(New Directions, 2017)
Paging through Daša Drndić’s Belladonna, you can’t miss the lists of the dead. Twice during the later going, the text interrupts itself for page after page of names, in smaller-font double-columns:
- Betty Tokie (3)
- Judith Tokkie (14)
- Nathan Tokkie (5)
- Sophia Tokkie (17)
- Jacques Van der Velde (9)
- Louis Van der Velde (5)
- Elizer Henri Velleman (14)
- Ernest Saloman Velleman (12)
Names of the murdered, to be sure: victims of the Holocaust. These and other “obscenities of the Second World War” surface like a “slimy rivulet” on every street of Europe, the stench inescapable for Andreas Ban, Drndić’s protagonist. An author and scholar, he knows his Continent has moved on; he sees the refugees out of Libya and Syria, but his own anguish nearly always has to do with the horrors of six or seven decades earlier.
Ban suffers that past as virulently as he does the degradations of aging, its male breast cancer and spinal decay. Add to those miseries a few digressions into similar lives, others whose aspirations have collapsed into a “shriveled nothing,” then remove just about all happy memories (Ban pines for a lover, Elvira, but we learn little about her except that she died young), and then stir in the soul-devouring bureaucracy in his native Croatia, “a small, ruined, pompous country”—altogether, it’s the recipe for Novel as Suicide Note. Indeed, the berry of the title is better known as Deadly Nightshade.
Drndić shares the homeland of her glum principal, as well as his formidable culture. She knows her precedents, like cranky Thomas Bernhard and mournful W.G. Sebald. But Belladonna lacks the snap of Bernhard; Drndić will get in a good jab at “academics whose claws cling to the walls of their dark, moldy cocoons,” but then belabor the point, in a harangue that cites Noam Chomsky. Similarly, while the novel’s pervading gloom recalls The Rings of Saturn or The Emigrants—as does its meandering across the centuries—the text offers nothing of Sebald’s ecstasy. The novel’s nearest brush with a good time, Ban’s fellowship in Amsterdam, winds up a Holocaust memorial on a former playground. The neighborhood was Jewish, and the visit prompts the list excerpted above, running nineteen pages overall. The number in parentheses is the age of each victim.
It’s all too much to stay down in Ban’s “catacombs,” and as the dead keep reawakening, the reading experience proves unwieldy yet darkly compelling. The morbid obsession turns up in remarkable places, such as another oldtimer’s nasty skin disease, which proves rooted in guilt over his father’s genocidal past. Often Belladonna had me thinking how Cynthia Ozick argued that no fiction could match the fact of the Holocaust, but then violated the claim herself, in her story The Shawl. Belladonna seems to supply a novelistic counterpoint. The slaughter is reported with such blistering honesty that, whenever the protagonist falls into another brown study, thinking on another doomed community, the material actually generates fresh energy. Scenes gather momentum and rhetorical excess drops away:
In November 1942, the women and children of the Kladovo transport are sent, on foot, in bitter cold, through snow, to the Sajmište camp... Four-year-old Luci, the daughter of Dr. Bata Koen, dies in the arms of her mother who then goes mad.... Those of the Kladovo transport to survive... are killed by exhaust fumes in so-called soulstranglers, Sauer brand trucks which could carry between fifty and one hundred victims per “session.”
Powerful stuff, though for translator Celia Hawkesworth, the stylistic shift between a passage like that and Ban’s own struggles must’ve posed a constant challenge. Even the grim business above, relatively straightforward, raises a question about which word deserves quotes, “soulstranglers” or “session.” Elsewhere, when it’s only the protagonist’s soul getting strangled, syntax gets slippery:
Ward after ward, it is as though he is looking at the injured on a battlefield, mutilated, crippled, as though he is in a concentration camp where every incarcerated being that by faith, ideas, or blood does not conform...
Still, the run-ons and stray modifiers usually get sorted out, maintaining integrity and tension.
More than that, if the tension sometimes slackens in Ban’s argument with his world, growing redundant, that world after all is the Balkans, and the ugliness hardly ended in 1945. The text vividly illuminates the links between Auschwitz and Srebrenica, as well as the continuing complicity of the bourgeois. Those include academics, naturally, and if they set Ban ranting, well, don’t they deserve it? Then too, why shouldn’t he tear into the Fascist running dogs in the arts? One of the richest digressions concerns the movie Jud Suss, overseen by Goebbels himself, which in 1940 won top honors at the Venice Film Festival. Imagine the gushing thanks on the podium...
Much as those pages intrigue me, however, I don’t see what Drndić accomplishes by adding photos. She relies on stock footage: here an SS man, there a storefront whose owner was a Jew. The model again is Sebald, but his photos have a certain mystery, whereas Drndić ’s match up with the text as if in an encyclopedia. Indeed, Ban himself can appear a stock image, given his unrelenting rejection of what makes life worthwhile. After all, his writing must wrestle with the same monsters as plague him now, and if the work still wins fellowships, doesn’t that prove he’s not a lone voice crying in the wilderness? But there’s next to nothing about Ban’s literary career. So too, can he never enjoy a sweet remembrance of Elvira — or at least of his son Leo? Belladonna asserts that the boy has grown up healthy, free from shame, and on the last few pages, Leo takes over the narration. Still, knowing so little about him, we learn nothing from the new perspective. Clearly, this is a text that upsets expectations for anyone who seeks a satisfying read. Yet it’s a worthy one nevertheless.
JOHN DOMINI's latest book is MOVIEOLA! In early 2019, his forth novel, The Color Inside a Melon, will be published.