The capacity to see the bricolage of a reticent, morally compromised, elegiac past—and, more unsettlingly, how that past might see us—is a central feature of the work of the Croatian writer Dasa Drndic. “I have arranged a multitude of lives, a pile of the past, into an inscrutable, incoherent series of occurrences,” one character says in Trieste, Drndic’s most acclaimed novel to date. “I have dug up all the graves of imagination and longing … I have rummaged through a stored series of certainties without finding a trace of logic.”
Drndic adorns her novels—ostensible fictions encircling the Holocaust—with rich archival materials: photographs, biographical sketches, transcripts, testimonies, making a kind of blackened garland of twentieth-century history. It is as if, for Drndic, the atrocities of the recent past overwhelm the capacities of both fiction and fact, that only in braiding the two can our proximity to such horror be countenanced.
Her most recent novel, Belladonna, is forthcoming in English from New Directions. A ferocious book, it follows the life of Andreas Ban, an elderly psychologist, as he sifts through the remnants of his life—clinical research, books, his failing body, and the complicities of Central Europe—looking for “a little island of time in which tomorrow does not exist, in which yesterday is buried.”
Though she speaks English beautifully—in fact, she studied English Literature at the University of Belgrade—it is not her mother tongue. This was in no way a hindrance as Drndic adeptly answered my questions about the monstrous repetition of history, the mantle of “documentary fiction,” and the moral gravity of bearing witness. Drndic corresponded with me from Rovinj, a Croatian port on the Istrian peninsula.
In Belladonna, you write, “The event of destruction exists even when it is no longer happening, because it returns and is constantly repeated in memory, because through memory it is annihilated anew.” Do you think your novels partake of this repeated annihilation, or do you see them as acts of reclamation?
It is not I, nor the character Andreas Ban, but my friend the philosopher and writer Predrag Finci from Sarajevo, who now lives in London, whose words you quote. Ultimately, Andreas Ban does not fully agree with Finci, because he works on the destruction of his own memories—unsuccessfully. To simplify and evade excessive philosophizing, it is not necessary to speculate about destruction—moral, social, political, ideological, artistic, et cetera—it is happening quite vividly and aggressively before our eyes. Also, we see how history is repeating itself, how its monstrous face is surfacing. Recently in Charlottesville, but throughout Europe and beyond, the extreme right is approaching, fortunately still on tiptoe and in les petits pas, which of course does not make it less dangerous. There are no small fascisms, there are no small, benign Nazisms. That is what I try to talk about in my books, the importance of remembering. In this age of aggressive revisionism—which tends to brainwash our already damaged, deformed minds—without memory, we are easy prey to manipulation, we lose identity.
How do the archival materials in your fictions—photographs, sheet music, testimony—help you articulate or complicate the trauma of history?
They do not help me, they are supposed to help the reader. The reader who has lost the capacity to imagine, to rely on the word, on language, and its immense possibilities that are less and less recognized and abused. Language has turned into tweeting, ideas are blogged, so, accordingly, the process of thinking has become shamefully simplified. But I’ve decided to give up. In my latest book, there are few photographs and hardly any documents. The word is there to fight for its rite of passage.
Critics seem eager to call what you do “documentary fiction.” How do you feel about that?
It’s an unnecessary classification. As I see it, literature is a mélange of experienced events, proven facts, and “invented” detail which exploits language that is supposed to give it flavor, depth, spice it up, mold it, Botoxize it.
In some ways, Belladonna is a litany of the failings of the human body. There is an almost masochistic attention to detail.
Art is detail. I do not see the attention to detail as an act of masochism, but as the capacity to look, see, listen, and hear. Without detail—in literature, in painting, in music, et cetera—what do we get? A boring linear presentation of whatever, a skeleton, a simplified “story,” the obsession with the story is a story in itself, which is what unfortunately pacifies the public more and more today. A couple of years ago, I spent a month at a residency for writers in Tuscany. There were three or four youngish writers, late thirties, from the States, absolutely infatuated with Tuscany, who sublet their apartments and keep coming back summer after summer, which poses another set of critical questions. One evening, while talking about literature, superficially, I asked which European writers they read. There occurred an indicative silence after which I asked, Have you read Kafka, for example? One of them replied, Which of his works would you recommend? I don’t like exclamation marks in writing, but this deserves one.
As to the failings of the human body, that is a normal process. It’s the failings of the human mind that are disturbing and dangerous.
Both Trieste and Belladonna feature pages-long lists of the names of those killed by Nazis. It is an overwhelming reading experience. What do you think this act of naming accomplishes in your writing?
I do not think, I know what I want to say. However, I do not know how such an “act” resonates with an impatient reader. It is not only the names of the victims of war that I list. Now, almost fanatically, although for literature onerously—that is, needlessly—I obsessively name people, because I see more and more clearly that their names are perhaps the last cobwebby thread which singles them out from the overall chaos of the world, from the cauldron of soggy, stale mash we are immersed in. Besides, if football—soccer—fanatics can memorize teams of players through time, it is polite at least to scan through a list of victims for whose destinies all of us bear responsibility.
“Life is made up of separation,” you have written. “From one’s mother, from oneself, from used-up times, all made up of bright or dark gradual separations.” Do you think art functions as a kind of connective tissue, or is it merely an opportunity to aestheticize the reality of separation?
Art cannot change the world, but it can change us. Art can and may aestheticize, but I do not think that is its only function. Les belles lettres is a heavily outdated term, therefore today a concept with hardly any weight. Art should shock, hurt, offend, intrigue, be a merciless critic of the merciless times we are not only witnessing but whose victims we have become. In this domain, the so-called intellectuals have enormously failed—by being silent, by committing treason, as Julien Benda of La trahison des clercs would say. Good literature asks for a trauma—a personal, collective, historical trauma, no matter—and then the ability to formulate it. Good literature does not need “a story.” It is how events are presented that separate good literature from mediocre fictionalized writing, so often a boring linear construction.
Now that the USA is going through “an interesting” historical period, perhaps there will be a more effective revival of literature similar to that which dominated the middle of the twentieth century. Because it is, at least for me, offensive that, for example, Jonathan Franzen goes to Albania to photograph birds for National Geographic and does not have the urge to say a word, let alone research, about the life of a people in one of the most terribly oppressive systems in Europe which lasted until 1991.
Erica Wagner referred to Trieste as “a powerful warning.” More than mere admonishment though, it seems to me that your novels offer a particular quality of remembrance—a salvaging of fragments that have fallen beneath time, a way of seeing.
It is not my job to interpret what I write. I find it amusing, even comic, if not ridiculous, when at readings, especially of poetry, authors give a short “introduction” to their work. So that the audience would “get it.” So that there would be no misunderstanding. So that the listeners would grasp exactly what and how the “creator” wants. I love open endings, generally speaking, and not only in literature. The undefined, the unrestricted offers freedom of thought and freedom of action. The existence of didactic, logorrheic scribblers, though, is legitimate. They are marketable and easily digested. The problem is their metastatic proliferation at the expense of the ever-diminishing thinking species.
Read an excerpt from Belladonna, out in October from New Directions, here.
Dustin Illingworth is a writer in Southern California. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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