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