JANUARY 29, 2018
MEMORY HAS BEGUN to overpower Andreas Ban, a recently retired academic and the central character of Croatian writer Daša Drndić’s extraordinary new novel, Belladonna. In addition to the burden of incessant thoughts about the past, there are also the ongoing medical issues that this “psychologist who does not psychologize any more” shoulders with wry gallows humor. It appears that he may be disintegrating; his spine certainly is.
Detailed sequences throughout this fragmented though astonishingly cohesive narrative deal with Ban’s encounters with doctors. “Twelve months later Andreas Ban has merged with his serious degenerative changes,” Drndić writes:
he has become one great degenerative change that can no longer run and climbs stairs with difficulty, he has become a limping degenerative change waiting for that degenerative change to ossify, to pitch camp, to stiffen in his body which will grow ever more crooked and bent, completely degenerated … A week later, in Dr. Toffetti’s clinic, Andreas Ban reads the result of his needle-core biopsy as if he were reading a bad review of some melodrama.
What emerges is a devastating portrait of one man’s physical as well as emotional and social decline. A widower and father of one grown son — himself a doctor — Drndić’s intellectual antihero is both an everyman trying to get through the later stages of life and also a witness to the inescapable legacy of World War II, which includes not only the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis but also those committed by the Ustaše fascists of the Independent State of Croatia, a puppet regime supported by the Axis powers between 1941 and 1945.
Ban is surrounded by more familiar ghosts as well, such as that of his beloved wife, Elvira, who died very suddenly while still young, and of Marisa, his heroic mother, who was herself a doctor. Marisa died at 50, some 35 years earlier, while Ban’s father is still willfully alive at 92. Ban, now 65, finds himself in a small Croatian town, battling his failing body and pondering the lives lost and lingering, the connections made and unmade. His anecdotal recollections effectively present history as a collage of humans enduring inhumanity.
In Belladonna, Drndić refines the collage technique she applied in Trieste (2007, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać in 2012), which was itself a refinement of her achievement in Leica Format (2003, translated by Celia Hawkesworth in 2015). In her masterful translation of Belladonna, Hawkesworth is, characteristically, alert to every nuance of Drndić’s prose.
Trieste took the reader by force. While Drndić has much in common with W. G. Sebald, particularly in the balance of the intimate with the public, the random with the deliberate, there is an essential stylistic difference in tone. Instead of the great German’s elegiac melancholy, her combative voice resonates with a pulsating urgency, the urge to atone for so many lives, so many human tragedies, so many connections, so much grief. Her pursuit of individual stories is quest-like; she is determined to recall the invisible dead, retrieve Europe’s lost victims. Trieste includes a powerful 43-page roll call of the names of 9,000 Jews who were deported from or killed in Italy and the countries it occupied between 1943 and 1945. Almost two pages consist of people bearing the name Levi.
In one of the many heartbreaking sequences in Belladonna, Ban, who is visiting The Hague in subzero temperatures, is brought to a cafe by Ellen Elias-Bursać for some warmth. De Boterwaag Café is famous:
As far back as 1682, butter was sold in De Boterwaag Café, so in the middle of the café that looks more like a beer hall with its old stone floor, stands an authentic weighing machine from that period, a huge decorative object, wrapped in nostalgia, around which the customers eat and drink tea.
The Chinese quarter of The Hague occupies the site that was once a Jewish shtetl of impoverished Ashkenazi immigrants. Elias-Bursać will be known to readers of Trieste as its English-language translator. Only there is no reference to that in Belladonna; the author merely writes that she is a translator at the Tribunal (presumably the tribunal investigating the war crimes of the 1990s Balkan genocides) “and translates books as well, when she has time.” Elias-Bursać announces to Ban: “I have my own Jewish story, you know.” Drndić continues: “That was something Andreas Ban did not expect. There in The Hague. Those stories running after him like little ducks sliding over the frozen lakes and canals, then stumbling on the hardened Hague soil.” It turns out Elias-Bursać’s grandfather, a Polish immigrant most of whose family had fled to the United States before World War II, had testified at Nuremberg. The information is added to the mass of thoughts and memories traversing Ban’s mind, and then the translator says: “Come, I want to show you something.”
In a small city park with leafless, winter trees is an empty playground surrounded by new apartment blocks. “In the middle of the playground,” Drndić writes, “are six shiny climbing frames of various heights that resemble chairs (there had been seven, one was stolen).” It is only when one goes very close, when the gaze focuses on each individual rung, that one notices, written in crooked children’s handwriting, with letters of unequal size resisting order, male and female names and, beside each name, in brackets, a number indicating age. Ban discovers that it is a memorial, and that these are the names:
of some of the two thousand and sixty-one (2,061) Jewish children from The Hague consumed by the war … The Nazis had taken these children … aged between six months and eighteen years, from their parents (the parents were rounded up a few streets away), and from the open space in front of the school …
which is now occupied by this “playground.” Again, using the roll call device so strikingly introduced in Trieste, Drndić includes the names of the 2,061 children, which spans 15 pages; each name a story.
Drndić is relentless; her righteousness is passionate. Human anguish seeps from the pages, yet her writing proves unexpectedly exhilarating. You read this generous, angry, and candid novel of ideas in a continuing state of wondrous disquiet. The beauty of the writing counters the ugliness of the truths exposed. The combination of horrid truth and beauty is a bid to awaken us from our complacency. And it succeeds.
It is shocking, then, that Belladonna, with its urgent, timely message, has to date been relatively overlooked. Ironically, silence is one of the book’s major themes. Andreas Ban, pushed into retirement, has clearly been silenced, even if the many voices in his head have not. The character and the novel both bristle with pain and barely suppressed outrage about hidden wartime sins. As a Croatian writer, Drndić displays immense courage in her handling of the material relating to the activities of the Ustaše fascists. This is one of the older traumas that underlay the catastrophe of the Yugolsav Wars of the 1990s. When Yugoslavia began to fall apart, Ban a “refined decadent, former inhabitant of the big cities of the world,” was living in Belgrade, and his life, as well as his ethical core, were suddenly in danger:
Now you are an enemy of the state, a Croat. He has his name, he does not consider the fact that he is a Croat significant. But someone does […] Now, from Belgrade, he could be mobilized, they could tell him, Go to Croatia and liberate Yugoslavia. They could tell him, Feel free to go and kill.
Belladonna is brutal, beautiful, and unforgettable. Daša Drndić achieves her mission, proving that silence cannot erase the past. Memory stalks us, and always triumphs. It seems only right that a book of varied, sometimes interlinking tales should contain a bedtime story. “Once upon a time,” Drndić tells us, “in the kingdom of Italy, there lived a man by the name of Peppino Russo.” Russo joined the Resistance, setting out to fight the fascists and Nazis who were oppressing his people. After a terrible attack on a mountain village he sees a little girl in a hollow full of corpses. He rescues her and, years later, when she is grown, marries her.
One New Year’s night, Russo finds a discarded doll on a burning pile of trash. It reminds him of the open-eyed little girl he had once rescued. This inspired him to collect broken dolls. In time, he gathers more than 100,000 damaged dolls, covering a two-and-a-half-acre field. The sight inspires the Russian photographer and director Valeriy Sirovsky, who in 1983 spends two days taking more than 700 photographs of the dolls, which he later exhibits in Moscow. After Russo dies at the beginning of the 1990s, his wife sells the land, “and a bulldozer obliterate[s] the collection.” Sirovsky’s photographs also disappear. But Drndić has retrieved the memory.
One of the truly outstanding novels of recent years, this European masterwork has placed a forensic spotlight on some of the murkiest chapters of 20th-century history. Like the titular plant, Belladonna brings us to the very limits of human existence. The formidable Daša Drndić has created something like a modern-day Homeric narrative of wars that are anything but glorious. In Celia Hawkesworth, she has a translator of genius who shares her vision. It is difficult to suggest a contemporary English-language novel with which to compare it, or one that might even approach its eloquence and daring.
Eileen Battersby was born in California and is based in Ireland. An Irish Times staff arts journalist and literary reviewer, she has won the National Arts Journalist of the Year award four times and was National Critic of the Year in 2012. Her debut novel, Teethmarks on My Tongue, appeared in 2016.