Daša Drndić (1946-2018) wrote Trieste—“splendid, absorbing” (The New York Times)—shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and Belladonna—“one of the strangest and strongest books” (TLS)— winner of the 2018 Warwick Prize, and EEG–“a masterpiece” (Joshua Cohen). She also wrote plays, criticism, radio plays, and documentaries.
In the 1990s, the unnamed narrator of Battle Songs leaves Yugoslavia with her daughter Sara for Toronto to start a new life. They, along with other refugees, encounter a new country but not a new home. Book editors sell hot dogs, mathematicians struggle to get by on social security, violinists hawk cheap goods on the street. Years after arriving in Canada, when she thinks no one can hear her, Sara still sings in the shower: What can we do to make things better, what can we do to make things better, la-la-la-la.
In true Drndić style, the novel has no one time or place. It is interspersed with stories from the Yugoslav Wars, from Rijeka to Zagreb to Sarajevo—with, as always, the long shadow of the Second World War looming overhead. Her singular layering of details—from lung damage to silk scarves to the family budget to old romances—offers an almost unbearable closeness to the characters and their moment in history. “Wry and kindly, funny, angry, informed and intent on the truth, no voice is quite as blisteringly beautiful as that of Drndić” (Financial Times).
Longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2019, a swift, biting novel from the late Croatian master, Daša Drndić.
Two elderly people, Artur and Isabella, meet and have a passionate sexual encounter on New Year’s Eve. Details of the lives of Artur, a retired Yugoslav army captain, and Isabella, a Holocaust survivor, are listed in police dossiers. As they fight loneliness and aging, they take comfort in small things: for Artur, a collection of 274 hats; for Isabella, a family of garden gnomes who live in her apartment. Later, we meet the ill-fated Pupi, who dreamed of becoming a sculptor but instead became a chemist and then a spy. As Eileen Battersby wrote, “As he stands, in the zoo, gazing at a pair of rhinos, in a city most likely present-day Belgrade, this battered Everyman feels very alone: ‘I would like to tell someone, anyone, I’d like to tell someone: I buried Mother today.’” Pupi sets out to correct his family’s crimes by returning silverware to its original Jewish owner through the help of an unlikely friend, a pawnbroker.
Described by Daša Drndić as “my ugly little book,” Doppelgänger was her personal favorite.
In this breathtaking final work, Daša Drndić’s fearless voice reaches new heights. Andreas Ban’s suicide attempt has failed. Though very ill, he still finds the will to tap on the glass of history to summon those imprisoned within. Mercilessly, he dissects society and his environment, shunning all favors as he goes after the evils and hidden secrets of our times. History remembers the names of the perpetrators, not the victims—Ban remembers and honors the lost. He travels from Rijeka to Zagreb, from Belgrade to Tirana, from Parisian avenues to Italian castles. Ghosts follow him wherever he goes: chess grandmasters who disappeared during WWII; the lost inhabitants of Latvia; war criminals who found work in the CIA and died peacefully in their beds. Ban’s family is with him too, those already dead and those with one foot in the grave. As if left with only a few pieces in a chess game, Andreas Ban—and Daša Drndić—play a stunning last match against Death.
Belladonna: also known as deadly nightshade, devil’s berries, death cherries, beautiful death, devil’s herb, which sounds terrifying and threatening. Belladonna also carried a tamer name, dog’s cherry, and an almost magical one, fairy plant.
Andreas Ban, a psychologist who no longer psychologizes, a a writer who no longer writes, lives alone in a coastal town in Croatia. His body is failing him. He sifts through the remnants of his life—his research, books, medical records, photographs—remembering old lovers and friends, the tragedies of WWII, the breakup of Yugoslavia. Ban’s memories of Belgrade (which he thought he had left behind) and of Amsterdam (a different world and life) alternate with meditations on hole-ridden time (ebbing away through its perforations), on his measly pension, on growing old and fragile, on the intelligence of rats and the agelessness of lobsters, on deadly nightshade. He tries to push the past away, to “land on a little island of time in which tomorrow does not exist, in which yesterday is buried.”
Drndić leafs through the horrors of history with a cold unflinching wit. “The past is riddled with holes,” she writes. “Souvenirs can’t help here.” And they don’t.