list of medical experiments undertaken without consent from 1939 to the present (equivalent to the list of names found in Trieste), and the way in which she brings the voices of the dead to life. We might also recognise her description of the town itself:

“A contracted town in which loneliness is an epidemic that the inhabitants do not know is raging.”

Trieste was widely reviewed but Leica Format seems to have been largely ignored. It would be a pity if this prevented more of her work being translated as Drndic is clearly a vital and important voice in European literature.