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.