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.