Daša Drndić Dives Into the Abyss of History

Daša Drndić Dives Into the Abyss of History

Daša Drndić Dives Into the Abyss of History

The Croatian novelist’s work reckons with some of the 20th century’s most violent moments, all in the hope of recovering the stories of both the victims and victimizers.


The works of Croatian novelist Daša Drndić reckon with the obscene, organized violences of the 20th century. They do so directly but not in a manner familiar to most readers of contemporary historical or political fiction, at least in English. (Her subject matter, essayistic style, and use of historical material have earned her frequent comparisons to W.G. Sebald, which are understandable but misguided; his contemplative sorrow is a world away from her bristling rage.) Her works dive into the abyss of history, in the hope of recovering the names and lives of those lost.

Drndić—who died of lung cancer last year at the age of 71—is equally concerned with victims and victimizers. “History remembers the names of perpetrators, not the victims,” admits Andreas Ban, the narrator of EEG, her last completed novel, released in Croatian in 2016 and published in English this year in a translation by Celia Hawkesworth. This may be so, but even that remembrance of the perpetrators is, as Drndić’s work evinces, often faulty, even dangerous. Humanity, she suggests, is gravely at risk of not only forgetting but also forgiving far too easily. In her books the reader encounters the names of Nazis, of members of the Ustasha—a midcentury Croatian fascist movement—and of collaborators whom the powerful (and thus recorded history) have too often treated with undue lenience. Her novels seek justice but remain highly skeptical of its possibility, at least by literary means; they’re reparative works that teeter on the brink of despair. This tension infuses them with her singular melancholic misanthropy. These are novels of dashed hopes, of high expectations consistently unmet, of humanity unredeemed and undeserving.

Ban, a retired psychologist who appeared previously in Drndić’s marvelous novel Belladonna (out in Croatian in 2015 and in English in 2017, also translated by Hawkesworth), is first and foremost a vessel for the author’s blistering pessimism. But his dark view of his fellow beings, which suffuses and animates Belladonna and EEG, extends far beyond the ethical concerns that are her central literary subjects. He complains about war crimes but also about street noise. “The din all around is appalling,” he says at one point. “It assaults one shamelessly.” This comes a page before his recollection of confronting someone over a hotel breakfast for speaking too loudly on their cell phone. Throughout EEG, such petty concerns sit alongside metaphysical ones. Ban shifts seamlessly from meditating on the subject of time—“Time is getting away from me again, overflowing, it will not be tamed, insane time carries me off into the madhouse of its expanse, into the underground of its gloom”—to griping about a waiter’s refusal to put ice in his drink. These juxtapositions are endearingly jarring, and his displays of everyday crankiness provide an appropriately sour humor to cut the novel’s otherwise unrelenting seriousness.

Whereas Belladonna concludes with Ban’s near suicide by means of poison berries from the titular plant, EEG picks up with a sort of resurrection in the form of a bitter, biting quip. “Of course I didn’t kill myself,” he announces in the novel’s first line, signaling not only his return from the brink of death but also a shift from Belladonna’s meandering third-person narration to an equally unmoored first person. Even more than its predecessors, EEG embraces formal fragmentation, as well as frequent quotation of other writers—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Virilio, and Søren Kierkegaard, among others. Ban even argues explicitly for the virtues of narrative disjunction. Midway through the novel, he decries the “tepid limp flow” of “literary continuity” and readers’ and critics’ desire for books that adhere to it. Such works, he insists, impose on life an order utterly foreign to it. “Everything around us,” he thinks, “including ourselves, it’s all in patches, in spasms, in ebbing and flowing.”

This is precisely how Ban—and through him, Drndić—aims to write, continuing the expansive, exploratory style she honed in 2007’s Trieste and Belladonna. EEG stutters between personal reflection and historical intermission, with neither mode nor any single narrative thread predominating. She maneuvers from Ban’s recollections of his family to his meditations on memory to historical catalogs of tragedy. This last element, the most direct expression of her aesthetic interest in archives, will be familiar to readers of her previous books. (Her oeuvre’s most startling instance of this remains Trieste’s list of about 9,000 Italian Jews (or those living in countries occupied by Italy) who were murdered or deported from 1943 to 1945, which consumes over 44 pages in the 2014 English edition.) In EEG, she devotes 19 pages to a table listing books and other materials plundered from Yugoslavian Jews, as well as the names of those from whom they were stolen, excerpted from “the gigantic bureaucracy of the Third Reich,” available in the Russian State Military Archive and reproduced in facsimile at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The literary use of such documentary evidence invites readers to confront the brute fact of genocide without averting their gaze. Ban declares:

Lists, particularly when they are read aloud, become salvos, each name a shot, the air trembles and shakes with gunfire. Lists of the dead—the murdered—are direct and threatening. They beat out a staccato rhythm like a march, out of them speak the dead, saying Look at us. They offer us their short lives, their faces, their passions and fears, the rooms in which they dreamed, the streets they loved, their clothes, their books, their medical records.

The list that ends this brief, stirring sermon on the power of lists is itself telling. For Drndić, one can glimpse the spark of humanity in a familiar or even bureaucratic object as much as in a face or a life. This is why her novels are filled with such objects, records, and catalogs, making literature out of documents and detritus. One extended section of EEG comprises a series of psychological case histories of patients seen by Ban or his recently deceased friend, Adam Kaplan. It is within one of these that the reader finds the sole use of the novel’s title, in a list of tests performed on a patient who has begun to hallucinate and feel alienated from parts of his body: “E.E.G. shows no symptoms of epilepsy.” It’s a line subtly and obliquely indicative of the novel’s spiritual aim: to go desperately in search of symptoms.

EEG engages extensively with another bureaucratic document, one for which Ban—and, it seems, Drndić—feels only disdain. He spends some time with “declassified CIA documents” describing the lives of Latvian Nazi collaborators who became spies for the United States during the Cold War. These reports, Ban says, “at times acquired the form of little literary works shot through with a lyrical-sentimental note, a charming modesty.” They’re stuffed with details about the spies’ daily lives, including “what they read, what they ate, whether they smoked and if so, how much, whether they drank and if so, what and how much, how they spent their free time, from which restaurants they frequented to what kind of clothes and hats they wore, what color their eyes were.” The scrupulous portraits prove compelling:

So, as though I was watching a horror film, I saw the faces of those Latvian criminals, I followed their footsteps, listened to their commands, was present at their drinking bouts, their thieving, and I watched their killings, massacres and organized executions. I pronounced their to me complicated names out loud while they burned down first synagogues, then people, in the thousands, and when that wasn’t enough for them, they shot them in the back of the head, and in order to save space, they later arranged them neatly in pits, the way sardines are placed in tins. Seventy thousand (70,000) souls. Thanks to the declassified CIA documents these assiduous Nazi aides rose from the dead, flew into my current life, lithe, hale, young and handsome, belted into their uniforms with the Waffen-SS insignia on their chests and collars, and set off on their bestial campaign

These reports emerge as the twisted, horrifying mirror image of Drndić’s works. They, too, plumb a lost archive; they, too, seem to resurrect the dead. But their purpose is exactly the inverse of her works. Whereas she means to bring lives to light, to open up reality in pursuit of something like justice, the CIA reports exist precisely to obscure and miscarry justice, to aid in the United States’ complicity in the Nazi regime through its pragmatic employment of collaborators for its own geopolitical ends, thus collaborating itself. While Drndić’s books seek to expose and confront the truth, these reports were designed to be concealed—and would have remained secret if not, as Ban points out, for the work of The New York Times to expose them to the public.

What’s salient but easy to miss here is the importance of Ban’s comparison of the reports to literature. Even if literature could never be guilty of collaboration in the same way as the creators of the CIA reports or the war criminals they describe, could it still commit some lesser but related sin in its stylistic suppression of the truth? Recall that he notes the fullness of the way the Nazi collaborators are portrayed. And earlier in the novel, he considers the “stupid written and unwritten literary laws” that “demand” a certain completeness of character. He asks, “Am I ‘rounded,’ existentially and artistically, intimately and publicly? Who is ever and anywhere rounded, and is it necessary to be ‘complete’ and rounded in order to exist—to live—in a complete and rounded way?” It’s a woefully incomplete view of human beings, he suggests, to expect from them, as from the world, anything but brokenness, erraticism, incompletion. In a similar vein, in response to critics’ claims that Belladonna was “an autobiographical book,” Ban argues early in EEG that no such thing exists because there is, strictly speaking, no self, but only a plausible arrangement of fragments from the world around us.

Later, Ban rages against a potential reader (a favorite proclivity) who might dislike his work if it dared to be even more digressive, more disjointed:

If I were to mention the majority of the subjects we thrashed out, I would do even more damage to the form, the form of this text of mine, wouldn’t I? Which would further upset its blinded readers (and critics) who look for a cemented form of regular shapes, harmonious outlines, a form filled with a cascade of connected words, of which it would be possible to say that its characters are nuanced, the relationships, emotions and recollections distinctive, and the style polished; that the ease of narration comes to full expression (whatever that means), that the characters are alive and convincing and remind us of people we know, we feel close to their doubts, their fears, their expectations and disappointments. What vacuity.

For Drndić, aesthetic neatness is an affront to reality, while fragmentation reflects the truth. Accosting the reader on this subject becomes a powerful and sly way of asking: Do you like being lied to? If the messiness of my book doesn’t suit your sensibilities, what of the messiness of the world?

Fittingly for the aesthetic vision she states plainly by way of Ban’s, her prose is for the most part gnarled, knotty, tangled—ugly in a manner appropriate to her assessment of history’s structure and the world’s bleakness. But moments of beauty do break through. He thinks, for instance, of a meal with his sister Ada, “We eat outside, in that garden without sun. We don’t know what to say, how to say it. A fat, swollen silence settles at our table, drilling into us. We are close.” Such moments are like the small plant that he describes as growing “quite incomprehensibly and inexplicably, among the bricks beneath [his] window.” But even this image, which is among those described with tender loveliness, is not exempt from bitterness; the reader first reads about the plant because Ban compares it to “some hidden seed of [the] habitus” of the Latvian Nazi collaborators living and dying peacefully in the United States, which he fears might, in the absence of an attempt to truly reckon with their crime, flourish anew.

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