The late Croa­t­ian au­thor’s mis­sion to record the war­time vi­o­lence of the 20th cen­tury is bit­ingly rel­e­vant to­day

The Guardian - Review - - Label Fiction - Claire Mes­sud

An­dreas Ban is the blis­ter­ing nar­ra­tor of the Croa­t­ian writer Daša Drndić’s fi­nal novel, E.E.G., now pub­lished posthu­mously in English (Drndić died of lung cancer in June). He is the nar­ra­tor, also, of Drndić’s ac­claimed ear­lier novel Bel­ladonna , pub­lished last year. Ban is a re­tired psy­chol­o­gist and some­time émi­gré to Canada now re­turned to the coun­try of his youth. His in­ner mono­logue roves across space and time, as in­tent on (real) for­got­ten sins of the sec­ond world war as on the bi­ogra­phies of his for­mer pa­tients, or fam­ily his­tory, or (real) con­tem­po­rary writ­ers. His ram­bling in­ten­sity is al­ter­nately ex­hil­a­rat­ing and in­tol­er­a­ble: there is great wis­dom, along with dark his­tory, in these pages, for those ready to take on the chal­lenge.

Drndić im­bues Ban with con­sid­er­able pas­sion, but in spite of his pro­fes­sion does not pause to de­velop for him a nu­anced psy­chol­ogy: rather, he serves ap­par­ently as a stand-in for Drndić her­self, en­abling the hec­tic, un­tram­melled hy­brid nar­ra­tive par­tic­u­lar to the au­thor. Thomas Bern­hard’s in­flu­ence is in­escapable, and the bril­liant mis­an­thropic Aus­trian mo­nolo­gist is re­ferred to more than once. But whereas Bern­hard’s nov­els are of a de­lib­er­ate, com­plex and ul­ti­mately beau­ti­ful artistry, Drndić rebels against the con­straints of form on all lev­els: di­gress­ing wildly, in­sert­ing lengthy lists, charts and unattributed pho­to­graphs, min­gling wrench­ing his­tor­i­cal fact with gos­sipy rem­i­nis­cence and in­ven­tion. “I’m not of­fer­ing ‘a story’,” Ban tells us, “be­cause I write about peo­ple who don’t have ‘a story’, not about those or for those who are look­ing for other peo­ple’s sto­ries in or­der to find their own in them.”

The text in­cludes long lists of sui­ci­dal chess play­ers, war crim­i­nals and no­table Lat­vian celebri­ties, from by Daša Drndić, trans­lated by Celia Hawkesworth, MacLe­hose, £14.99

by Daša Drndić, trans­lated by SD Curtis and Celia Hawkesworth, Istros, £9.99 Mikhail Barysh­nikov to Mark Rothko. There are also ac­counts of vic­tims of the Nazis, from Ban’s un­cle’s young love, a vi­o­lin­ist, to Joseph Roth’s men­tally ill wife, fa­tally in­sti­tu­tion­alised in the euthana­sia clinic Schloss Hartheim, “the only killing cen­tre in the sec­ond world war from which not a sin­gle per­son emerged alive”.

Yet the novel is not sim­ply a litany of mur­ders and mur­der­ers: it has many facets be­yond the po­lit­i­cal. Ban/Drndić takes aim at Karl Ove Knaus­gaard’s nov­els (“ab­so­lutely in­tol­er­a­ble un­less the per­son read­ing them is in­wardly rid­dled with holes, full of stale air, so the cul­ti­va­tion of per­verse voyeuris­tic in­stincts serves to fill up that in­ner void”), and re­lates con­ver­sa­tions with var­i­ous con­tem­po­raries such as fel­low Croa­t­ian Go­ran Ferčec, the Filipino writer Miguel Syjuco and the Ethiopian-Amer­i­can Maaza Mengiste. There are vivid de­scrip­tions of daily life, and painful me­mories of ill­ness and loss, as well as rifts within Ban’s ex­tended fam­ily. There are, too, ref­er­ences to books, peo­ple and in­ci­dents that Ban sug­gests we look up for our­selves on the in­ter­net, as if the nar­ra­tor – per­haps like the au­thor her­self – was all too aware of time’s winged char­iot and was racing des­per­ately to get leads down on pa­per for the ded­i­cated reader to fol­low.

Like much of Drndić’s ear­lier work (and specif­i­cally her novel Tri­este, which in­cludes a list of 9,000 names of mur­dered Ital­ian Jews), ul­ti­mately E.E.G. is ur­gently fo­cused on re­triev­ing and record­ing the crim­i­nal vi­o­lence of the 20th cen­tury – pri­mar­ily of the sec­ond world war, but also of the com­mu­nist regime in her na­tive Yu­goslavia, and of the Bos­nian war, among other tragedies. Drndić, a Croat who lived for many years in Ser­bian Belgrade, of­fers a 20-page list of the plun­dered pri­vate li­braries of the cit­i­zens of Croa­tia’s cap­i­tal, Za­greb: “Ev­ery­thing is writ­ten in these doc­u­ments: there is a record of ev­ery theft of other peo­ple’s be­long­ings car­ried out in Za­greb and the ma­jor­ity of those car­ried out in Dubrovnik; they record whose house was plun­dered, who car­ried out the theft and when, what was taken and, in some cases, what fate the vic­tims met ... In other words, it is all known. It is known.”

If, as Ban says, “wars are an orgy of for­get­ting”, then Drndić’s is a mis­sion of resti­tu­tion: to re­store the hu­man­ity – if only, in some in­stances, by the magic of their names – to in­di­vid­u­als whose sto­ries have been lost. “I now name peo­ple fa­nat­i­cally, too weight­ily for lit­er­a­ture, that is, un­nec­es­sar­ily, ob­ses­sively, be­cause I see more and more clearly that this, their name, is per­haps the last cob­web thread that sep­a­rates them from gen­eral, uni­ver­sal chaos, from the caul­dron of tur­bid, stale mash.”

Any nar­ra­tive arc in this novel is ten­u­ous, at best. One could say it’s about Ban’s quest, in re­tire­ment, to ful­fil the wishes of his

A writer we ig­nore at our peril Daša Drndić, who died ear­lier this year


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