When We Were Brothers: On the Writing of Daša Drndić

Lydia Perović considers the fundamental way in which the Yugoslav 1940s war of liberation structures and haunts all of Daša Drndić’s books.

When We Were Brothers: On the Writing of Daša Drndić

“NOTHING HAS REMAINED of those times,” writes Daša Drndić in the final pages of her last book about the generation that built the postwar Yugoslavia and who then lived to see it fall apart in civil wars. EEG is narrated by Drndić’s literary alias Andreas Ban, known to the readers from Belladonna, but Ban’s father Rudolf has much in common with Ljubo Drndić, Istrian anti-fascist resistance leader and a prominent figure of the liberal wing of the Yugoslav communist government after the war. In EEG, we learn of Rudolf’s last days: in an old people’s home, in poverty, alone. Drndić mockingly spoke of the contemporary English-language fictional pursuit of “well-rounded characters” and “well-told stories,” but Rudolf is a beautifully rendered character and the most sympathetic one of the Belladonna/EEG diptych. The society that he helped build has gone, and he is on his way, too. Likewise, when those of us born before the 1980s die off, so will the living memory of a unique society — the experiment in equality and fraternity (but only sometimes liberty) that was Yugoslavia.

Like Drndić herself, Ban spent most of his adult life in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital. Drndić was an established radio drama producer when, in the late ’80s, the nationalists within the Communist Party’s ranks took over the institutions and led the workers out into the streets. The introduction of the multiparty system in Yugoslavia ushered in the era of nationalism. Planned economy was abandoned, public ownership of manufacturing and banking transitioned to private ownership in the manner of the Wild West. The newly converted nationalists and free-marketers proceeded to reshape the society. Federal institutions located in Belgrade (and its embassies abroad) became Serbian, including the army. Slovenia and Croatia were the first to separate. Drndić and her daughter, as did Andreas and his son, connected with a Serb who was looking to leave Croatia and they swapped apartments. She packed her Belgrade life (the Ban equivalent of the customs’ declaration listing their possessions can be found in Belladonna) and headed to Istria the roundabout way, across Hungary — as the federal army was already at war in Croatia.

This annus horribilis is the background to all of Drndić’s writing currently available in English. Leica Format is told by a female narrator and it shares the texture of much of Drndić’s other post-Yugoslav work, including the Andreas Ban diptych: a writer in forced exile in her old home country, infuriated by its parochialism and xenophobia, takes short trips to European cities and longer trips into history to document the atrocities just under the surface of this civilized continent. There are no traditional dialogues. The conversations take place between the victims of crimes against humanity, between victims and their murderers, or between an imaginary tribunal and the perpetrators of crimes who reintegrated into civic life.

Other writers visit the narrator to interject or whisper in her/his ears — Thomas Bernhard, Witold Gombrowicz, Joseph Roth, T. S. Eliot, Baudelaire, Beckett, Pessoa. More frequently, we are in the company of recurring characters: close or distant family members, friends from the Belgrade life, the exiled, the dying and the already dead, the survivors, all entangled in politics and history of the region. Andreas Ban of EEG tells of an old love affair with Leila, but this brief excursion into privacy takes us through the history of chess to the 1930s Baltic, and the Soviet and Nazi atrocities committed there. Love affairs are “most often boring, standard and in terms of content intolerably repetitive,” Ban explains. As Drndić’s own literary criticism (collected in After Eight) and interviews attest, she considered storytelling framed within families or couples outside history and politics rather old-fashioned and a waste of literary effort.

And no wonder, as withdrawal into private life and its corresponding literature, is a luxury comparatively few have enjoyed in the course of the South Slav history. Where I grew up, in Montenegro, a stable middle class emerged, paradoxically, only under communism, after World War II, and so did the novel (the largest urban areas of Serbia and Croatia did get the novel earlier, in the 19th century). Montenegrin aristocracy, peasantry, and the slight middle class relied on poetry as the nation’s literary vernacular, and there are to this day more poets than novelists in Montenegro.

The more intimist Drndić, who indeed wrote about love, sex, and the freedom to date whomever a young woman wants, is hidden in her out-of-print first novel published in Serbian, Put do subote (Belgrade, 1982). It’s a lively, nonlinear, concise novel narrated by a young Belgrade painter of Croatian origin who follows her husband to Switzerland but returns home without him and starts dating again, without much fulfillment or pleasure. She has an abortion, the event told as painful and isolating, but not traumatic. The book is for the most part in the comic mode, which is at odds with Drndić of later years. It’s a novel that emerged out of a much different, hope-filled society.

“It’s 1955 and critic Matko Peić says to painter Josip Vaništa: ‘You’re mistaken to think that in one of your strolls through Zagreb you’ll run into Marcel Proust. Remember: there’s no Proust here!’” writes post-Yugoslav Berlin-based expat writer Bora Ćosić in his memoir revisiting the Balkans, Put na Aljasku. “From this spot where we’re standing in Zrinjevac park, to the Black Sea, there’s only a house with a straw roof, muddy back yard, axe in a tree stump, maybe a rooster. Then: nothing. Followed by a house, yard, axe […] and in that vein all the way to the Danube, the sea.”

Exaggeration, but not by much, though in 1955, 10 years after the liberation from the German and Italian occupation and the communist takeover, the landscapes were already filling in, the new country modernizing and its multinational culture emerging out of the mud and ashes of World War II. The decades of Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia have arguably been the only period of tranquility in the region. When it all fell apart in the ’90s, hundreds of thousands of people emigrated as refugees or migrants for economic and political reasons, as did Ćosić (who appears as a friend in EEG and April in Berlin), Dubravka Ugrešić, David Albahari, and Aleksandar Hemon.

Drndić left too, and settled with her daughter in Toronto, Canada. The book of personal essays Umiranje u Torontu (Croatia 1997; Serbia, 2018) and the more novelistic Canzone di guerra (Meandar, Croatia 1998; free digital book here) cover this period. Toronto also appears in Andreas Ban’s memories. Dying in Toronto chronicles the odd jobs, unemployment, food banks, secondhand clothes, brutal summer and winter temperatures, smog, and the then-still-polluted Lake Ontario. After two years, the narrator and her daughter return to Croatia, where the war has finished.

When Drndić settles for good in Istria on the Croatian coast — as Andreas Ban did with his son Leo in EEG and Belladonna — a different set of problems await. She may have been too Croatian for the Milošević-era Belgrade, but for Croatia of the 1990s she was not Croatian enough. Her (and Ban’s) degrees are not from Croatian universities, her papers are in Cyrillic, the way she speaks and writes too Yugoslav. Andreas Ban frequently hits a conversational wall when he uses a Serbian variant of a word in his new/old home country that’s urgently purging the culture. Ban’s disdain for his homeland and his hometown Rijeka is relentless and multifarious, sometimes comic, more often dark. In this he is a twin to Thomas Bernhard’s furious narrators of Austria, its parochialism, its burghers, and its self-serving memory of World War II. (Drndić’s essays on Bernhard in After Eight are delectable.) Anti-patriotism is the only position from which Andreas Ban can speak — that is, the incessant questioning of one’s nation and a permanent awareness of its wrongs. In the part of the world such as the South Slav Balkans, which have seen a succession of authoritarian regimes of the right and the left, it is a matter of moral urgency not to lend one’s literary voice to the nation-building.

Ban doesn’t reserve his grim documentarian eye for Croatia only; wherever he travels, he sees the scars. Just a few decades ago, the elegant, art-rich European cities and their bucolic surroundings have been places with functioning concentration and labor camps; their universities have been propaganda arms, their largest corporations engines of war, and their hospitals and orphanages labs for eugenics. But not even Ban sees everything. The admirable obsessive streak in documenting and naming the victims of fascist violence and civilian quietism that normalizes it does not exist to the same degree in Drndić’s books with regards to the crimes by communist regimes. It is there of course — the Soviet crimes in the Baltic are documented in EEG, and in April in Berlin it detours from the KGB prison in Potsdam to the polar circle gulag town Vorkuta. But Stalinist or Maoist or Eastern European brutalities behind the Iron Curtain occupy much less space on the narrative radar, as any Drndić completist will notice.

I expect the reason for this is our global condition in the last 20 years, as well as the politics in Croatia and the western Balkans. It is not communism that’s on the rise around the world, nor is it likely to be; it’s the hardening right wing and authoritarian populism, the suspicion of the outsider’s differences, and not the calls for wealth redistribution or equality of opportunity. Drndić would probably argue, as her opus certainly does, that the default human instincts are fascist, not communist. What does one write about while Trump is in the White House, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Putin ensconced in Russia, many East European countries back into the reactionary fold, China now an illiberal capitalist society? And one’s own country, Croatia, as Andreas Ban is heard fuming in EEG, “basking in a swamp of historical revisionism that is becoming fascistized and ustasha-ized […] entranced by abstractions such as the homeland and the Church.”

The flaws and crimes of the communist Yugoslavia are not entirely missing from the historical perspectives of Drndić’s Bernhardian curmudgeons, but they get modest airtime. The rigged postwar elections get a mention in EEG, as do the memories of the stressful ups and downs of Rudi Ban’s career as a high-ranking government employee. The politics from the time of SFR Yugoslavia are largely missing from the narration: when the Yugoslav past appears, it’s through the memories of the loved ones who are gone, and irretrievable moments of a once-peaceful life. It’s as if the stable decades of Yugoslavia where much but not everything was possible, gave Andreas Ban a private life — that most coveted Balkan phenomenon. And yet I close her erudite, compassionate books feeling that more should have been said on Yugoslavia. That it should not have been largely skipped as an island of relative sanity in the long line of historical misfortune. I say this as someone who admires many of its unlikely historical accomplishments and still calls it her country of origin. What needs problematizing about Yugoslavia is hard to do from the position of an anti-nationalist left, but not impossible. Literature is getting there: Ivana Sajko’s History of My Family from 1941 to 1991 and Later (Meandar, Croatia, 2009) for example.

The post-liberation reprisals, the rigged elections, the labor camp for suspected Stalinists, the expropriation of private property, the limited freedom of speech and art, the post-1974 worker self-management, and the red bourgeoisie — the New Class that Milovan Djilas wrote about in 1957 and which Marina Abramović psychoanalyzes in her 2016 memoir Walk Through Walls — are all as much Yugoslavia as are its redoubtable liberation from fascist occupation, the successful modernization of a largely agrarian society, its openness to the world, and its imperfect but functioning multiculturalism. The furthest Drndić went into problematizing the inner workings of Yugoslavia is the second novella in the recently translated Doppelgänger, which features offspring of the Yugoslav red bourgeoisie, one Printz/Pupi Dvorsky (name translates literally as “prince of the court”) whose mind seems to be disintegrating after the old country. It’s a strange little book, its tone veering between disdain and pity.

There is however a less visible but more fundamental way in which the Yugoslav 1940s war of liberation structures and haunts all of Drndić’s books. Unlike much of Europe, Yugoslavia liberated itself: through organized partisan guerrilla warfare which gradually overthrew the puppet governments and gained recognition from the Allies. The conversation among the South Slavs over whether they should have just withdrawn into their private lives and sat the occupation out (as much of Europe did) have been going on at least since the late 1980s. Would a quiet occupation have resulted in fewer German reprisals, the survival of the parliamentary system, and a postwar fate much like Austria’s or Greece’s? Or would it have allowed the Red Army to plunk the country behind the Iron Curtain? There is inherent worth to resistance, Drndić reminds us — it is sometimes, calculations aside, the only thing to do. Her books achieve this indirectly by documenting at length what happens when too many of us only want to continue living our lives and doing our jobs while the world is burning. Her Trieste is about a family that minded its own business and stayed out of trouble while the Italian Jews were being taken to camps and local children stolen for Himmler’s Lebensborn project. “There are civilians in war. They do not fight. Civilians live. Civilians do their best to go on as if nothing were happening. As if life were beautiful. As if they were children,” is how Haya Tedeschi, Trieste’s protagonist, sees it. In April in Berlin, the narrator meets a man whose relatives owned the engineering firm that made crematoria for the Nazi government. “But they weren’t anti-Semite, they weren’t Nazis. They were normal people, in a regular engineering firm,” he tells her.

Those who resist will work against the inertia, and the understandable human eagerness to heal and selectively remember. When in Trieste the members of the Tedeschi family return to Italy after the war and burn the nominal fascist party membership cards, two authors interrupt the proceedings:

After the war there are no heroes, the dead are forgotten immediately, pipes up Jean Giono. The widows of heroes marry living men, because these men are alive and because being alive is a greater virtue than being a dead hero. After a war, says Giono, there are no heroes, there are only the maimed, the crippled, the disfigured, from whom women avert their eyes, he says. When a war ends, everyone forgets the war, even those who fought in it. And so it should be, says Giono. Because war is pointless, and there should be no devotion for those who have dedicated themselves to the pointless, he says.

But this is a book by Daša Drndić, so it can’t end there. “Listen, Romain Rolland says, war is not over, nothing is over; humankind is in fetters.


Lydia Perović is a Toronto-based writer and arts journalist who grew up in former Yugoslavia. Her most recent book is the novella All That Sang (Véhicule Press, Montreal).

LARB Contributor

Lydia Perović is a Toronto-based arts and culture journalist, and author of two works of fiction, Incidental Music (2012) and All That Sang (2016).


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