From Bureaucratic Tangles to Monstrous Wrongs: On Daša Drndić’s “Canzone di Guerra”

May 1, 2022   •   By Declan O’Driscoll

Canzone di Guerra

Daša Drndić

AT THE OUTSET, we are confused, as we should be. The text could almost have been written by Beckett:

Jadranka said: Don’t go.
Father said: You’re right to go.
Nenad said: If only I could go.


In Daša Drndić’s 1998 novel Canzone di Guerra, available now in an English translation from Istros Books, the dilemmas of the displaced person are conveyed through the conflicted, racing mind of a narrator who is never quite where she seems to be. Her body may be present, walking toward departure points, but her mind is searching for associations, familiar recollections. Fragments of conversation are overheard. The best of these are the utterances of an old man and a prostitute as the narrator sits between them. Each inhabits their own reality, allowing others a glimpse of the thoughts that generate their sense of the world.

The sky is electric blue, says the old man.


The prostitute is no more than nineteen. She’s got a small pale yellow towel poking out of her bag. The prostitute is eating salami. It’s midday.


My mum sent me this, says the prostitute.


They go to a cake shop together and the disjointed, absurd-seeming conversation continues. It’s a pity we couldn’t hear more from them, but the narrator is anxious to be going. She must leave Rijeka, a port city on the Adriatic in the former Yugoslavia, and begin a journey to Canada. The randomness of the narrator’s interactions contrasts with the precision of the validations and exclusions afforded by nationality, language, or name. These identity-defining characteristics will reverberate throughout the book, leaking information, determining welcomes or rejections.

In a jolt typical of Daša Drndić’s writing, we are suddenly learning about “PIGS IN SOCIALIST YUGOSLAVIA.” With its emphasis on industrialization, the destiny of Yugoslavia was expected to move steadily toward a utopian future in which the needs of pig-rearing peasants were incorporated into the newly fashioned collective dream. But, of course, the urge to overcome differences did not last and, at the first opportunity, ancient markers of status became determinants of life or death. “In great fury, sickened by himself and his own acceptance of the imposed alteration of his genealogical code, he reared up, he shouted, he destroyed towns, he forged himself a path to his mental pastures and now he is calm and ecstatic. He squats bewildered on the ashes of his past.”

One of Daša Drndić’s abiding concerns as a writer was to understand how one group of people could both carry out and justify the most appalling acts possible against others, and also how those brutalized others nonetheless managed to create purposeful lives that transcended the ever-playing loop of past humiliations. We meet many of those who have moved from Sarajevo to various cities in Canada: musicians, professors, and other educated people who must now take menial jobs to survive. Along with the expectation that they accept whatever new bureaucratic slights they might endure, there is also an expectation of their performance of victimhood, with all the attendant pathos. A radio reporter talking to a man called David is dismayed by his assertion that only a “healthy middle class” can counter the power of technocrats and the ruling class. “He couldn’t understand what David was jabbering about […] the story he was preparing didn’t contain enough of the tragic and sensational, it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi that would get listeners’ artistic juices flowing on a Sunday morning.” Another interviewee named Marko, a former university lecturer, editor, and literary critic, must interrupt his recounting of the deaths of relatives in Yugoslavia to ask customers at his fast-food stand: “Which would you like, spicy Italian or Polish?” Later we learn that he left the job because “he couldn’t complete his doctorate while selling sausages. Now he’s an editor in Budapest.”

In more directly personal reminiscences, the narrator — who we learn is called Tea Radan — tells of her family’s deep involvement in the resistance to the appalling Ustasha fascists, an ultranationalist terrorist group. They imprisoned her mother when she was 20, and extracts from her diary convey the feelings of imminent danger that led people to embrace communism instead of submitting to nationalist thugs. This interweaving of firsthand accounts with historical details and the wry reportage of the irritating tangles immigrants must endure when dealing with officialdom (even just to adopt a cat) form the basis of Drndić’s style. Her free-flowing association of ideas allows the author to linger over specific injustices, large and small, in the process capturing powerfully the texture of life as it was experienced in the Eastern Europe where she grew up and spent most of her life (she died in 2018). Some of the events she lingers over will be familiar from her other books — her dislike of chess, for example, which was tainted due to the fanatical enthusiasm for the game shown by Mirko Magdić, a stridently authoritarian member of the Ustasha.

Because Tea Radan and the other Bosnians we are introduced to in the novel have relocated to Canada, there is a detailed scrutiny of that country’s behavior during and after World War II. The result is a damning assessment. “Of all the western democracies, Canada has the most shameful past when it comes to offering refuge to those fleeing from the madness of Nazism.” She goes on to list the many fascists from Germany, Ukraine, Slovakia, and other countries who were allowed into the country once the war was over.

Drndić’s anger is palpable and understandable. It’s not just a question of how the Nazis could do what they did to other people but how it was that so many of them would go unpunished for their crimes. How, for example, could Wilhelm Mohnke, who was directly responsible for the deaths of 127 prisoners of war, end his days as “the last living SS General, cultivating the garden round his little house in a suburb of Hamburg and going for short walks”?

But this isn’t a book totally burdened and darkened by the horrors of the past. There is great humor too, especially in the exasperated chronicles of the vexatious form-filling undergone by refugees. In the State Office for Immigrants in Canada, Tea must answer a number of questions about her daughter Sara’s father. Asked for his name, Tea is reluctant to answer and gives a number of evasive details about his eyes, weight, etc., until she is again asked for his name and decides on “Croaticus Magnus.” “You see that it wasn’t terrible or difficult,” says the woman questioning her. “You see the child has a father.”

Even the story of a tedious job Tea gets placing leaflets in envelopes for a fussy Sikh man is far more compelling than might be imagined because of the tension and intrigue that suffuse the workplace. As Dunja Ilić, the Serbian author and pop singer, says in her afterword, Drndić “was certainly not in sympathy with political correctness — every line of her work bears witness to that,” and indeed, Tea’s attitude toward her Sikh boss could be described as questionably disparaging. But it would take little imagination to predict the author’s response to such a judgment.

There is humor too in the attempt by Tea and Sara to circumvent the strictures to which they are expected to conform when they wish to adopt a cat. Hours go by before a decision can be reached because of Tea’s obstinacy and reluctance to give way. It’s an attitude that informs the novel itself, which is always pulling against the limitations of what is conventional or allowed. We’re used by now to novels that encompass digressions into autobiography, reportage, and history. But with a Daša Drndić novel, there is a particular urgency about what must be said, a fervent need to tell stories that people may think they know but about which she is convinced they are insufficiently informed and/or perturbed.

Decisions about how these subjects might affect the reader were obviously of deep concern to Drndić, but that did not preclude considerations of form and balance. Her writing — in the smoothly readable translation by Celia Hawkesworth — is always beautifully judged, its quick transitions in both tone and topic remarkable. We are lucky that, at a time when the world seems to get ever darker, we still have her lambent voice to help us realize how wrong — and wronged — we are.

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Declan O’Driscoll regularly reviews translated fiction for The Irish Times. He has also written for TLS, Dublin Review of Books, and Music & Literature.