Posts Tagged ‘dasa drndic’

Belladonna

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

leica

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.

Trieste

September 10, 2012

Trieste by Croatian writer Dasa Drndic is a novel about family. This is demonstrated visually (in a novel that is also scattered with photographs) as early as pages 6 and 7 when we encounter the family tree of the main character, Haya Tedeschi. The early part of the novel takes us through her family’s experiences, beginning prior to the First World War, but this is really background for its main concern, the Second World War and the Holocaust. Family, then, is more important than ever before, particularly for a Catholicized Jew like Haya.

She exists in a limbo throughout. Initially this is created by her vague grasp of her own identity which allows her to have an affair with a German officer, Kurt Franz, in Italy, but then suffer for it as a result of her Jewish background. Not only is she abandoned by Franz, but her son is taken from her as part of Himmler’s Lebensborn programme to promote Aryan children. This creates a second limbo as she waits for years for any information on what happened to the child. throughout Drndic paints a damning picture of almost all involved: not only those who ran the concentration camps, many of whom seem to have suffered little in the way of punishment, but the Catholic Church, the Red Cross, and those who guarded the records of the Nazi regime after the war.

This is a novel that tells more than the story of a character – indeed so much of it is factual that it may well be the case that no part of it is fiction. Drndic uses a number of techniques to achieve her aim of presenting truth in a way that goes beyond the normal parameters of literature: not only by including the photographs already mentioned, but also by utilising a series of voices. These include testaments from both Nazis officers and camp inmates. Not all are literal as a number of them end in a declaration of death (“Later I am killed in Warsaw, in 1943”), but this does not alter their effectiveness. Some are presented as question and answer, as if in court.

The novel also contains a 44 page list of all the Jews who were either killed in Italy or deported, and a section presenting brief biographies of many of the Nazis involved in this. Drndic questions everything. Why did the Red Cross feed Jews travelling through Switzerland on German trains but, though aware they were going to their death, did nothing to prevent this? Why did the Catholic Church seek to protect Nazi war criminals? Why was it made so difficult to obtain access to Nazi records after the war? In particular, the novel still has the power to shock in two main ways. Firstly in the inhuman cruelty of those involved in the movement and murder of Jews. As one camp inmate says:

“One simply could not grasp that it was possible – extermination.”

Secondly, and perhaps more surprisingly, the way in which many of those responsible remained unpunished, or were given very lenient sentences. – a large number were not even tried until the 1960s.

Of course, it is possible to argue that there have already been very many books about the Holocaust and that perhaps it is time for writers to move on. Reading this, however, you can’t help but feel that that will never be the case.