An Electric Encephalogram of a Mind: On Daša Drndić’s “EEG”
By Josip NovakovichApril 30, 2019
EEG by Daša Drndić
Now that Daša Drndić has died, it’s inevitable to look at her formidable opus when discussing her last novel, which she wrote while close to dying. Her 11 novels are linked, and in a way they comprise one huge novel in 11 volumes, not a Human Comedy à la Balzac, but an Inhuman Tragedy, in which no matter what happens on the individual level, a history of organized crime and fascism overwhelms the narrative. Whatever fictional threads arise, they unravel in the face of irrepressible, ugly history, particularly of World War II, and the fiction turns into metafiction and nonfiction. EEG is a continuation of the previous novel, Belladonna, which recalls many passages from Trieste and Laica, and the characters from Trieste — shortlisted for UK Independent Foreign Fiction Prize — recur in the later novels.
The complex narrative tapestry is a marvel. However, the fictional characters don’t come to life all that much: there are very few scenes with dialogue and anything resembling suspense. It’s the history so thoroughly researched, documented, and commented upon vitriolically and wittily that makes the most gripping pages here. In many novels, such as even War and Peace, I am impatient with history as background, to get to the life-like people populating the novel, to see what happens next. With Drndić, I am tempted to skim through the passages about the protagonist to get to the astonishing history, which reads like a collective noir, and I get a feeling that Drndić too relished the history far more than the constructed protagonist.
“Of course I didn’t kill myself. Although silent suicides lurk all around.” That’s how EEG opens, and I imagined suicide would be the major theme in the novel; the suicides in the world of chess follow, with dozens of accounts of actual suicide and then the silent suicide, heart attacks before, during, and after the matches, but the narrative abandons suicide to get into homicide of many chess players under the Nazi and Soviet regimes, and from there we are drawn into the world of careerism, betrayal, assassination, and mass murder.
Considering the title, I thought the novel would be heavily medical (as Belladonna is), and in parts it is, with a litany of decrepitude afflicting the protagonist, Andreas Ban, who narrates in the first-person perspective, while in the previous novel we follow him in the third-person perspective. Even after two novels of looking at him from the outside and inside, he doesn’t come off as much of a character but as a vehicle for researching history, much of it before his birth, which can’t really have an immediate effect on him, so it’s impossible to say that he is a witness to that history. His individual medical afflictions are a springboard to criticize the public health care system in Croatia and the dehumanizing and sadistic aspects of this applied science in general.
Drndić wrote EEG while struggling with lung cancer, to which she succumbed half a year ago. In an interview, she said she worked on the book for two and a half years, nine hours a day. It’s easy to believe as it’s clear that an incredible amount of research went into the composition. While discussing silent suicides, she does not mention smoking (she does in Belladonna), although she was a passionate smoker all her life. Actually, I met her in her own cloud of cigarette smoke at the press center of Pula’s Book Fair in the year 2005. She sat next to my eight-year-old daughter. Daša smoked and my daughter coughed, and I said, “Daša, you are such a great humanist, yet here you are killing my child with nicotine,” and she replied, “Oh, you American prudes, don’t impose your petty standards wherever you go. In the Balkans we have a few freedoms left. Go back to America and enjoy your puritan fascism if you like.”
Drndić rejects the notion that in our fragmented times there could be a coherent narrative plotted from start to finish. If I hadn’t been assigned the task of reviewing EEG, I might not have finished reading the book because of jumps from one theme to another, one mode to another, without the narrative profluence — I might have read differently, a bit here and a bit there, the way Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić was designed to read, and it’s still possible to read it that way and to experience it intensely.
Andreas Ban serves as a persona of Drndić:
People say I have written an autobiographical book, Belladonna, or rather they say it is an autobiographical book by D.D., but it isn’t. […] Autobiographical books don’t exist, autobiographies don’t exist, there are multigraphies, biographical mixes, biographical cocktails, the whole mélange of a life through which we dig, which we clear out, from which we select fragments, remnants, little pieces that we stuff into our pockets, little mouthfuls that we swallow as though they were our own.
D. D. obviously stands for Daša Drndić, and there’s a strain of autofiction and metafiction. You can see her maximalist syntax, and on some pages, sentences run for nearly half a page, full of run-ons and splices. That used to be a standard way to write Croatian, and even now, it sounds more natural in Croatian to whip out long sentences with many clauses than it does in English. I am impressed with how Celia Hawkesworth has managed to translate these long sentences with ease and grace.
Drndić says she is not interested in people’s lives as stories. “I’m not offering ‘a story’ because I write about people who don’t have ‘a story’, not about those or for those who are looking for other people’s stories in order to find their own in them.” Yet she proceeds to tell many succinct biographies of both the war criminals and their victims (none invented, all from historical accounts), with an eye for telling detail and paradox, and she writes expertly about people who have a difficult and painful story. Drndić’s narrator thus contradicts himself; as suspicious and conflicted as he is, he does believe in importance of history and witnessing and seems to be on a mission to make sure we don’t forget the crimes against humanity.
In most of her novels, Drndić has undertaken the task of uncovering — or rather reiterating — the horrors of fascist and Nazi regimes. In Trieste, she lists 9,000 Jews who were shipped to Auschwitz and other camps. In Belladonna, she lists 1,055 Jews from Šabac in Serbia killed at Sajmište near Belgrade in 1942. In EEG, she gives us lists of victims of Serbian aggression in Sarajevo, buried in the parks when cemeteries weren’t accessible. Somehow there’s an impression in foreign press that she’s the only one speaking openly of Croatia Ustaša atrocities in the Croatian retrograde society, but there are quite a few writers who do, such as Miljenko Jergović and Slavko Goldstein, but nobody does it as obsessively as she does.
No matter what the plot and when the action of a novel takes place, Drndić tends to spend a lot of time on World War II. She does so even in EEG, even though Andreas Ban, once again Drndić’s persona, was born in 1946 as a non-Jewish Croat, and didn’t live through World War II and was not directly affected by it. Drndić’s father enjoyed privileges as an early partisan fighter in World War II and worked as a diplomat in various countries, including Sweden. Her mother was a psychiatrist. She got superior education in Belgrade and the United States. Yet, she makes fun of the Zagreb crème de la crème, perhaps forgetting that if anyone was crème de la crème in Zagreb, where she was born, it was her.
Drndić has many gears in her writing drive — in some segments, she writes in short and sharp sentences, even fragments. You can see how her mind works — sometimes she wants to say everything urgently at once and keeps throwing different aspects of whatever she is thinking about into one sentence. In old grammar books, we were taught that a sentence is a complete thought, and of course in practice it rarely is, but with Drndić it often actually is. Her erudition, polyglot training, and international experiences (she studied in Belgrade and in Cleveland and taught in Toronto) cannot be restrained. We are reading an energetic mind, and partly the title fits here — it is an electric encephalogram of a mind at work, looking for enflamed spots in the brain, in memory, in time. Her writing is acerbic and vitriolic, and in tone reminiscent of Céline, with the rush of thoughts and associations and misanthropy.
She reminds many critics of W. G. Sebald, with free usage of documents, memory, history, and fiction. While the tables with inventories of Nazi stolen goods in Quisling Croatia fit in the task of illustrating the civilization and its discontents, the photographs — without explanation who it is we are looking at, whether from Drndić’s album or from some other source that she uses for her fictional protagonist — seem orphaned and random, mechanically slapped into the book. Even her lists of victims, which seemed so stunning and original in Trieste, now appear to be a well-tried technique to which she resorts in the vein of using her trademark rather than making a new point.
As a child of European high culture, Drndić freely quotes Wittgenstein, Kafka, Joseph Roth, Kierkegaard, and Stefan Zweig. In her writing reductively about the human body and its functions, she is positively Beckettian. She uses some of the techniques of David Markson (This is Not a Novel and Reader’s Block), who cites how various writers and artists died, how they went bankrupt, what diseases they had. EEG is partly a compendium of anecdotes of misery, misfortune, and misdeeds. Thus, she recounts how quite a few chess players died during the course of a match. Some of the anecdotes are actually amusing: Botvinnik, the Soviet grandmaster, would hang a portrait of his world championship opponents and bark at them every morning for 15 minutes. Max Euwe, the Dutch world chess champion who was a boxer in his youth, liked to play matches in gloves to keep up the aggressive impulses. Andreas Ban is obsessed with chess players in the first quarter of the book, and later on, there’s very little chess. Moreover, while we get swift biographies — or rather thanatografies, death stories — of many chess players, we don’t have a single analysis of a chess game, in terms of innovations in openings, chess puzzles, and in that sense, I am not convinced that Andreas Ban (Daša Drndić) is a chess player. Likewise, Ban is a retired professor of psychology, but his psychological analyses sometimes don’t appear professional, and he does not become a fully formed psychological study himself. He talks more convincingly as a Holocaust historian.
The historical research that went into building the novel is impressive. For me, the linking of fascisms past to the fascism present with a stronger structure to the novel would have worked better. The novel gives Drndić the liberty of not footnoting and citing all her sources of information. Sometimes I wonder, where does this information come from? And to what extent does she directly quote, and to what extent does she paraphrase or digest the research into statements? I am sure the research is meticulous.
However, not all of her historical data can be quite trusted. For example, Andreas Ban says that his grandfather died of tuberculosis because at the end of 1944 he could not buy streptomycin in Independent State of Croatia. Streptomycin was clinically used for the first time at Mayo Clinic in late 1944, and the trials went well into 1945. The drug wasn’t sold in Europe until late 1946. Not being able to get a drug that nobody could get at that time in 1944 could not be presented as some kind of underprivilege.
For 20 pages or so, Ban offers us charts of the Croatian Ustaša police thefts of Jewish properties, the number of books stolen. He then takes us on a tour of contemporary Zagreb (with images from 1941) like this:
At 63 Ulica Vlaška, Avram Levi, son of David Levi, born in Sarajevo in 1911, stands at the counter of his small shop selling clothes and shoes, he is looking out at the street, wondering whether he will sell anything to anyone that day. The aroma of freshly baked pizza comes from the Kariola pizza café beneath the projection, customers drink beer and peck at their smart phones and vacantly throw warm triangles into their mouths.
Avram Levi was killed by the Ustasha in Jasenovac in 1942.
Now when I read that, I thought, well, I have thrown warm triangles into my mouth there, during the Festival of the European Short Story, where Drndić was participating as well, and I didn’t know specifically that a Jewish family was taken out of the space there 75 years earlier. This kind of time stereo-sound and vision really intensifies the experience of being in the city. Here you can also see how cynically Drndić can express herself.
At points, Ban (D. D.) seems to be attracted to the gruesome for its own sake. For example, for a few pages Ban recounts the history of a peculiar disorder, pigeon-love, love of “flying rats.” (Apparently not even pigeons deserve Drndić’s love and respect.) Julija Amati, a retired psychiatric nurse, feeds pigeons in Belgrade, who multiply so much that they darken the cityscape.
Julija Amati was found by her neighbors. She was lying on the floor of her room, surrounded by hundreds of black bags full of hospital and city trash, covered in a flock of pigeons. Waggling their tails, the pigeons were pecking Julija Amati. […] Where her eyes had been, in those pecked-out hollows, two pigeons had laid eggs.
Daša Drndić’s opus could just as well have the same title as a David Cronenberg film, A History of Violence. EEG is one of the most intense works I have read, a kind of loose and not fully revised Slaughterhouse-Five. I read it in parallel with Ivo Andrić’s Omer Pasha Latas (also translated by Hawkesworth, introduced by William Vollmann), which appeared to me as a sea of tranquility in comparison. I much preferred EEG to Omer Pasha Latas. Sure, narratively EEG is imperfect, and it satisfies Henry James’s characterization of the novel as a large, loose, baggy monster. But reading it is as educational and exciting as a guided tour of hell, to borrow Francine Prose’s title.
Josip Novakovich, author of April Fool’s Day and Honey in the Carcase, immigrated from Croatia at the age of 20 and emigrated from the States to Canada at the age of 53. He writes in English but his subject matter — Balkan wars and migrations — frequently takes him back to his native region.
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