Belladonna by Daša Drndić

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Translated by Celia Hawkesworth

Reviewed by Basil Ransome Davies

There can be no quick digest of this book, marketed as a novel though in fact much more, and no doubt of its relevance. In its sweep of concerns one pronounced focal point is what the author calls, via a fictional proxy, ‘pathological patriotism’ – the hectic, tangled web of ‘national identity’.

In Britain the divisions and debates over Brexit have dramatically raised the pressure of this ever-rumbling question. For the late Raymond Williams his own answer was ‘Welsh European’. What the EDL believes is rather vaporous, but it seems largely defined negatively, against Islam. Scotland has a strong separatist faction. The future of the Irish land frontier may be problematic. A conflict of definitions always has the potential to become more than a war of words, and Daša Drndić has also given a commentary on the manipulative politics of national identity in an interview (here):

A writer doesn’t need a homeland, he or she needs a roof, something to eat, but he or she cannot work without language. In some regimes, especially in authoritarian regimes, language is a danger. So, in undemocratic regimes, the power tries to modify the language, either to purify it or promote it as a part of national identity – but it is not a national identity, it is a personal identity, of every human being.

Not only in ‘undemocratic regimes’, many would say; Will Self in the Guardian has attacked ‘the thick and agglutinative ideology of patriotism’ underlying the UK’s current surge of populist disaffection with Europe. It is exploited by the state and the media as a matter of course. But in Belladonna Drndić draws on the history of a violently divided nation – Yugoslavia, the ‘Versailles state’ violently assembled thanks to World War I – to structure the narrative largely around the memories and reflections of a Croat professor  – an ‘intellectual proper’ with an all-round curiosity, as the publishers say – in his forced retirement. Age and infirmity form the distracting prism through which Andreas Bane recollects his experiences. He feels no longer the agent of his own life, having been put out to pasture with a meagre pension and unable to secure a job which will satisfy his still energetic mind. When he enters hospital for cancer surgery he is imprisoned in an impersonal routine, afterwards undergoing the radiotherapy performed by machines – machines with names. Between the fictional academic’s subjective impressions and the documented facts of Croatia’s history, both horrific and heroic, the reader is deluged with a rich flow of information, not always sure of its status, real or imagined.

This may be puzzling, but it’s part of the method, as the author explains in the same interview:

I use fiction and faction – transcripts, photographs, existing materials, documents and I twist them, I invent things, I use fiction. So it’s a combination of existing facts with invented events. Sometimes, the readers are so surprised that they don’t know anymore what is fiction and what is faction…. I enjoy myself twisting these realities, mixing them in some kind of fiction.

If the author enjoys it, let the reader too, even if, as here, the book’s scope centrally includes the most grave and tragic of events – war, Nazi occupation, the Ustashe’s reign of terror, atrocious collaboration and war crimes, the Holocaust. One technique she has used in a previous novel, Trieste, filling a succession of pages simply with an alphabetised list of the Jewish victims of Nazi genocide, as on a war memorial. Photographs pop up, uncaptioned but generally related to a neighbouring passage of text. Italicised expressions are common, though the grounds for using italics seem to vary. In one section stylised icons of a camera shutter punctuate a series of verbal ‘snapshots’. Drndić has also folded many quotations and allusions into Belladonna, and one borrowing on the final pages from the Hungarian cultural theorist László F. Földényi suggests a way of understanding why she has chosen this variegated format with its left-field interruptions.

Can life be chopped up into little pieces?

No. But then again, what makes it whole is the fact that it is made up of ‘pieces’ parts that can never be fitted together seamlessly. Life is full of cuts, says Földényi, even though we devote a large part of our energies to making the cuts unnoticeable…. Stitches, however, are even more conspicuous than cuts. Worse, they keep coming apart… when instead of what we are used to, we see something that is unprocessable, on which nothing can be built.

An Anglophone reviewer who long ago spent a memorable fortnight in Dubrovnik reliant on a phrasebook to order drinks can’t judge the equivalence of the translation (from Croatian); I can say that it reads in English as if written in English, without strain or incongruity. It achieves what Joseph Conrad defined as his task, ‘to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see’. This sophisticated and seldom optimistic but always humane book (it rescues the concept of ‘authenticity’ from its postmodern muggers) presents a compelling view from the Adriatic side of the EU. Though it addresses itself to the serious and attentive, not the light, reader it repays the demands it makes on his or her own knowledge, understanding and open-mindedness.  And I have little doubt that readers in their eighth decade will along with Andreas Bane recognise half-humorously the drizzle of small, daily devastations wrought by growing old.

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Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

Daša Drndić, Belladonna (London, Maclehose Press, 2017). 978-0-85705-431-9, 399 pp., paperback.

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