There’s a passage in Daša Drndić’s 2004 novel Leica Format in which the narrator visits Mali Neboder, Rijeka’s cult second-hand bookshop, and sits down to read some of the antiquarian titles she’s just found on the shelves. ‘There are some beautiful places here [in Rijeka]’ she writes, ‘it’s just that they tend to be rather hidden.’ The Mali Neboder evoked by Drndić, a tightly-wound labyrinth crammed with books, documents, postcards and maps, is like an alternative archive of the city, a repository of its secrets. Each book you find on the shelves will lead you to another, related, tome, while the shop’s intuitive owners will guide you onwards to parallel topics that you hadn’t even thought of when you first entered the shop.
The world of Mali Neboder (a real existing shop which can be visited in person) is an appropriate metaphor for Daša Drndić’s own books, in which the big themes of the twentieth century are entwined with the lives of little people, rambling digressions, and a tangle of micro-histories that frequently shed light on our hunt for a bigger picture.
Drndić’s death in June 2018 came at the time when her international reputation was just achieving critical mass. Her 2007 novel Sonnenschein, published in English as Trieste in 2014, garnered major-newspaper reviews and was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. A flurry of further English translations followed, beginning with her earlier novel Leica Format (first published in 2004), and Belladonna (published in Croatian in 2012). Drndić’s passing coincided with the English-language emergence of the boldly unorthodox novella-in-two-halves Doppelgänger, and Drndić’s final, more personal novel, EEG.
Uniting all of these books – as well as the handful of titles that haven’t yet been translated into English – is a preoccupation with the dark moments of the 20th century: totalitarianism, the Holocaust, and the betrayal of historical memory. Having grown up in the shadow of World War II and then lived through the violent break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Drndić comes to us with the knowledge that the extremism and brutalities of Europe’s past are always ready to return, even to sophisticated, integrated societies that consider themselves at peace.
Born in Zagreb in 1946, Drndić moved to the Serbian capital Belgrade at the age of eight. It was in Belgrade that she went to university and made her first steps as a writer. When Yugoslav society fell apart in the early Nineties, Drndić was treated as an outsider in Belgrade and moved back to her native Croatia, where she was also regarded as a misfit who had spent too long living on the ‘other side’. Drndić came from a distinguished anti-fascist family – her father was a leader of the resistance in Istria in World War II – another reason why she was made to feel unwelcome in the conservative-nationalist Nineties.
Trieste is her most accessible book, following the lives of the Tedeschis, an assimilated Jewish family from northeastern Italy, from the start of the First World War through to the end of the Second. It almost reads like a family chronicle until the Holocaust intervenes, and the tone of the novel abruptly changes. One hundred pages in the middle of the book are taken up with an alphabetical list of the 9000 Jews deported from or killed in Italy 1943-45. There follows a list – complete with potted biographies – of the German SS officers who served in the death camps of Eastern Poland before being redeployed to Trieste in 1943. This use of documentary material, so characteristic of Drndić’s work, was the author’s way of saying that you couldn’t write fiction about something as serious as the Holocaust without anchoring the narrative to factual sources.
Trieste ends in traditional literary style when a long-held family secret finally comes into the open. Drndić’s other books take more risks with the narrative, juxtaposing different historical threads from different periods and frequently blurring the distinction between the protagonist’s story and the author’s own biography. The unnamed narrator of Leica Format takes us on a journey through the pre-World War I history of Rijeka, the crimes of the Croatian quisling regime in World War II, and digressions on medical experiments on human beings. Several characters have double identities or change their names, either because they emigrate to new countries or have a desire to reinvent themselves –if human beings can adopt different identities and push their past under the carpet, Drndić seems to be saying, whole societies can do it too.
Belladonna and EEG centre on Andreas Ban, a retired, Rijeka-based psychologist and writer who acts as both Drndić’s alter-ego and an autonomous character in his own right. The question of late-life crisis and creeping frailty is a major theme of both books. Ban begins to suffer health problems at the same time as his retirement as a university lecturer, inducing a growing alarm at the sudden onrush of social isolation, powerlessness and irrelevance. He suddenly realizes he is the ‘psychologist who no longer psychologizes, the writer who never writes, the tourist guide who no longer has anyone to guide’. This triggers a rush of reflections, not only on Ban’s own past but on the epoch he has lived through.
Fictional creations like Andreas Ban (and Printz, one of the protagonists of the compellingly grotesque Doppelgänger) were both, like Drndić herself, born in the 1940s, and grew up thinking that their parent’s generation had not only won the war against Fascism, but had also won all the arguments against Fascism too. The idea that the radical right might one day return to power seemed absurd. Buoyed by the boom years of the Sixties, the same generation also grew up expecting secure careers, health insurance and a dignified retirement. For the Ban generation, however, the onset of middle age brings a succession of shocks. Suddenly the world appears to be going backwards, and Drndić’s alter ego is no longer young enough to cope with the rugs incessantly being pulled from under his feet. This is where the sadness of Belladonna and EEG lies; the post-war generation is powerless to prevent the erosion of post-war certainties, while their children and grandchildren have an increasingly weak grip on where we are all supposed to be heading.
And here the question of historical memory becomes acute. With Holocaust survivors and other victims of Fascism slowly dying out, and the immediate post-war generation no longer in charge, who picks up the baton of commemoration? And who defends the truth against historical revision? Drndić’s novels are an attempt to stem the flood of collective amnesia and shake society – or at least that small part of it that reads big books – out of its complacency.
A Drndić novel can be a relentless, badgering, sometimes hectoring affair, driving the reader on toward new, vital historical discoveries. Her alter-ego Andreas Ban urgently guides us through accounts of Jewish refugees in World War II Serbia, Nazi collaborators in Latvia, or the (nowadays forgotten) persecution of German citizens in liberal post-war Holland, as if to say this is our combined heritage, do not pass it by. Like many great writers Drndić revisits her obsessions in book after book, finding new ways to address themes that nagged at her in an earlier novel. ‘When one writes, it’s best to repeat things’ says Andreas Ban in EEG. ‘It’s even desirable to transpose whole passages from one book to another, which I sometimes do. People are so chronically forgetful.’
Trieste, Leica Format, Belladonna and EEG are all published by Maclehose Press in the UK. Doppelgänger is published by Istros Books.