sat 15/12/2018

Daša Drndić: Belladonna review - a tragicomic journey into Europe's darkness | reviews, news & interviews

Daša Drndić: Belladonna review - a tragicomic journey into Europe's darkness

Daša Drndić: Belladonna review - a tragicomic journey into Europe's darkness

The visionary Croatian novelist, who died in June, has won Warwick University's Women in Translation prize

Furious hilarity: Daša Drndić

Daša Drndić, the Croatian author who died in June aged 71, has posthumously won the second Warwick Prize for Women in Translation for her coruscating novel Belladonna. The award, set up last year to help rectify the acute, and long-standing, gender imbalance among authors translated into English, is supported by the University of Warwick. This year, the panel of judges again consisted of Professors Amanda Hopkinson and Susan Bassnett – both eminent translators, and teachers of the art – and myself. 

We read 53 submitted works (an encouragingly sharp hike compared to 2017) across a broad spectrum of genres: novels, short-story collections, poetry, children’s books and creative non-fiction. In addition to Belladonna, in Celia Hawkesworth’s virtuoso translation, our shortlist included Esther Kinsky’s River, Zanna Słoniowska’s The House with the Stained-glass Window, Han Kang’s The White Book, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, and Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights – which this May won the Man Booker International Prize, and which we decided to honour with a special mention. Re-reading our final selection – two books each from Polish and German, one from Korean and one from Croatian – it struck me that each author had in her own way sought to wrestle with the demons of collective hatred, especially as they ran and still run amok across modern Europe. Even the Korean narrator of Han’s The White Book comes to terms with private grief and abandonment while living in a war-haunted European city that can only be Warsaw. 

Here in Britain, at a moment when reality-defying groupthink and nationalism have convulsed political life in a way arguably not seen since the First World War, we urgently need to hear literary voices who can bear witness to the damage done by the unrestrained hive mind. Daša Drndić, whose razor-edged wit and outspoken courage glints and slices across every page she wrote, grew up in the immediate aftermath of a total war that had made her native Yugoslavia a killing-field of massacres and persecutions. Born in 1946 to parents who belonged in the bosom of Tito’s multi-national confederation (her Partisan father became a diplomat; her mother was a psychiatrist), she studied in the US and worked as an editor, translator and radio producer. In middle age, she witnessed the post-1990 splintering of Yugoslavia into rival, ethnically-defined nations whose fratricidal wars left over 200,000 dead. The novels that established her reputation, mostly published after 2000, often delve deeper into the region’s bloody history, and above all bring the local crimes of the Holocaust to light. Her fiction mixes historical reportage and documentary material into the compelling stories of real and invented characters. It registers the sheer fragility of peace and tolerance, investigates the motives of the ordinary folk who become architects or accessories of horror and, supremely, recovers and honours the memory of history’s unnumbered victims. 

In richly textured narratives which set eccentric individual stories alongside the documentary records of mass crimes and collective ordeals, Drndić cultivates a visionary art of memory. She rescues the names, and the lives, of the lost. In novels such as Trieste and Leica Format, and again in Belladonna, her unsparing gaze comes repeatedly to rest on Nazi genocide and its accomplices in her native Croatia and the neighbouring territories. This work of witness can take some startling forms: not only in her meticulous accounts of single victims and perpetrators, enhanced by uncanny but enigmatic photographs, but also in those signature interludes when she breaks off her narrative to catalogue the dead from some atrocity, or deportation, or another. In Belladonna, for instance, a list of Jewish children sent to death camps from the Netherlands extends to 16 pages. These litanies periodically seize hold of her stories like a spell, a prayer – or a curse.

In Drndić’s eyes, the fuel of group hatred remains forever combustible. Her own experience of strife and slaughter in former Yugoslavia, driven by politicians who played the ethnic card, lies near the surface of all her work. Toxic ideologies of race and nation infect the lives that she imagines, giving rise to a sort of chronic spiritual pain. Especially, perhaps, in Belladonna, her writing glows with an incendiary bleakness worthy of Beckett – and she certainly drew from the fiction of that great Austrian curmudgeon, Thomas Bernhard. But along with that asperity and melancholy comes a gallows humour that often swings into an uproarious mood of mischief and absurdity.

Belladonna recounts the old age, and remembered younger life, of a superannuated Croatian psychologist named Andreas Ban. Andreas is a prickly, disillusioned and hyper-sensitive scrutineer of his own and his country’s plight. Now thrown out off his academic post and forced to subsist on a derisory pension, the long-suffering retiree also undergoes a series of medical crises – cancer, lung disease, impaired vision and (not surprisingly) depression among them. He observes his step-by-step disintegration with a stoic, pitiless and darkly comic gaze.

Trapped in a decaying body that has become “one great degenerative change”, our heroically grumpy hero casts a withering eye on today’s Croatia, that “small, ruined, pompous country”, and a tearful one on the outrages of its past. Stricken by his maladies, Ban has himself turned into a “ravaged city” like the conflict-blasted capitals of the Europe he knows. 

His searing exasperation has its tragic aspect – but also an unmistakably comic side. Think Victor Meldrew from One Foot in the Grave, but additionally burdened by all the ghastly cargo of central European history, and you might begin to imagine the furious hilarity that burns through Belladonna. Poor Andreas, “rapidly fraying, inside and out”, truly can’t believe it – the folly and cruelty of official prejudice, and the pettier bigotries that cheapen life in the provincial backwater around him. “The provincial spirit does not like the unknown,” rails Ban, in a diatribe against the insular banality of his shrunken homeland. 

Meanwhile, the novel’s historical episodes illuminate the deadly and even genocidal terminus to which that “restrictive spirit” of tribalism may, if unchecked, lead. Voiced with exhilarating zest in Celia Hawkesworth’s translation, the twilight scorn and pity of Andreas Ban makes for a stirring, bracing – but also sulphurously funny – journey through age and memory. He, and we, can grasp the sorrows and abominations of the past only through the jagged, vivid fragments of this fictional-historical mosaic. We learn, though, that a fragment “can be a remnant, something out of which and with which the always risky reconstruction of the lost whole begins”. Drndić’s “parallel stories” of mourning and endurance do in the end come together to affirm “the connectedness of facts and lives”. After all, “it is out of ruins, out of wrecks, out of discarded parts that the new comes into being”. And readers who join Drndić on this shattering passage through the body and through history have another dark discovery in store. Celia Hawkesworth’s translation of E.E.G., Drndić’s final novel and a second tragi-comic episode of Andreas Ban’s incandescent rage against the dying of the light, is published this month.

  • Belladonna and E.E.G. by Daša Drndić, translated by Celia Hawkesworth (MacLehose Press)

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