September was starting to look like a big month for miscreants making a comeback. Louis C. K. made a surprise appearance at the Comedy Cellar. Steve Bannon was scheduled to headline the New Yorker Festival, Jian Ghomeshi published an essay in the venerable New York Review of Books, and John Hockenberry did something similar in Harper’s.1 The would-be retreads were joined by political candidates with despicable records: Holocaust deniers, racists, and misogynists were running for Congress in Arizona, California, Illinois, Iowa, New Jersey, Virginia, and Wisconsin. And then there was Brett Kavanaugh.
Those who recoil from the idea of these men being elevated (anew) to positions of power have been captivated by Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow, journalists with an uncanny ability to uncover sexual predators in power, and let the court of public opinion have its way with them. But if we step back from the maddeningly rapid pace of the news cycle, where do we find our more timeless Mayers and Farrows? The slower-moving outpost of littérature engagée is where German W. G. Sebald and Austrian Thomas Bernhard have perched themselves. So, too, has Croatian Daša Drndić.
Though less familiar to global anglophone readers than Sebald and Bernhard, Drndić has finally begun to get some recognition. In November, Drndić and her translator Celia Hawkesworth won the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation for Belladonna (published in Croatia in 2012); it was also shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize and was a finalist for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development Prize. The same month, MacLehose Press released her final work, EEG (published in Croatia in 2016). The book is set for a spring release in the United States by the prestigious New Directions, Sebald’s publisher, which also published Belladonna, in 2017. MacLehose, in 2012, also published Trieste (published in Croatia in 2007), which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This month, Doppelgänger was longlisted for the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize.
In contrast to Sebald’s prose, where anger and melancholy are turned inward, Drndić’s evinces an anger. Her prose is less polished, her diction more confrontational. In her directness, Drndić is more like Bernhard. She says he showed her that “you don’t have to be polite, you can be nasty, you can criticize.” In a passage that might be viewed as her writing manifesto, the narrator in EEG says that one should not use allusions or symbols. Rather, one should write by “sticking one’s finger straight into the shit.” The refusal of Sebaldian lyricism can read as harsh, as though the writing “keeps punching the reader in the stomach.”
Just as her truth-telling was beginning to earn greater international acclaim, Drndić died last summer, after a two-year fight against cancer. She worked most of her career as a translator and editor. She studied philology at the University of Belgrade and, through a Fulbright scholarship, obtained her master’s degree in theater and communications from Southern Illinois University. In the mid-’90s, she lived in Toronto during the Yugoslav wars that left 200,000 dead. Returning to Belgrade, she escaped again in the late 1990s, this time from the Kosovo War. She lived nearly the last two decades in Rijeka, a Croatian port city on the Adriatic Sea, where she established herself as a major Slavic writer in world literature.
Doppelgänger is a work about pairs that itself splits in two: a short novella, Artur and Isabella (translated by Susan Curtis), followed by a longer one, Pupi (translated by Celia Hawkesworth). The narrative jumps from its present-day late 1990s to early 2000s, back to 1975, the 1940s, and the 1950s. The work centers on pairings having to do with death: two deaths in the opening novella and two more in the second one. The book (published in Serbia in 2002) came out in October from Istros Books. It was a gift to the publisher, Susan Curtis, in recognition of her support for literature from Southeastern Europe. Both stories take place in Croatia, though no names of towns or cities are given.
In contrast to Sebald’s prose, where anger and melancholy are turned inward, Drndic’s evinces an anger. Her prose is less polished, her diction more confrontational.
Artur and Isabella tells a fictional, somewhat tragic love story that takes place under police surveillance. The couple meets on New Year’s Eve, 2000. Isabella’s parents and many other family members had been transported to Theresienstadt and then Auschwitz. She keeps garden gnomes in her apartment, one for each of her 36 murdered family members. According to the record of a police search of Isabella’s apartment, which gets presented as a found document in the narrative, the gnomes carry name tags for the exterminated aunts, uncles, siblings, and others.
The elderly lovers’ sex acts read like a scene from Toni Erdmann—painfully awkward, yet heartwarming. The novella ends with a “fake news” report, which states they have committed suicide. Their unexpected deaths disorient readers, so that we begin part two, Pupi, in a bizarre mood that is uniquely Drndićian—the result of having read about dwarves, nappies, wrinkly hand jobs, Auschwitz, and boxes of chocolates.
Chocolate is what Isabella shares with Artur. Along with her paltry reparations checks, the Austrian government sends her chocolates, some wrapped in foil with Karl Marx’s face on top—“not very tasty.” The second novella is linked to the first, in that it tells the story of a man’s struggle with the guilt of having grown up in a villa that belonged to a murdered Jewish family—Isabella’s.
Printz, aka Pupi, the protagonist of the second novella, was born in 1946, like Drndić. His family moves to a villa in 1948, when Printz’s father, Rikard Dvorsky, is rewarded by the Yugoslav communist government for his work as a spy. Printz later finds that the villa formerly belonged to Isabella’s family. The same year that Printz moves into the villa, a similar thing happened in real life to the Jewish family of Emil Gerbeaud, a Hungarian chocolatier whose story is told through Printz during a trip to Budapest.
Gerbeaud may have inspired the character of Felix Rosenzweig, the chocolatier who is married to Isabella in part one (she also appears in Trieste). The chocolatier has the same last name as the real-life German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, a contemporary of Franz Kafka who translated the Torah with Martin Buber; the two shared a publisher-in-exile during the Nazi regime. At Rosenzweig’s funeral, Buber read Psalm 73, in which Asaph questions why the wicked seem to prosper. This question motivates Drndić’s work.
Rosenzweig writes about the gate to redemptive truth. Understanding this helps to unlock a mysterious scene in which Printz, whose mother has just died, goes for a walk to the zoo. He meets a pair of rhinos who enact a mystical, surrealist performance in the night rain—a scene as chilling as it is beautiful. The animals crash into their enclosure’s gate, frontally, with their foreheads, as Printz watches, entranced, from above the arena. “Their horns have burst into bloom like that magician’s trick when roses burst open. … The rhinos are dancing. … They dance.”
Five years later, after his father has died, Printz returns to the rhino enclosure at the zoo. Drndić uses similar language to draw these two scenes together. This time, Printz is the one bashing his head into the gate. “A new attack. Printz’s frontal bone cracks like a watermelon. His forehead blooms like that magician’s trick when roses burst open. … Printz dances.” Exhausted, he lies down, one rhino to either side. Bereft of both parents, he feels protected by the proximity of their two large bodies. The scene has a mystical quality, since Printz might not be alive when this happens. Printz had fallen asleep in a snowstorm, drunk on cognac. He is awakened by his aunt Hilda, the only adult who nurtured him as a child. Her saving him from certain death by freezing brings forth a memory from his childhood.
When Printz was four, his parents left him outside in the snow. His aunt found him and brought him inside to safety. Beyond evoking this memory, Drndić enhances the surrealism of the scene through Printz’s incongruent descriptions of his appearances. His shoes were falling apart when he crumbled in the snow. But in joining the rhinos, he says his shoes are relatively new. He also says that his body looks like an ad for Marlboro. Yet, we know he is malnourished, feeding himself from trash cans. If he died in the snow that night (a nod to Robert Walser), what followed, his aunt coming to rescue him, his dance for the rhinos, may have been his vision of the afterlife, or his last fantasies before he loses consciousness.
Pupi’s story begins with the death of his mother and ends with the death of his father. In between, Drndić pays homage to some of her own parental literary figures. James Joyce is referred to through a mention of Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s literary alter ego. In a sort of eulogy, Drndić refers to central European truth-tellers, such as Attila József and Hugo Wolf, many of whom earned recognition only posthumously. József was “a poet whose poems no one read at the time,” Printz says. He is now taught in literature classes around the world.
DrndiC boosts readers’ desire for retribution by creating empathy for her characters, whose heartbreaking stories run parallel to collective histories of injustice.
Reviewers often link Drndić to her protagonists. She almost named Belladonna “Andreas Ban,” after the protagonist, to preempt critics from comparing her to Ban. Drndić likely identified more with her marginal characters. She writes in Belladonna: “A true intellectual, a genuine one, is always an outsider … in self-imposed exile on the margins of society … on the side of the powerless.”
The character in Doppelgänger closest to Drndić is Ignác Semmelweis. Drndić wrote for an obsessive, curious reader, one who might go and learn that this 19th-century doctor was the first to say doctors should wash their hands before delivering babies. Scientists then felt that only lower-class people were dirty and needed to wash their hands. The upper-class surgeons felt insulted. They rejected Semmelweis and sought to discredit him as a kook. He was sent to an asylum, where he was beaten to death. Today it is widely acknowledged that his contribution saved millions of lives. Drndić, too, hoped that her work would have an impact.
Thanks to its artful fragmentation, Doppelgänger is a high-water mark in formal experimentation among the author’s works in English translation. Images of scissors tell readers where they can cut out a part of the book. Drndić also invited readers to do this in the Croatian edition of Trieste, in which there are perforated pages.2
Beyond being experimental in form, Doppelgänger is also daring in content. While her visceral scenes can invigorate the reader with a taste for dark humor, they might repel the queasy. Her prose can be, as the Drndić scholar Vladislav Beronja puts it, bone-chilling.3 Drndić’s telling of the Holocaust and its everyday effects on people plays on readers’ sensitivity to the profane. While the violence might feel provocative, the overall impression is that the negative reactions she draws from readers should be directed at contemporary Western society’s legacy of propping up abusers.
She boosts readers’ desire for retribution by creating empathy for her characters, whose heartbreaking stories run parallel to collective histories of injustice, such as the Holocaust. Printz is burdened with a previous generation’s guilt, but he is not entirely helpless. He gives away his mother’s jewelry, his father’s suits, even his monthly pension.
Printz’s efforts to return his family’s ill-gotten silverware finally leads him to the last of its rightful owners: Isabella. This moment of discovery precipitates the end of his story and provides some narrative closure.
A common reaction to the work of Drndić is to say, “Surely, this cannot be.” Such ability to shock is rare, in a day when thousands of kidnapped children are right now being held in US detention centers. Visitors still go to the gravesites of Nazi war criminals. The public shaming of Harvey Weinstein and his #MeToo cohort is something Drndić likely would have cheered.
Daša Drndić bursts the boundaries of civil discourse at a time when turtle-like politicians from Kentucky seek to censure their female colleagues, and Trump and his apologists charge protesters with “incivility.” Can’t a Trump spokeswoman—who shares responsibility for kidnapping thousands of children—be left alone to enjoy a nice meal in peace? “No, not really,” Drndić likely would have said.
This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley.
- Bannon was also invited to speak at the Oxford Union, in November. ↩
- Vladislav Beronja, “History and Remembrance in Three Post-Yugoslav Authors: Dubravka Ugrešić, Daša Drndić, and Aleksandar Zograf.” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2014) p. 149. ↩
- Beronja, “History and Remembrance in Three Post-Yugoslav Authors,” p. 121. ↩