Trieste by Daša Drndić (trans. Ellen Elias-Bursać). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $27.00 368pp.
In the opening passages of Daša Drndić’s Trieste, an elderly woman, Haya Tedeschi, sits in a rocking chair in her third story apartment in the Northern Italian town of Gorizia, close to the port of Trieste:
Is that the chair whimpering or is it me? She asks the deep emptiness, which, like every emptiness, spreads its putrid cloak in all directions to draw her in, her, the woman rocking, to swallow her, blanket her, swamp her, envelop her, ready her for the rubbish heap where the emptiness, her emptiness, is piling the corpses, already stiffened, of the past.
As Drndić reiterates throughout the novel, “Behind every name there is a story.” And Haya Tedeschi’s story is draped in death. Born to a Jewish family that converted to Catholicism and tacitly supported the Fascists in Italy, Haya was a bystander to the Holocaust. She attended movies while Jews and partisans were transported to concentration camps; she pored over movie magazines while thousands of Jews and partisans were killed in the former rice mill San Sabba; she attended concerts with her Nazi lover, Oberscharführer Kurt Franz, while families were torn apart. And on April 13, 1945, the Holocaust was brought home to her when her infant son Antonio was stolen out of his stroller. Throughout Trieste, Haya waits for Antonio to be found, to return to her. As she waits, she echoes a refrain from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME.”
In the novel’s epigraph, Drndić quotes Jorge Luis Borges: “A single moment suffices to unlock the secrets of life, and the key to all secrets is History and only History, that eternal repetition and the beautiful name of horror.” The central question of Trieste is the impossibility of coming to terms with the horrors of history, when historical cycles blend past, present, and future and there is no clear way to avoid repeating yesterday’s bloodshed. The novel itself is not built on character development or plot twists. Instead, Drndić amasses archival evidence that damns not only the Nazi regime but all bystanders for their complicity in the Holocaust. The novel bears witness, and demands its readers do the same.
Jan Morris describes the city of Trieste as “an allegory of limbo,” demonstrated by its shifting political allegiances—first as a part of the Habsburg empire, then later given to Italy, briefly ruled by the Germans during World War Two, and finally given back to Italy in 1954 against the wishes of Yugoslavia. In 1943, when the Germans took over Trieste, they established a police barracks and extermination camp in the former rice mill of San Sabba. Drndić’s documentary evidence of the horrors experienced there shines a light on an often-overlooked part of the Holocaust. And the ability of local families such as the Tedeschis to blend into the majority during periods of crisis presents questions of culpability and identity. What does it mean to be Jewish? How to cope with the human toll of a commitment to national identity? Are children guilty of the sins of their parents? Are any families free from the ghosts of ancestors’ mistakes?
Throughout Trieste, Drndić provides a wealth of historical evidence: trial transcripts, interviews, photographs, music, maps, genealogical charts. This documentary evidence is presented in overwhelming detail. In one 44-page span, Drndić provides a list “of about 9,000 Jews who were deported from Italy, or killed in Italy or in the countries Italy occupied between 1943 and 1945.” Drndić’s approach recalls Roberto Bolaño’s list of murdered women in Mexico in 2666, and to a lesser extent his encyclopedia of fictional literary fascists, Nazi Literature in the Americas. Drndić’s approach is different in part because of the years of archival research behind the novel, in part because of the sheer variety of documents she presents. In some cases, she even brings the dead back to life, as when she presents testimony from those who died in the concentration camps. And in the rooms of archives like Bad Arolsen lie millions of stories waiting to be told:
At the baroque palace in Bad Arolsen, on huge sliding shelves marked with the names of the camps, cities, battles, regions, in alphabetical registers, lurk unfinished stories, trapped fates, big and little personal histories, embodied histories, there are people huddled there who languish, ghost-like, and wait for the great Mass of Liberation, the eucharistic celebration after which they will finally lie down, fall asleep or depart, soaring heavenward. Bad Arolsen, this vast collection of documented horror,preserves the patches, the fragments, the detritus of seventeen, yes, in digits, 17 million lives on 47 million pieces of paper collected from twenty-two concentration camps and their satellite organizations….
Drndić also provides a window into Haya Tedeschi’s thoughts through morbidly lyrical passages detailing Haya’s dreams and internal visions. Throughout the novel, during her decades of waiting, Haya is haunted by ghosts.
She hears voices where there are none. Her voices are dead. All the same, she converses with the voices of the dead, she quibbles with them, sometimes she slumps limply into their arms and they whisper to her and guide her through landscapes she has forgotten. There are times when events boil over in her mind and then her thoughts become an avenue of statues, granite, marble, stone statues, plaster figures that do nothing but move their lips and tremble.
Her memories a graveyard, Haya is surrounded by decay and rot. She dreams of corpses and skulls, of dragging her mother by her legs to hide her. She leafs through the archival records she has amassed, which she keeps in a red basket by her feet.
Now, in 2006, while she waits, while she sifts through the past as if opening dry beanpods from which the beans fall like sealed, enslaved little stories composed of images flitting by in flashes, while she digs through the red basket at her feet uncovering the crusty layers in the little piles of sealed lives, out slips the envelope, so she puts it on her lap and rocks it as if it is a stillborn child.
In 2006, as Haya walks the streets of Gorizia, the dead are more real to her than the neighbors she passes:
She cannot see, nor is she watching. She has wax plugs in her ears. She does not hear…. She has little memories, darting memories, fragmented. She sways on the threads of the past. On the threads of history. She swings on a spider’s web.
Haya used to look to literature for answers to her pain and guilt, and the novel is filled with quotations from T. S. Eliot and Romain Rolland, Jean Giono and Ezra Pound. She even engages in a debate with Kierkegaard over despair and memory. But by the end of her period of waiting, she has grown weary of words, preferring numbers and formulas instead, “because everything is in formulas, everything.”
Haya’s lover Kurt Franz lived the instability of language. An amateur photographer, he meets Haya in a tobacco shop, when he buys film. They soon begin to meet in secret, screening away the reality of war. Franz presents himself as cultured, handsome, charming, an avid gardener who loves his dog Barry, lives for music, and is a devoted son. In reality, before arriving at Trieste, Franz oversaw final operations at Treblinka, pushing through final executions and killing inmates by his own hand, or by ordering Barry to attack male inmates. And then, in 1943, he was assigned to Trieste, where he was responsible for overseeing the executions of Jews and partisans in San Sabba. Haya and Franz’s relationship illustrates the destructive power of relationships: “The way lives interweave yet never touch, only to collide in mutual destruction, inconceivably distant in their simultaneity.”
Haya is not the only character haunted by Kurt Franz’s crimes. Their son, Antonio Tedeschi, was kidnapped under the Lebensborn project, a German program designed by Himmler to ensure the racial purity of the German race by providing care for pregnant women, and later by enabling German families to adopt children who met the racial and biological standards set by the Nazis. Many of these children were kidnapped. Antonio provides his own testimony in the final chapters of Trieste, the only chapters written in the first person, adding to the immediacy and power of his witnessing. He speaks of his anguish in learning that the Traubes, who raised him as Hans Traube, were not his biological parents, as well as his pain and guilt in learning that his biological father was a Nazi. He holds himself complicit in his father’s actions by virtue of having Franz’s blood running through his veins.In a telling detail, Hans is a professional photographer, which both represents his bearing witness, and provides a link with his biological father, the amateur photographer.
My situation is complicated many times over. I was stolen. I am a Lebensborn child…. But theninto my life crept that murderer, S.S.-Untersturmführer Kurt Franz and that Jewish woman who spread her legs for him, for the blonde angel of death, the admirer of music and nature, the bad amateur fanatic photographer, the baby-faced executioner, she spread her legs while trains rumbled past, right there in front of her nose, on their way to killing grounds all over the Reich.
Antonio notes that his story is shared by many others, as he provides testimony from other Lebensborn children. Their experiences reveal the continuation of hatred, secrecy, racism, and pain decades beyond the end of World War II. There’s no outlet for their pain, no compensation that can give them back, not only their childhood, but also their sense of self.Antonio’s voice is clear, strong, anguished. Like Haya, he attempts to reconstruct his identity through archival research. Crucially, they are both looking for some respite from the burden of history – but Drndić does not provide much hope. As Antonio says near the conclusion of the novel, “Together, we will drape ourselves in the histories of others, believing that those pasts are our pasts and we shall sit and we shall wait for those pasts to fall into our lap like a fat, dead cat.” And he concludes with a chilling reflection on the repetition of history:
We should probably be able to learn something from the repetition of history, repetitio est mater studiorum, but despite the fact that history stubbornly repeats itself, we are bad learners, and History, brazen and stubborn, does not desist, it goes right on repeating and repeating itself, I will repeat myself until I faint, it says, I will repeat myself to spite you, it says, until finally you come to your senses, it says, yet we do not come to our senses, we just grow our hair, hide and lie and feign innocence. Besides, for some of us, those of us who like Santa Claus lug sacks on our backs, sacks brimming with the sins of our ancestors, History has no need to return, History is in our marrow, and here, in our bones, it drills rheumatically and no medicine can cure that. History is in our blood and in our blood it flows quietly and destructively, while on the outside there’s nothing, on the outside all is calm and ordinary, until one day, History, our History, the History in our blood, in our bones, goes mad and starts eroding the miserable, crumbling ramparts of our immunity, which we have been cautiously raising for decades.
Kristine Rabberman is the Director of Academic Affairs for the University of Pennsylvania’s Division of Professional and Liberal Education. She holds a Ph.D. in medieval history from Penn, and teaches gender studies, history of sexuality, and academic writing and research design in addition to her full-time work for the university. She has reviewed works of literary fiction for 3:AM Magazine and California Literary Review. She lives in Philadelphia, PA.
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