A tragic-comic turn: Doppelgänger by Daša Drndić

Croatian writer Daša Drndić, who died of cancer just this past June, was a formidable and singular literary voice. Her novels challenge expectations, blending fiction with historical fact and archival material, often in ways that break up and defy narrative conventions. Her central concerns circle around the impact of the Second World War on the former Yugoslavia and on European Jewish populations. Hers is a literary act of remembering. One which she approaches explicitly, implicitly and sometimes head-on and unadorned, as in the list of  names of 9000 Jews deported from or killed in Italy and Italian occupied regions between 1943 and 1945 that stretches over more than forty pages midway through her novel Trieste. Her work is bold and uncompromising—she does not shirk from horrific detail, and sees no need to comfort her reader, but that does not mean her work is devoid of humour and beauty. And, if she had high expectations of her readers, she was equally demanding of her translators. A recent article in Granta reports:

She gave clear indications that the translation of her works into other languages should not stray from her intention, form or style. Dialogue is in italics, always. Inverted commas are reserved for irony, ridicule. Word order is carefully chosen, for stress, and should not be transposed. There should be few commas and even fewer semi-colons. ‘I evade semi-colons when I want my protagonists to speak in a breath – so, comma, comma, comma.’ She often talked about dialogue this way, as a breath. Sentences should not be broken up; she was not in the business of making things easier for the reader: ‘The rhythm and repetition are meant to irritate.’ She abhorred qualifiers which might ‘sweeten’ the text. Her language was not to be sweet, nor soft, nor ornamental, because her subjects were not sweet, and she rarely used ellipses, let alone exclamation marks. Everything should be said, not evaded, and the simpler, the more concise, the better: ‘I weigh words, I respect them, I work with them. Where there are repetitions, they are there for a purpose (rhythm and context).’

If her novels are necessarily complex and formidable, what then, might one expect form a shorter work? A “simpler”, more accessible experience? Well, yes and no.

Doppelgänger, a shorter work from 2002, newly released from Istros Books, is likely to surprise readers familiar with Drndić and possibly leave newcomers completely uncertain what to think. And that’s where the quote above is useful. Stylistically, this two-part novella is simpler, and, on the surface, a more absurd and tragic-comic work, but it is equally unapologetic, incorporates lists and digressions, and is firmly rooted to her common themes—the impact of World War Two and its aftermath on the former Yugoslavia. It is almost an exercise in miniature. Her stories are at once deeply distressing and deviously playful.

Composed of two very loosely connected, yet contrasting, long stories, Doppelgänger opens with “Artur and Isabella”, translated by SD Curtis. We meet the two main characters, an elderly man and woman, separately. Artur, watching life from the window of his apartment, thinks about his aged body, incontinence, adult diapers, and the warm shit in which he is sitting. He is unsentimental, cynical, and yet judgemental in his thoughts and observations of others:

Nappies. Incontinence, incompetence, incompatibility. He watches grey-haired ladies weeing in their nappies and smiling. They smile tiny smiles and they smile broad smiles. When they give off big smiles, old ladies quiver. Old ladies in aspic. In buses they piss and smile to themselves. In coffee shops, in cake shops, in threes, in fives, sitting at small marble tables nattering, some are toothless, nattering over cakes, secretly pissing and smiling. Great, happy invention. Nappies. Each one of them is warm between the legs. Just like once upon a time. In their youth. In joyful times. Long ago.

Isabella we meet in the bath. She thinks about her body too. And herself. She also thinks about art and photography. It is New Year’s Eve, 2000, and these two lonely people, both in their late seventies, are preparing to go out to take in the spirit of the occasion. Later in the evening, they will meet.

The account of their encounter and subsequent sexual interaction is interspersed with excerpts from police surveillance files that detail their pasts (and unfortunate ends), facts collected with cold, clinical precision. Artur is a former captain in the Yugoslav Navy, and a dedicated collector of hats. Born in Germany, Isabella is the daughter of a Jewish shoe factory co-owner, who manages to escape the fate of the rest of her family members by obtaining false documents and making her way to the Croatian island of Korčula. After the war she marries a chocolatier and moves to Salzberg where she lives until her husband’s death in 1978, when she returns to Croatia and opens a photography studio.

Isabella and Artur happen to cross paths, two strangers out alone on the deserted town streets at four o’clock in the morning. There is an instant attraction; geriatric flirtation ensues. Isabella smiles widely, showing off her real teeth which is immediately noted by the other. Their conversation is awkwardly endearing:

 Those are your teeth? Artur asks anyway. Are those your teeth? he asks nervously, and without waiting for an answer he decides: I’ll tell her everything about myself. Almost everything.

They are walking. Along streets empty and littered from the New Year celebrations. Artur says: I’ll tell you everything about myself. We’re not children. The night is ethereal.

You don’t need to tell me everything, says Isabella.

Artur says: I used to work for the Yugoslav Navy. I was stationed on Vis. That’s where I met my wife.

Isabella asks: Were you a spy?

Artur thinks: That’s a stupid question. He says nothing.

I adore spy stories, says Isabella, and skips like a young girl.

They talk about hats, chocolates, Isabella’s garden gnomes and Artur’s epilepsy. They make out in the park, fumbling beneath one another’s (thankfully dry) nappies. And as the narrative progresses we are offered insights into their lives as flashbacks and documentary evidence is worked in. What unfolds is a simple, heartbreaking tale about two lonely old people who chance to meet on the eve of a new century. Separately they go home to make similar choices, their desire spent.

The second, longer story, “Pupi”, is translated by Celia Hawkesworth. The protagonist is Printz, a 50 year old man who lives in Belgrade with his father, Rikard, a chemist and former spy. Born in 1946, Printz (Pupi is a nickname he doesn’t like) had wanted to become a sculptor, but ended up following his father’s dual career path, presumably without great success. Now he no longer works; he has been pensioned off after a breakdown while on assignment in Bali. When we meet him he is watching rhinos in the zoo—a common refuge at times of stress. His mother has just died after a lengthy illness. It is never made clear exactly what sets Printz apart, but he does report that his birth was difficult, and although he has access to boundless amounts of knowledge on a wide range of subjects, his thoughts tend to race at times and he is aware that bits and pieces of his past are getting mixed up in  his head. A lengthy discussion about bipolar disorder (echoing Artur and Isabella’s discussion about well-known people thought to have had epilepsy) suggests that or a similar condition might play a part, which would not be out of step with some of the thinking and behaviour he demonstrates. But, for the most part, the fates he and his father face are representative of those of the Yugoslav middle-classes as their Socialist dreams, served by property taken from the Jews, is  crumbling under the materialistic pressures of a new generation. Any promise he may have once had has ebbed away.

The third person narrative shifts back and forth through Printz’s life. As a child he falls in love with a neighbour who will leave for a successful career as an artist; he marries twice and walks away from both marriages. Moving back in with his aging parents, he helps care for his mother, a one-time opera singer, as she is dying of cancer. And then there is his nemesis, his younger brother Herzog, a self-serving modern man who buys their father’s house, and, once their mother has died, begins restricting Printz and Rikard’s room as his own family expands, renovates and consumes the space. After the old man’s death, Printz soon finds himself with no home at all.

Although lists and historical and scientific details are woven into “Pupi”, this story is, for Drndić, a relatively conventional narrative, albeit one that employs her idiosyncratic rhythms, repetition, and italics. Printz is an engaging anti-hero—a damaged man with a good heart. War is in the background, colouring his dreams and imagination, even if joining the battle in reality is not practical or possible:

Pupi also often goes to war. That gives him inner satisfaction, that going off to battle sometimes across soft borders, sometimes impenetrable ones. Pupi no longer knows whether he is going to help the people from Vukovar or the ones from Sarajevo, he does not know. But in this war he becomes a hero and is proud of himself. He saves people, takes them out of their hiding places, bandages their wounds, tells the children stories. Sometimes he sees fields of unscythed wheat, sometimes streets flooded with plastic bags in which frozen faeces are thawing, human. He listens to people saying This is a terrible war, it is a small war and it will soon be over so Pupi is calm, he knows that he will survive. But still, in this war there are dead people, too many dead people.

Intelligent but easily disoriented, he is a lost soul and yet a strangely resilient one. However, in the end, even poor Printz has his limits.

Reading Doppelgänger is not unlike exploring the short works of one of Drndić’s heroes, Thomas Bernhard. The flow, mechanics and dynamics of his characteristic novels are all evident on a small scale in his short stories. Likewise, this novella stands in a similar relation to the Croatian novelist’s masterworks. There is humour here, and great humanity. Further, this unusual little piece was apparently a personal favourite. Her characters—Artur, Isabella, and Printz—are all eccentric, with peculiar obsessions that give their rather dismal lives meaning. They have all experienced trauma and hardship, and yet harbour little bitterness or anger. They seem resigned to their fates. Which makes their lonely ends that much more tragic.

Doppelgänger by Daša Drndić is translated by SD Curtis and Celia Hawkesworth, and published by Istros Books.

“I’ve been left all alone”: Hair Everywhere by Tea Tulić

On the day Grandma did not die, Mum had an unusual headache. Her eye began to run away to the left. My brother took her to Emergency. He came back without her.

The terminal illness of a loved one has centred many moving novels and memoirs, but there is something about Hair Everywhere, the debut novel of Croatian writer  Tea Tulić, that sets it apart. The construction is deceptively simple. Almost too simple at first blush. But what unfolds in a flow of very short chapters—some only a few lines, most less than a page—is a sad, gently surreal, fragmentary novel that follows the narrator’s awkward transition from adolescence to womanhood as her mother slowly dies of cancer. Reading like a series of micro fictions, each chapter tells a complete story or, rather, captures a complete memory and, although there is an overall arc to the narrative that evolves, the progression is not entirely linear. It is, in fact, at times rather scattered, mirroring the conflicted emotions of the narrator, and the uncanny suspension of reality that surrounds her family during this time of prolonged stress.

Mum
(Wants to Come Home Again)

When Mum is lying in bed with no make-up on, then she becomes fractious. When she talks to me, I stare at the tip of her tongue. It’s white. I tell her to write everything down on paper. Then she writes how she needs painkillers, which nurses are rude, or what she has eaten that day. When she asks me, writing on the paper, if she will be going home for the weekend, I am both happy and unhappy. But that decision is not mine to make, it is up to the white coats of Olympus who shake the neck of my faith.

They are still saving money on the lighting in the corridors.

The narrative voice is naked, spare, and unflinching. Deaths—accidental, random, and natural—are regularly recounted. Strangers, relatives, and an assortment of pets meet unfortunate ends. The dispassionate accounting feels like an attempt to diffuse the narrator’s anxiety about her mother’s health. There is also a matter-of-fact recording of bodily functions that speaks to the messiness of both adolescence and illness. Having found herself thrust into a caregiving role when she is still in need of support and guidance herself, the narrator seems to be trying to strike a balance between her childhood memories and the mature responsibilities she has been forced to take on. She visits her mother at the hospital daily and supports her when she is occasionally allowed to leave, comforts her through the chemotherapy and resulting hair loss. But back at home she has a younger sister and an ailing grandmother to look after. And although the male characters, her father and brother, tend to appear as peripheral presences, they are not absent. Rather, their silent pain weighs heavily on the household. Her father in particular, is out of work, and crushed with grief and financial fatigue. His daughter is well aware of this.

If this sounds like a dreary and morose read, fear not. There is a melancholy beauty to the prose, allusions echo throughout the course of the fragmented narrative and a measure of controlled sarcasm or mild black humour lightens the tone. This is an essential quality of the narrator’s effort to cope. However, nothing can hide the very real emotional and physical toll of the balancing act she is forced to play between her mother, grandmother, and younger sister. On the cusp of womanhood, she is almost suspended in a grey space where her past and future prospects, hopes and dreams, are bound by the obligations she has to the family members who depend on her. But she does not talk about that directly, what she alludes to is the snake in her stomach. Fear and anxiety are literally eating away at her.

While I watch her lying in bed, I can feel the umbilical cord between us. Something I have tried to cut a thousand times already. And now I hold onto that invisible cord as though I were hanging from a bridge.

Woven into the fabric of the story are continual appeals to the indifferent doctors and nurses, to the church, and to local superstitions, folk healers, and herbal medicines. The family fears that they cannot afford to fight the illness adequately, but the cancer is relentless and, as the narrator reminds her brother at one point, even rich celebrities have lost the battle. As her mother’s prognosis worsens, the grandmother, weakened and ill, but hanging on, grows increasingly bitter as she questions the God who refuses to take her after her husband and other children are all gone and now this last surviving daughter is dying. She seems destined to be “left alone” once more.

In the end, there are no miracle cures, no last minute reprieves. And for those left behind, life goes on, ever haunted by memories. What remains is this unusual and affecting novel of illness, loss and grief.

Tea Tulić was born in 1978 in Rijeka, Croatia. Hair Everywhere was originally published as Kosa posvuda in 2011 and has since been translated and published in Macedonia, Serbia and Italy. The English translation by Coral Petkovich was published by Istros Books in 2017. Further excerpts from the book can be found at B O D Y.

Immigrant tales with a difference: Tumbleweed by Josip Novakovich—My Rusty Toque review

On Canada Day it seems appropriate to call attention to a collection of stories by a Croatian born writer who immigrated, first to the US where he lived and taught for many years before moving to Montreal in 2009. He decided to settle here, and is now a Canadian citizen. Josip Novakovich is a master of the short story and his tales tend to stretch across borders, typically either stepping back into, or at least glancing at, his Balkan homeland. Yet in his latest collection, Tumbleweed, the majority of the stories are set in North America, in cities and rural locations where his migrant narrators are struggling to set down roots and build lives for themselves, often in the company of some unforgettable non-human characters. It’s a great introduction to an author with a respected international reputation who deserves to be better known here in his adopted home.

My review of Tumbleweed can be found in the latest issue of The Rusty Toque.

A little radiance: Farewell, Cowboy by Olja Savičević

“Everything’s the opposite of what it seems: hell is a comfort to the living, while heaven is ordinary blackmail.”

A deeply personal piece of unfinished business draws Dada, the spirited heroine of Farewell, Cowboy, from the towers of Zagreb, back to the grimy streets of her hometown on the shores of the Adriatic in this debut novel from Croatian poet and writer Olja Savičević. Once she arrives her first task is to relieve her older sister of the responsibility of keeping track of their mother who seems to be surviving on a routine of pharmaceuticals, soap operas and bi-weekly treks to the cemetery to visit the graves of her son and husband. But at the heart of Dada’s return to the Old Settlement is a need to lay to rest her questions surrounding the suicide of her beloved younger brother Daniel several years earlier.

2015-04-27 23.09.41Dada is feisty, in keeping with her fiery hair, an attribute she shared with Daniel and their late father who succumbed to at an early age to asbestos poisoning. An aficionado of the western film, spaghetti and American classics alike, her father spent his final years working at the local movie theatre and then, after the war, in a video store. He bequeathed to his son his love of western heroes and a jammed Colt pistol.

Upon her return to the Old Settlement, Dada settles in to her room under her brother’s fading movie posters, gets an old scooter running and cruises through town on her mission to piece together the past. She recalls the eccentric playmates with whom she roamed the streets and encounters a most beautiful young man who appears and reappears, usually playing a harmonica. Meanwhile it seems that a movie crew has moved in to shoot a film on a drab grassed expanse that will double as a prairie for a project spearheaded by no less than a legend of the bygone era of the spaghetti western.

The primary focus of Dada’s pursuit however, lies closer to home. The family’s neighbour, known to most as Herr Professor, a veterinarian who had befriended Daniel, has resurfaced. After a violent attack triggered by rumours about his sexual proclivities, he had disappeared. Months later, seemingly without warning, 18 year-old Daniel threw himself beneath a speeding express train. Now the old vet has returned. And Dada is certain he holds the key to her brother’s death; in fact she is bitterly obsessed with a desire to confront him, to confirm that he is the author of a cryptic typewritten letter that arrived a few weeks after the funeral, a letter that seemed to indicate that Daniel had been trying to contact the sender. Face to face over cake and barndy she cannot quite say what she wants. She grinds her teeth over his melancholy insistence that “I don’t ask anything of life other than a little radiance.” What on earth is that radiance he asks for, she wonders.

This postwar Balkan world is one of decaying architecture, graffiti scarred walls and woodworm rotted buildings. Tourists are moving in or passing through. Modern technology and old customs exist side by side. Dada is a most engaging heroine, her voice rings through the grime and dust of her environs with a cool crystalline clarity and youthful spirit. For example, after tracking down her former room-mate she recalls that her friend had considered herself the last emo-girl:

     “ ‘You’re certainly the oldest emo-girl, and probably the last’, I said.
I imagined her as a little old Gothic lady, but little old ladies, at least the ones here in the Settlement, are generally Gothic in any case, it’s in their dress code.
My room-mate and my Ma would get on well, I reflected. They could go to the graveyard together and shave their heads in keeping with the Weltschmerz.
I’m thinking as though she had settled in my head, I reflected, immediately after, anxiously. I really am my sister’s sister.
Sar-cas-ti-cal-ly, I reflected, in syllables.”

Savačević continually surprises with the originality and energy of her prose, translated skillfully by Celia Hawkesworth. Images are revisited, lines repeated, like refrains, throughout the novel, creating a very dynamic and original flow. Tragedy lurks in these pages, but what could be a dismal heartbreaking tale is lifted with humour and thoughtful asides. And that is the sense that lingers.

Farewell, Cowboy is another terrific offering from Istros Books, one of the wonderful independent publishers that can be harder, but not impossible, to source on this side of the Atlantic. And well worth the effort.