‘without memory, the present becomes sick, mutilated, a torso with amputated organs.’
— EEG by Daša Drndić, translated by Celia Hawkesworth
Those who knew Daša Drndić loved her for her relentless pursuit of the truth, her rage against injustice, and her passion for writing about difficult subjects, in particular the complicity of the fascists in her native Croatia during the Holocaust and the ethnically-driven conflicts of the 1990s. Her novels are about the necessity of bearing witness, of refusing to forget, and their contemporary resonances are obvious: her books offer salutary warnings against allowing radical nationalism and ethnic hatred to raise their ugly heads in Europe once again. Drndić, who died of lung cancer on 5 June 2018, aged 71, leaves behind an extraordinary array of work, with five of her thirteen novels translated into English. All expose the collusion of those who have either remained silent or attempted to deny past horrors and war crimes.
Drndić was born in Zagreb in 1946, when Croatia was part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, into a middle-class family of intellectuals. Her psychiatrist mother, Timea, died of cancer aged just 50; her beloved father Ljubo, a journalist and wartime partisan, served as ambassador to Sweden and Sudan, and lived to 93. Drndić was raised in both Serbia and Croatia, studying philology at the University of Belgrade, before winning a Fulbright scholarship to the US. Later she travelled, and worked as a journalist and translator, a professor of English, an editor, playwright and producer for Radio Belgrade’s drama department. She was forced to leave Belgrade in the early 1990s because of growing nationalism – she was dismissed negatively as a ‘Croat’. In 1995 she moved to Canada with her daughter, where they remained as refugees until 1997. Later, she studied for a PhD at the University of Rijeka, where she lived for the rest of her life.
Drndić’s work had been published in Hungarian, Macedonian, Slovenian, Serbian and Dutch before MacLehose Press became the first to translate and publish her books in English, with her 2007 novel Trieste, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać, promptly shortlisted for the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction prize. In 2015, Maclehose published Celia Hawkesworth’s translation of an earlier book, Leica Format (2003); Belladonna (2015) published in Hawkesworth’s translation in 2017, was a finalist in the inaugural European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) Award and posthumously won the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. I first met Drndić at the EBRD ceremony. ‘Belladonna is such a courageous work,’ I congratulated her. ‘Not courageous,’ she replied with her customary brusqueness, ‘truthful.’ She didn’t win, alas, and died a few weeks later.
Trieste is indicative of her style and lifelong concerns. At the heart of this sprawling, magisterial novel are the experiences of Haya Tedeschi and her Catholicised Jewish family during the Second World War. Now an elderly woman, Haya sits alone in a rocking chair. She is waiting, as she has done for sixty-two years, to be reunited with her son, and sifts through the contents of a basket at her feet. It contains letters and newspaper cuttings, posters and photographs of movie stars, old programmes, tickets and photographs of her family, yellowing with age. Haya’s story is central to the novel, but her experience, Drndić implies, is representative of many. The memorabilia she hoards so obsessively are ‘about encounters, about the traces preserved of human contact’. As a young woman, Haya has an affair with an SS officer in nearby Gorizia, part of the new German province, Adriatisches Kustenland, and gives birth to a son. Antonio, just a few months old, is snatched from his pram and ends up a victim of the notorious Lebensborn programme. As Haya later learns, he was sent to an orphanage to be adopted by ‘racially pure’ German parents.
Haya’s main failing is to ignore what is going on around her. Her family lives ‘in the illusion of ignorance. Those who know what is happening do not speak. Those who don’t know ask no questions.’ When they can no longer ignore what is happening, they act as a means of survival: ‘when they do speak, they sign up to fascism.’ It is only when Haya begins the long search to find her son that she begins to piece together the atrocities that were happening on her doorstep: the concentration camp in Trieste, and the terrible culpability of her German lover, Kurt Franz.
Overlapping lives and unexpected encounters also form the subjects of an earlier novel, Doppelgänger (2002), translated into English by Susan Curtis and Hawkesworth and published by Istros Books in 2018. Drndić described Doppelgänger as an ‘ugly little book’ but professed it was her favourite work. Characteristically, Drndić challenges her reader with brutal truths and uncomfortable imagery; Doppelgänger (which consists of two stories) is short, but perfectly distils her concerns. In ‘Artur and Isabella’, two old people meet on New Year’s Eve. He is a former officer in the Yugoslav army, she an Austrian Jew who fled to Croatia. Artur loves his collection of hats as much as Isabella adores chocolates. They both wear nappies and enjoy a bizarre, sexually explicit, Beckettian encounter before parting ways. Interspersed with the account of their meeting are extracts from surveillance dossiers; the police are monitoring them both.
In ‘Pupi’, Printz, a former chemist and state spy, loses his mother (an opera singer) and father (also a chemist and spy) in close succession. He becomes obsessed with watching the rhinos confined in an empty Belgrade zoo. In their enclosure is an iron door that leads to their den, but the door is closed and their keepers absent; the rhinos, desperate to go inside, charge in turn, beating their heads with force against the door. The rhinos’ plight is a powerful metaphor for the senselessness of war. In both these unsettling stories, Drndić creates a nightmarish vision and a palpable sense of menace in her exploration of state and personal repression. In this respect, Serbia and Croatia mirror one another. After his father’s death, Printz is turfed out of the family home by his brother and spends five years wandering the streets, comparing himself at one point to Stephen Dedalus, as he slowly loses his mind. Then he is recruited, rewarded and bullied by the state, before being dispossessed by his brother. Drndić draws a further connection between the two stories, and the significance of doppelgängers, in the final pages, when she reveals that a Jewish family had previously owned the villa where Pupi had grown up. If one denies the horrors of the past, Drndić implies, history will repeat itself.
Throughout her work, Drndić interweaves fiction, reality, history, and memory to terrific effect, producing unforgettable meditations on love and loss, the insanity of war and the legacy of human cruelty. In Belladonna and its sequel EEG (published in November), she returns to the Holocaust and other atrocities from World War II: the war crimes committed by the Ustaše fascists; the making and falling apart of Yugoslavia; and the brutality and ethnic hatred of the 1990s Balkan conflict. Her central character in these two final novels is Andreas Ban, a 65-year old psychologist, writer, and academic, who has been forced into retirement and resents the contempt with which he is treated by his former colleagues and employers. In many ways, Ban appears to be Drndić’s alter ego. In Belladonna, he is in remission after being treated for cancer and suffers from increasingly poor health. Despite his retirement, people continue to send him their personal stories, which he adds to a file named ‘Destinies’. As he sifts through their memories, and his own, he confronts horrific events from his country’s past, and reflects on how they have shaped him and his compatriots. At the end of Belladonna, Drndic suggests that Ban committed suicide but, as we discover in EEG, he has not died. In her final novel, however, an obsession with illness and medical procedures infiltrate the narrative, imbuing it with a palpable urgency and rage.
Ghosts haunt Drndić’s work: in Belladonna, she includes 1055 names of those murdered in Zasavica, while EEG contains a twenty-page list of thefts carried out in Zagreb and Dubrovnik, as well as a roll-call of chess players who were victims of fascism, who suffered from state repression, committed suicide, or just lost their minds. Lists, as Drndić once noted, ‘particularly when they are read aloud, become salvos, each name a shot, the air trembles and shakes with the gunfire. Lists of the dead – the murdered – are direct and threatening. They beat out a staccato rhythm like a march, out of them peek the dead, saying Look at us.’ In EEG Ban/Drndić rails against the lack of commemorative plaques in Croatia (‘if I do happen across one, they are small, almost invisible, placed high up, their letters fading, or else they are desecrated, chipped by the mallet of some truculent passer-by of unsound mind’), and delivers a resounding attack on the lesser known persecution and genocide of around 70,000 Jews in Latvia, which left the country without a third of its population. If the last century was defined by the Holocaust and its aftermath, then the early part of this century has been dominated by mass migration and the world’s diverse response to the ongoing influx of refugees. Belladonna opens with a brief description of sixty people incarcerated in a camp for illegal immigrants. They sew their lips together, in despair at the authorities’ inability to process their applications for leave to remain. The sewing up of lips serves as a powerful symbol for the silencing of critical and dissident voices. Drndić gives them a voice. She has created a memorial of works dedicated to those who have been deliberately forgotten, the undocumented, the silenced, the victims of violence whose deaths passed unnoticed because the perpetrators wanted it that way or because there was no one left to mourn them.
Drndić will be remembered for her outspokenness, her refusal to be quiet, her interrogation of history, and her exploration of difficult or taboo topics. Her novels exhort the reader to remember past brutalities and remind us how prejudice, if left unchecked, can continue to infect the present. Across her work, Drndić illustrates how past atrocities continue to reverberate down the decades, warning against the destructive force of rabid nationalism and the denigration of the other: as Ban tells his son towards the end of Belladonna, ‘when I see the other, I comprehend myself. To comprehend myself, to respect myself, I have to respect the other, because I am the other. And responsibility for the other is a fundamental human value. Without it, we become monsters’.