A History of Silence
I picked up Daša Drndić’s Belladonna a few weeks before neo-Nazi rallies swept through the United States, the latest show of force by the burgeoning “Alt-Right” and white supremacist movement. The real world had left me on edge. And as with any Croatian or ex-Yugoslavian literature, I expected an emotional read—no matter the subject matter, Balkan novels often find me awash in nostalgia for one of the places I call home, or stung with grief when they lay bare the wars of the ‘90s. It will come as no surprise for those familiar with her work that Drndić’s latest does both. What I hadn’t expected, though, was the ways in which Belladonna would speak to me, and all of us, as Americans—warning us, precisely encapsulating for us the ugly truth of the political moment in which we are struggling.
Ever since Drndić’s English language debut, after her 2007 novel Sonnenschein—translated under the title Trieste—won the Independent Foreign Fiction Reader’s Prize, reviewers have consistently compared Drndić’s novels to those of W.G. Sebald. Belladonna, published in Croatia in 2012, is the third of Drndić’s novels to be translated into English, and Celia Hawkesworth’s fine translation will call those same parallels to mind again. The association is not unwarranted—like Sebald, Drndić deftly moves from the personal and intimate to the sweeping and historical, and her use of black and white photos, too, recalls Austerlitz or The Emigrants. But where war is in the marrow of Sebald’s characters, it’s at the fore for Drndić’s protagonists.
Belladonna is a novel of ideas, befitting of its introspective, intellectual protagonist Andreas Ban, a writer and psychologist who no longer writes, researches, nor practices. Ban sifts through memories of love and loss, both personal and collective, as he descends into retirement, ill health, and depression. Drndić offers pointed guidance about the ways in which this novel serves as an extension of questions and themes she’s previously explored—loss, genocide and the ways science and medicine can be used to wage it, guilt both personal and collective, and the weight of all this on the human mind and memory. In a metatextual moment early in the novel, Ban himself reads Sonnenschein, offering him space to ruminate on some of these notions through the lens of his family’s history:
But as time goes on, new cracks in the history of the Ban family open up, benign cracks, admittedly, painless, yet nonetheless gaps which once again confirm that our existence is more invented and imagined than real, and so now Andreas Ban does not know what to do with his present state, confused, chaotic and tiring, now that he is beset by all kinds of major health issues that deposit the alluvium of a suppressed, unspoken and rigged reality.
Ban’s ex-brother-in-law, Carlo Ketz, is one of the memories drawn to the surface for Ban. Of Ketz he wonders, “if he is still alive, is he assembling the debris of his days?”
It is a task Ban seeks to perform himself, an assemblage of histories both personal and political, and the Holocaust weighs especially heavy on his mind. Drndić, who herself was born in Zagreb in 1946 and who studied English literature at the University of Belgrade and theater at Southern Illinois University before returning to her homeland, is unflinching in detailing the history of Croatia. In particular, she illuminates the Ustaša fascists of the Independent State of Croatia—a puppet state propped up by Axis powers from 1941-45—which played a crucial role in the Holocaust. Drndić dissects Croatian propaganda with a scalpel’s precision, laying bare the odious ultranationalist rhetoric and the mass murders to which it led.
For Drndić, to be forthright about Croatia’s dark past is a conscious and essential choice. As I was reading these historical sections of the novel, my usual swell of pride for the country quickly transformed to horror, then shame. Even as I knew of this history in the abstract, to be confronted with photos and direct quotes from Croatian fascists is to feel a different kind of awareness, the gut-punching kind—a true recognition of evil. Our failure to bear adequate witness to these evils was a major factor in the way the breakup of Yugoslavia played out, as a theater of vengeance. Now our responsibility has doubled, to carry both these wars and the memory of their victims. Today, The Hague is still prosecuting the perpetrators of genocide from the 1990s, and the former-Yugoslav republics are at a crossroads—decisions about memorialization, how these wars will be spoken about and documented in history books, are still ongoing. The choices made will ultimately determine whether the next generations can put an end to this cycle of violence.
No wonder, then, that silence—voluntary and forced—is a recurring theme in Belladonna. The novel, as with several of Drndić’s previous works, explores mental illness and disability, the pseudoscience of eugenics, and the role of medicine as a tool for genocide. Yet the novel is not without its problems within this realm. The consistent use of ableist phraseology—and, in particular, metaphors of deafness—becomes ham-handed as she details the rise of fascism across Eastern Europe. In Poland, there is “deafness that oppresses,” “a deaf and lifeless silence”; in Croatia, those who revere the Ustaša legacy perpetuate “a deaf age of defiled silence through which pigs grunt.” It’s a frustrating disconnect—on one hand Drndić seems acutely aware of the ways in which a medical worldview aimed at upholding what is pure and “normal” can be wielded as an instrument of oppression, on the other, she conflates both the willful ignorance of citizens and the purposeful cruelty of fascists with being deaf. The end result is strikingly at odds with Drndić’s generally dexterous prose.
Overall, though, the power and import of the novel aren’t overly diminished by these moments. And while certainly a dissection of the rise of fascism and the Holocaust is evergreen, our current historical moment adds a particular layer of urgency, and Belladonna is arriving in America for English-speaking audiences at exactly the right time. Today as the lives of more than 800,000 undocumented children twist in the wind of a vitriolic cultural and political atmosphere, the opening paragraph of Drndić’s novel rings out like an air raid siren:
On Saturday 19 November, 2002, sixty people incarcerated in a camp for illegal immigrants sew their lips together. Sixty people with their lips sewn reel around the camp, gazing at the sky. Small muddy stray dogs scamper after them, yapping shrilly. The authorities keep assiduously postponing consideration of their applications for leave to remain.
As in the other eleven novels she has written, Drndić adroitly maneuvers through both time and perspective—she can carry the reader from the mind of one man in the present day through a comprehensive study of World War II propaganda and back again without a hint of disorientation. The minute details of Ban’s own memories of his research are vivid and true-to-life, perhaps a testament to the time Drndić herself spent in the university, and the historical sections of the are no less meticulous. The close of a chapter that offers detailed primary sourcing of Croatian anti-Semitic propaganda then swoops cleanly back into the soul of our protagonist:
And so, after transience had swallowed up the years between 1936 and 1948, historical and collective memory has folded up, compressed by public forgetfulness, public discourse and media practice. The fotographischer Standpunkt that reflects the gaze, that distorts the gaze, will remain a powerful manipulative tool up to the present day. That is why Andreas Ban no longer believes in photographs. So he alienates “his own” little dead figures on them.
Hawkesworth’s steady hand through these transitions between personal and global is a testament to her skill; the novel’s cadence feels unmistakably Croatian, but never clunky or forced in its English.
Belladonna pushes its readers to come to terms with foulest truths of Croatian and European history without a sliver of space for excuses or exceptionalism. For American readers, too, the text serves as a model and a calling—to bear witness to the injustices we see all around us, resolutely and completely, lest history repeat itself.
Sara Nović is the author of the novel Girl at War (Random House) and an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Stockton University in NJ.