Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 10, 2018

Belladonna, by Daša Drndić, translated by Celia Hawkesworth #BookReview

Belladonna conceals its poison in beautiful mauve-black berries, and in its leaves and roots.  The berries are full of dark inky juice, bitter-sweet, the size of cherries, and are as refreshing as a vitamin drink, so they tempt passers-by: pick me, pick me and fly away to the land of dreams.  Those poisonous berries nestle comfortably in little green, five-pointed cups and sway in them quietly in the summer and autumn breeze. If eaten, just a few berries can kill a child, while an adult needs about twenty to begin to lose himself or herself, to set off for fantastical landscapes, because belladonna has a powerful hallucinogenic effect.  (p.381)

Daša Drndić has named her third novel Belladonna because she fears that the poison of nationalism is again affecting Europe, and this book is a wake-up call that identifies the resonances with the evils of the twentieth century.  The book has been shortlisted for the EBRD Prize for Translation, and this is the place to say that the translation is brilliant: the text is fluent, passionate and powerful in its evocation of a man at the end of his tether.

Andreas Ban is a writer and a psychologist, who retires on an inadequate pension from a university that he despises for its intellectual dishonesty and its evasions of history.  Ban the man is a metaphor for Croatia, because he has failed to interrogate his past until it is too late, and now the cancers have taken hold.  The book begins with an unedifying catalogue of all his ills, detailing the degeneration of his body and the dispiriting round of tests and evasive doctors (which reminded me momentarily of Wayne Macauley’s satirical Some Testsbut that was written with an entirely different purpose in mind).

The tone of the novel is excoriating.  This scene is from when Andreas is at a conference entitled ‘Intellectuals and War, 1939-1947’ and he attends a session where a woman participant had interviewed intellectuals who had fled to Argentina after the war.  Andreas asks a question because the presenter had condemned no one, concluded nothing, and, when he wants to know whether any of those intellectuals or their descendants

[had] apologised to the victims of their Ustasha fathers and grandfathers, because this woman scholar had talked with those bigoted ninety-year-old women, she, the scholar, shook her head in denial and everyone in the audience immediately screeched at him, Andreas Ban, That’s not the subject now, and he asked, What is the subject then and what’s all this for?  (p.112)

The answer comes in a different session about journalists who had supported cultural cooperation with the enemy in order to retain their journalistic functions.  Critique of their ethics

… was not important […] because those who were concerned with the essential aspects of literature, aesthetics, narrative technique and so on, they did not stick their heads in the sand, maintained that university scholar, they concerned themselves with their profession, because literary criticism was not a free space for the expression of opinions of all kinds, it was for opinions about literature.  (p.113)

Drndić is scathing about the modern university, and perhaps not just those in Croatia:

Those departments, like the Faculty of Social Sciences as a whole, are meant to produce some kind of intellectual elite, but instead, for the most part, they produce meek people who procreate in mouse holes.  Who talk a lot but say a little.  Who are not heard outside their teaching rooms, and even then they talk quite softly and feebly, muttering to themselves. (p. 116)

She paraphrases the French philosopher Julien Benda‘s definition of an intellectual:

For Benda maintains that the intellectual is a person who nurtures, preserves and propagates independent judgement, a person loyal exclusively to truth, a courageous and wrathful individual for whom no force of this world is either too great or too frightening not to subject it to scrutiny and call it mercilessly to account… (p.118)

And in asserting that all of Andreas Ban’s colleagues fail this test, Drndić is holding up a mirror to so-called intellectuals around the world.

She also takes on provincialism, exposing it as the spirit of homogeneity where it is more important to maintain established customs than to be a personality. 

The provincial spirit does not like the unknown.  That is one of its fundamental attributes, defining its history, its culture, its mental world.  The provincial life is a life of routine.  The provincial spirit is a tribal spirit and it has no awareness of the individual.

The impulse to exclude, by mocking, by negating what is outside the norm, is strong in the provincial spirit.  The provincial spirit registers everything, every difference, linguistic, ethical, physical, cultural, it remembers everything and does not acknowledge any variation. (p.124)

Reading these words, I suspect that I am not the only one thinking about Italy’s recent elections and the success of parties which seek to exclude migration. This is also a dog-whistle element in modern Australian politics as well.  Still, I was startled to see that there is mention of a Melbourne restaurant called Katerina Zrinski:

in which for many years 10 April 1941* has been celebrated and homage has been paid to Ante Pavelić.  The Jerusalem Post of 17 April, 2008 records that Croatian émigrés celebrate the genocidal policies of that leader of theirs, policies that led to the death of 400,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma and Croats.  That event which celebrates the leader of the Croatian Fascist Ustasha Movement is a shameless event for its victims, but also for all those whose morals and conscience oppose racism and genocide, states Efraim Zuroff, the famous Nazi hunter.  A local newspaper reports that there was a large photograph of Ante Pavelić hanging in the restaurant and that guests were able to buy T-shirts with his portrait on them.  (p.88)

*The date of the founding of the NDH, the Independent State of Croatia, a puppet state of the Nazis.  Celebrating this date is analogous to celebrating the founding of the Nazi puppet regime in Vichy after the French surrender.

(In disbelief, I Googled for reviews of this restaurant but found only Matt Preston’s review in The Age 10 April 2008, disconcertingly close in time to the Jerusalem Post report referenced above.  Preston’s review makes no mention of a photograph but explains that Katarina Zrinski was a poet, diplomat and translator of foreign texts into her native Croatian . With her husband and brother, she was also influential in the failed 17th-century Croatian rebellion against their Habsburg rulers. With this pedigree, it’s no surprise that Croatian women’s associations around the world have named themselves after her.  Well, Belladonna is a novel.  If this snippet about a Melbourne restaurant was ever true, I hope it isn’t now.)

As he interrogates the past, Andreas Ban stumbles across a chilling accusation about an uncle’s actions during WW2, so he also questions his elderly father.  He gets nowhere.  Has his father forgotten, is he in denial, or is he covering up?  Andreas can’t know, and who else can he ask?  He has to accept that wars are orgies of forgetfulness…

The twentieth century had archived vast catacombs, subways of information in which researchers get lost and in the end abandon their research, catacombs which ever fewer people enter. Stored away – forgotten.  The twentieth century, a century of great tidying that ends in cleansing; the twentieth century, a century of cleansing, a century of erasure. (p.234-5)

It is because she refuses to forget, and insists that her readers remember, that (as in her previous novel Trieste) Drndić in telling the stories of a massacre of Jews at Sajmiste camp in Croatia and of the deportation of Jewish children from The Hague to their deaths in Auschwitz, lists their names.  All their names.  10 pages of 1055 names from the massacre, and, heartbreakingly, because she also includes the ages of the children, some less than a year old and many obviously all from the same family, 17 pages of the 2061 Dutch children.  And they weren’t killed immediately.  The journey took some days, days in which these little children – perhaps comforted by their terrified older siblings – must have wept for their mothers and wailed in hunger and misery.

Relentless, Drndić personalises these children:

For instance, Flora Bachrach (3), born in The Hague on 16 November, 1939 at 13 Spaarnedwarstraat, was deported in a children’s convoy from Vught via Westerbork to Sobibor in June 1943 and killed on 2 July of that year.  With her were her sister Klara (6), born on 26 December, 1936, and her brother Sine, born on 30 May, 1942 (1). Seven days later, their mother Bertha Bachrach-Dessaur, born 18 September, 1907, was killed in Sobibor.  One can only imagine her heart-rending, maddening pain as before her eyes dance the smiles of her children, one of whom was still toddling about in nappies and forming his first words. (p.297)

She tells us about David Weinrich, killed two weeks before his second birthday too, but she says one could carry on like this forever: follow the histories of once-existing people and converse with their ghosts.  But people do not have the time. 

There’s a great deal to think about in this book, but I suspect that many people will not want to read it…

Author: Daša Drndić
Title: Belladonna 
Translated from the Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth
Publisher: Maclehose Press, an imprint of Quercus Publishing, 2017, first published 2015
ISBN: 9780857054319
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond

 


Responses

  1. What a great sounding book! The Yugoslavs in general – from my distant perspective – have been very slow in acknowledging their past. Not like the Germans as we have discussed. The Ustashi used to be quite active in Australia. I worked for a Croat in 1973 and Asio were always around (him, not me).

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    • I have dim memories of the Ustashi being active here … was it in NSW? Such a long time ago.
      I’m hoping a reader who lives out Footscray way can visit that restaurant and say it isn’t so….

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  2. I will read this novel. There are many erasures of recent history throughout Europe and Australia too. D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo is very relevant today.There was another on a similar topic by Dymphna Cusak.

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    • I absolutely must read Kangaroo. I have had it on my TBR for so long!

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  3. Great review, I loved this book but really struggled to put it into writing. I appreciate your effort, for such a dense novel, there is just so much to consider

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    • Yes, agreed, a reviewer can take many different tacks with this novel but still not manage to convey how remarkable it is.

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  4. I’m not sure I’m up for it.

    What you say about the pages of names and the details about them reminds me of the conference I attended yesterday. It was with François-Henri Désérable who wrote Un certain M. Piekielny. To make a long story short, he researches this man who lives in Wilno in the Jewish neighbourhood in the 1920s/1930s. And he comes accross other people’s names and he said that it was the power of literature to be talking about this young woman who lived almost a century ago, who lives again through the power of books because he saw her name, mentioned her and now was discussing her.
    (billet to come about this conference, btw)

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    • I look forward to hearing about the book:)

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      • About Un certain M. Piekielny? The billet is done.
        I plan on reading The Kites again in April. Do you want to do a readalong like last time ?

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        • Yes, that would be good.. but late in April, so that I can clear a few other commitments out of the way.

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          • What about posting on April 29th?

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            • Yes, I think I could do that…

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  5. […] to be clear. Two recent posts – Lisa at ANZLL’s review of Belladonna by Daša Drndić (here) about failure to acknowledge guilt; and Emma at Book Around the Corner’s account of […]

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  6. […] Belladonna by Daša Drndic (translated by Celia Hawkesworth from Croatian, Maclehose/ Quercus), see my review […]

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