review

Tainted Minds

MARK THOMPSON
The Times Literary Supplement, 01 June, 2012, Reviews, Fiction
Daša Drndić: TRIESTE
Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać, 358pp. MacLehose Press

"With Trieste, the Croatian novelist and playwright Daša Drndić has bridged the gap between Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav fiction, between the work of Danilo Kis, say, writing in the Communist era, and that of Nenad Veličković or Vladimir Arsenijević, responding to the genocidal violence unleashed in the 1990s..."



 

With Trieste, the Croatian novelist and playwright Daša Drndić has bridged the gap between Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav fiction, between the work of Danilo Kis, say, writing in the Communist era, and that of Nenad Veličković or Vladimir Arsenijević, responding to the genocidal violence unleashed in the 1990s. The plot has the starkness of a fable. Haya Tedeschi, an old Jewish woman living in Gorizia, north-east Italy, rummages through her papers and memories of a wartime romance with a handsome SS officer, Kurt Franz, who served as deputy commandant at Treblinka before his transfer to northern Italy in 1943. Franz abandoned his “little Jewess” before their child was born. The sixmonth Antonio was then stolen in the street for Himmler’s Lebensborn project, to be raised as an ideal specimen of the master race.

Haya’s efforts to trace Antonio fail, and decades of aching loss end only in 2006, when Hans (as he was renamed by pro-Nazi foster parents) defeats the machinery of Austro-German amnesia to recover his real identity. The novel ends with him reaching Gorizia and anticipating the reunion: “We will stand there like that, I, tall and grey-haired, she petite and grey-haired. I will think, This is good, I’m not bald like him and my eyes resemble hers . . . . This will not console me”.

His mother’s terrible lapse had its source in her own parents’ complicity with Fascism. Her father Florian, a bank clerk, took his family to Albania after Mussolini’s invasion of 1939. “Oh, yes, life is beautiful. It flows by the Tedeschi family, who find palms, sandy beaches and abundant fresh seafood in Valona to eat with Barilla-brand tortiglione”. By falling for a monster, Haya merely consummated her family’s opportunistic relationship with brutal authority.

This melodrama pulses inside the modernist structure of Trieste: letters, documents, photographs, newspaper clippings, literary allusions and arcane learning are all slotted or bolted into the fable. The pulse grows faint during Drndić’s extensions of the story, delving into Hungarian pre-war cinema or the Borghild Project (Nazi sex dolls, never manufactured), adapting witness statements from war crimes tribunals, and even inserting a forty-page inventory of Jews deported or killed during the Nazi occupation of Italy. But it never disappears.

That the novel rarely feels disjointed is due to Drndić’s skill at patterning information and to the bitter urgency of her address, so compelling that this reader ignored bumps in the road. The tone of implacable contempt, skewering “the illusion of ignorance” that rationalizes complicity, is more intellectual than artistic, and deliberately reckless. Haya’s son pronounces the sentences that conclude this outraged, despairing narrative:

The truth is absolutely simple. Our fathers were criminals and murderers, so screw those platitudes about the banality of evil . . . . There is no mercy for the pathological debris of humanity, those tainted minds shouldn’t even have been brought to trial, what miserable justice, what defence of which dignity, whose dignity, which pathetic Nurembergs, Stuttgarts, Dusseldorfs, Frankfurts, Munichs, Hagues, money wasted, time wasted, only dark, farcical performances after which not a single diseased mind has learned or will learn a thing, all of them should have been executed after a summary trial . . . .

Drndić may have invented some of the historical detail, but the novel’s essence lies in its use of the present tense to underline savage ironies of history which only hindsight revealed. At its best, Trieste achieves a factographical poetry, superbly rendered by Ellen Elias-Bursac, implying that no one in Axis-occupied Europe stood more than two degrees from atrocity. Despite everything, Drndić seems to say, we still have not dealt with what happened in those six years of total war (let alone with the Yugoslav wars).

 

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