The OF Blog: Daša Drndić, Trieste (Sonnenschein)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Daša Drndić, Trieste (Sonnenschein)

She is wildly calm.  She listens to a sermon for dirty ears and drapes herself in the histories of others, here in the spacious room in the old building at Via APrica 47, in Gorica, known as Gorizia in Italian, Görz in German, and Gurize in the Friulian dialect, in a miniature cosmos at the foot of the Alps, where the River Isonzo, or Soča, joins the River Vipava, at the borders of fallen empires. 
Her story is a small one, one of innumerable stories about encounters, about the traces preserved of human contact.  She knows this, just as she knows that Earth can slumber until all these stories of the world are arranged in a vast cosmic patchwork which will wrap around it.  And until then history, reality's phantom, will continue to unravel, chop, take to pieces, snatch patches of the universe and sew them into its own death shroud.  She knows that without her story the job will be incomplete, just as she knows that there is no end, that the end reaches on to eternity, beyond existence.  She knows that the end is madness, as Umberto Saba once told her while he was in hospital here, in Gorizia, in Dr Basaglia's ward perhaps, or maybe it was in Trieste with Dr Weiss.  She knows that the end is a dream from which there is no waking.  And the shortcuts she takes, the quickest ways to get from one place to the next, are often nearly impassable, truly goats' paths.  These shortcuts may stir her nostalgia for those long, straight, rectilinear, provincial roads, also something Umberto Saba told her then, so she sweeps away the underbrush of her memory now, memories for which she cannot say whether they even sank to the threshold of memory, or are still in the present, set aside, stored, tucked away.  It is along these overgrown shortcuts that she walks.  She knows there is no such thing as coincidence; there is no such thing as the famous brick which falls on a person's head; there are links – and resolve – of which we seem to be unaware, for which we search. 
She sits and rocks, her silence is unbearable. 
It is Monday, 3 July, 2006. 
HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME. (pp. 7-8 iPad e-book edition, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać)
When one talks about reading a story that deals with the Holocaust, there likely springs first to the mind images of gas chambers, of trains that disappear into the night and fog, of cruel commandants and crueler experiments.  Perhaps images of frightened men, women, and children flicker in one's mental eye, or maybe there's that short staccato burst, rat-a-tat-tat, of bullets thudding into human meat, or possibly the rending tearing of human flesh as canines sink their teeth into fleeing bodies.  No, it is very difficult not to think of violence of some sort when that ghastly word, "Holocaust" (or Shoah, or Endlösung), is uttered.  But there are more terrors and more violence than those visited upon human flesh.  In Croatian novelist Daša Drndić's recently-translated novel, Trieste, the graphic horrors give way to something more subtle and much more insidious, creating a work that makes its readers want to flinch, if only because we might just see part of ourselves in its characters.

Trieste opens in July 2006, as an aged Jewish woman, Haya Tedeschi, is preparing to meet her long-lost son.  She reminisces on her youth and her experiences in the then-Italian alpine town of Gorizia during World War II.  At first, her dry, almost clinical reflection on the changes of fortunes and empires in her border town seem too close to the actual meanderings of a woman who might be on the edge of senility.  However, as her story progresses, what we witness is something unsettling in just how preternaturally calm Haya appears to be.

The heart of the tale deals with Haya's meeting with a young German officer and the love affair that they have in the last two full years of World War II.  It is only later that we learn just who the German officer really is and that their tryst near Trieste, the site of the worst Italian-specific concentration camps, takes on new levels of ugliness. Drndić carefully develops juxtapositions of lust and fear, of life and death, of individual emotion and industrial-scale depravation throughout Haya's narration.  There are some surprises, however, that punctuate the narrative and make it even unsettling for readers.  The appearance of her son and his point of view provides such a contrast to what Haya has narrated that the reader is forced to reassess her previous opinions of the primary narrator and consider her "lost" son's take on his parents' affair in a light that shines harshly on all it touches.

Trieste takes no prisoners in its story of the Italian/Slovenian Holocaust wrapped around Haya's fictional tryst and subsequent pregnancy. Drndić peppers her narrative with a plethora of actual data of the lives lost in the Italian Holocaust, devoting over 40 pages of text to reproducing the names of each of the 9000+ lives lost.  She shows the suffering of some and the complicity of others like Haya in the genocide.  The result is a story that feels like the infamous Part IV of Roberto Bolaño's 2666, where the matter-of-fact narration of the dead adds an ominous layer to an already powerful narrative.

Drndić's prose is excellent and the translation captures the spirit of her writing pitch-perfectly.  The characterizations are well-rendered and the slow, methodical buildup from Haya's youth to her meeting of her son is executed very well.  The result is a novel that may be one of the best Holocaust-based fictions written in the past two decades.  Very highly recommended.

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