Belladonna by Daša Drndić (tr. Celia Hawkesworth). New Directions. 400pp, $19.95.
For a reader not versed in the politics and history of Croatia, Yugoslavia, and, more generally, Europe, Belladonna can be a challenging novel. It is also enlightening and beautiful, sophisticated and tragic, haunting and stirring, not to mention a seamless blend of fact and fiction. It’s an angry book, at rage with nationalism and blind fanaticism, as well as the stifling mediocrity that can be academia. And it’s a heartbreaking meditation on aging and its many ills. Lest I forget to also mention, it is one of the most rewarding books I’ve read in years. The work that Daša Drndić asks of her readers does not come from the prose, which is razor-sharp, biting, and often hysterical in its outrage. The challenge lies in the constant shifts of time, which can often displace the reader. But I implore you to hold fast, because Belladonna is worth it.
The premise is simple, Andreas Ban, a one-time psychologist and professor forced into retirement, is diagnosed with breast cancer. With illness Andreas begins sifting through his apartment and his past, not only his own, but also his family’s, his neighbor’s, and all of Europe’s as well. In any given chapter the reader may find themselves in Belgrade in the 1980’s or perhaps Sarajevo a decade later, and then, in the following chapter, a concentration camp during World War II. No one is spared. War criminals, anti-Semites, academics, entire populations compelled to sing their national anthems; all are culpable.
Photographs arranged throughout the text represent what Drndic’s fictional stand-in, Ban, has uncovered: “Andreas Ban torments himself with all of these bits of information he digs up, rummages through, which seem like unimportant facts, like desiccated data rotted in time, but they enter his rooms, sit at his table, knock into him in the street.” The facts and memories Andreas Ban uncovers are the sins and tragedies of the last century, which he finds along with the reader as though each of us is sitting beside this unhappy man as he realizes, for example, how the head of a doll resembles the photographs from the Second World War and the victims of the concentration camps.
There are authors uninterested in the devices of story and plot, haunted by other, heavier matters. Take Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn; on its surface it’s simply the story of a man walking along the English coast, nothing more. And yet, it’s so much more, a meditation on Europe, a history lesson, a plunge into historic minutia; no subject seems too obscure to feel out of place. In Drndić’s case it is memory and the endless ways it imposes its will upon our lives (as well as the lives of nations). Similarly, Drndić’s novel is not occupied with story or plot, and this allows Drndić’s writing (and imagination) to take flight. There are digressions lasting entire, densely written chapters about the children of Nazi war criminals, all of it visceral and affecting. There are ruminations on the transience of memory, on aging and illness, the guilt we suffer from the sins of our ancestors, and there are bitter, often hilarious passages lamenting the stupidity of college bureaucracies.
This is a novel unmoored from time; periods move back and forth between Paris and Budapest, between work and retirement, illness and health, the contemporary world and the Second World War, all at the whim of Andreas’ brain. There is something profound in this, for aren’t we all the victims of time and the inherent baggage that accumulates amid a life lived? A scent, the glance of a stranger, all of this has the potential to take us back to childhood or some other far removed memory. As a whole, the structure of Belladonna reflects the way our minds, if left unhindered, pass through existence. The comparisons to Sebald are inevitable, yet besides the documentary-style inclusion of photographs and the preoccupation with history, Drndić’s tone isn’t flat, but accusatory and often uproarious. There is a biting wit at work in the prose and the novel is replete with lines begging to be read aloud. A small Croatian town “which surveys its decrepit interior, its physical and social decay the way an inquisitive child picks at its bellybutton.” Or the clan of academics: “those collectives that devour, those consumer of ideas, that cacophonic din, those blank masks that disguise a greater nullity.”
Belladonna is also timely in its query of what constitutes patriotism: is it in the singing of the national anthem? Is it in the refusal to question the rule of law? Is it in shirking the moral responsibility to speak out? This is a novel about history and how we are doomed to repeat it. It is a meditation on memory and illness and a heartbreaking rumination on aging and its many ills. Andreas Ban is a witness not only to his own life but also what came before and yet, what can he do? What can any single person do? The reader will be taken on the journey of Ban’s illness and the harrowing and tedious aspects of tests and procedures, the endless trifles that attend a person getting treated for cancer, and along the way the entire rotten 20th century will be excavated, just like Andreas Ban’s cancer. Make no mistake, this is an angry novel, angry at the way the world so easily forgets the disempowered, how it makes them superfluous through neglect or oppression or war, often all three; this is a novel angry at how quickly history laps up the lives (and cultures and languages) of the oppressed. At one point Andreas observes significantly: “New people are coming, with shorter memories.” Indeed.
Thomas Harlan, whose father had a large role in the Nazi regime and whose childhood was peppered by such events as meeting Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, moved to Poland and began researching its archives. His work brought to light thousands of German war crimes that led to the prosecution of over 2,000 German war criminals. As Drndić (or Ban) writes: “Yes, one has to carry a burden like this to the end of one’s days. Responsibility for what my father did must pass to my children and my children’s children, and to their children, and so on. That past, which is also my past, like shrapnel circulates through my body, causes ineradicable pain and ravages it.” This message is repeated throughout the book, as if to remind the reader that no one is innocent of the past even if they weren’t yet born.
I loathe to use the word profound or serious or important when describing any book, but Belladonna begs these descriptions, and in the most positive ways. Drndić stares directly into the inky sins of us all and doesn’t blink. Belladonna is a thrilling book for the writing, for the fearlessness of its subject, for the passages that implore the reader to underline and reread again and again. It is unforgettable in the seamless way the author combines the real world and the fictional until it no longer matters because, in the end, all of it is the truth.
Mark Haber is the Operations Manager at Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Texas. He served as a juror for the Best Translated Book Award for 2016 and 2017. His collection of short stories, Melville’s Beard was recently translated into Spanish and published by Editorial Argonáutica.
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