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“The Dead Voices of her Ancestors Shudder, Whimper, Well Up”: A Review of Daša Drndić’s Trieste

By Tristan Foster.

Daša Drndić, Trieste, trans. Ellen Elias-Bursac, Maclehose Press, 2011

As the long echoes, shadowy, profound
Heard from afar, blend in unity,
Vast as the night, as sunlight’s clarity
So perfumes, colours, sounds may correspond

– Charles Baudelaire, Correspondences, trans. James McGowan

“Umberto says, Trieste is a pungent and melancholy city, the strangest city, Umberto says.”

– Daša Drndić, Trieste, trans. Ellen Elias-Bursac

Trieste begins simply: an elderly woman leafs through photographs and paper scraps, things accumulated over a lifetime. The woman is Haya Tedeschi, and what she sorts through are documents – evidence – she has collected during her sixty-year search for her son, Antonio. Antonio, it becomes clear, was stolen from his pram on a street in Gorizia while Haya had her back turned, and she has been waiting since that day for news, for word of him, anything. As she leafs through the things in her basket, she is tugged back into another time: “The dead voices of her ancestors shudder, whimper, well up from the corners of the room, from the floor, the ceiling, they creep in through the Venetian blinds and hum history just beyond her reach.” From here, the story quickly grows, bending inwards, into the Tedeschi family’s past, and also outwards, reaching both into time and across it, until soon the narrative spans the entire continent of Europe.

Daša Drndić’s Trieste tells the story of Trieste and the surrounding region during the Nazi occupation. The narrative loops from the present to the past and back again – like memory, like history – being weaved into the lives of the Tedeschis, a family of Jews who live in Gorizia, just north of Trieste, the city which became the centre of the Nazi Party’s Operationszone Adriatisches Küstenland, and whose origins it becomes increasingly difficult to conceal: “The Tedeschi family go on living in the illusion of ignorance. Those who know what is happening do not speak. Those who don’t know ask no questions. Whoever asks gets no answers. Then, as now.” Then, as now – this is the point on which the narrative of Trieste spins; the silence with which certain events of World War II were met when they were occurring has been allowed to continue. And so, in the place of answers which have never come, Drndić attempts to fill the continuing silence, piling layer of history upon layer in the hope that it will become immovable.


Map of Adriatisches Küstenland

The only thing preventing a history from being forgotten is ensuring that it continues to be told; a voice is needed, to tell the story and therefore preserve it. Trieste, then, is an act of ventriloquism, capturing the voices of an era so that the stories they tell – stories of barely imaginable cruelty and barbarity – are not forgotten and – that it needs to be said is evidence of the importance of Drndić’s project – never repeated. The novel presents case after case of the subsuming of history, of turning away, of the allowed and even encouraged metamorphosis of the facts – in other words, stories of forgetting. For example, many of the highest ranking SS men working in the region were not brought to justice. They escaped, were released from jail after a few years or weren’t given any punishment at all, starting new lives and growing old as though what they did as younger men did not happen. This is the problem as Drndić sees it, the problem of as if nothing had happened . So into this residual silence she has stuffed a range of voices. She guides Haya along a steep and savage pathway through history as Virgil guides Dante through the Inferno. And, as in the Commedia, the characters in Trieste take over the narrative, desperate to tell stories of who they are and how they have ended up here, before they slink off again, back into the dark. These stories sometimes appear as testimonies from the Nuremburg trials, sometimes as imagined dialogues, sometimes as correspondence:

How old are you now?

If I were alive, I would be eighty-seven.

These voices hold the fabric of the narrative together: Drndić urgently feeds voice after voice into an otherwise gaping void.

The Commedia analogy above is useful only so far – to continue it beyond a comfortable distance is to risk undermining Drndić’s project, and the extreme seriousness of its subject. Indeed, Haya is the embodiment of Drndić’s belief that those affected by the events of the period have been left behind. Drndić’s employment of Haya Tedeschi as the story’s protagonist is important to examine with regard to this idea of an inescapable hell.


Gustave Doré, Inferno Canto 4 unbaptised lines 38-39

For Drndić, turning a blind eye to the actions of the Nazis was, and is, as good as complicity. Allowing trains packed with Jews on their way to certain death to pass through your borders, as Switzerland did, isn’t quite neutrality, is it? “Life is stronger than war… There are many bystanders. They are the majority.” As Haya looks back on the war, it becomes clear that the war happened around her, not to her. The Tedeschis hide their religious beliefs and anoint themselves Catholics. They sign up for fascism. They make coffee as their neighbours disappear. But nowhere is this clearer than in Haya’s affair with Kurt Franz – SS Untersturmführer and camp commander at Treblinka – which ends in her eventual pregnancy. While the rest of the Tedeschi family move to Milan, Haya stays in Gorizia to be close to Franz. They go for drives and take day trips to Trieste; Franz takes photographs. It is only after her son Antonio is stolen that reality, for Haya, begins to manifest itself – only fully revealing itself to her when those who committed atrocities at the San Sabba camp are put on trial in Trieste in 1976: “More than a hundred of [the S.S. men] saunter around the unrealised dreamland of the fictitious Adriatisches Küstenland, yet the list in the paper gives less than fifty names… This list should be endless. This list is endless, Haya says.” As if to do this absence justice, the middle of the book holds a list of the names of 9,000 Jews who were killed in Italy between 1943 and 1945. For the reader, this list is almost endless.

Haya is condemned for wanting to live a regular young woman’s life. At this she tries her hardest, even allowing herself to fall in love with Franz who, when he is not swimming at the beach and taking photos with Haya, is helping to facilitate industrial-scale murder. But Drndić’s message here is that in these circumstances “normal” is not possible, and the further from normalcy a situation strays, the madder it becomes to try to maintain it. Haya spends the rest of her life dealing with this – not with the guilt, but with the desire to maintain the status quo during the maddest period of the modern era. Haya’s post-war life is mentioned, not in detail, but there are glimpses – and yet her post-war life is not a life at all. Instead, she waits – for news of her son, but for even more than that. News, if it comes, means what? Haya waits because this is her curse now, her curse for looking the other way . Dwelling on the past or moving on from it – neither of these options involves coming to terms with the matter. This is what we are left with: businesses that profited under the Nazi regime continue to prosper to this day; key members of the SS were never brought to justice; responsibility is deferred. Drndić posits that for the victims, if not for the world, letting the Holocaust go unaccounted for and unacknowledged is akin to a living death. So here we are, in a limbo of waiting.


Lebensborn propaganda; caption reads: “Everything for the healthy child.”

“The dreams circle around her mind, sometimes heavy and slow like a millstone, other times quick like flashes of fireflies; dreams crazed by a web-like ease which in wakefulness knit their sticky net around her.” Memory wraps itself around Haya in the way that past and present envelops the narrative. And herein lies Drndić’s greatest achievement, raising Trieste to the highest literary significance: this knitting of past with present, this perpetual looping, entraps Haya. She is trapped in the narrative just as she is trapped in history. But also bundled into it is you, the reader. Haya, together with collective memory, with history, together with the reader, is cocooned in, so that the only way out (if there is a way out) is as something new.

Engaging with a novel that is larger than you and your daily reality – a novel that takes on the shape of an entire continent, as Trieste does – does not mean that it is above criticism. The conceit of looping back through history, from 2006 to the period of the Second World War then back again to the elderly Haya, is rarely smooth, and, more than occasionally, jarring. At times the novel also forfeits its status as a novel for that of a catalogue of horrendous act after horrendous act; indeed, the list of the 9,000 names in the book’s middle is the literal realisation of this idea. Confronted with the names of the dead in this way has the effect of quantifying the scale of this, the scale of what we are ignoring and at risk of forgetting. Flicking through the 43-pages of names is similar to standing in front of a wall of the dead at a war memorial: you look at the names as a whole, as a wall, then you look closer, for something you recognise – your name, or the name of a relative or a friend, you look at the way they are bevelled, the way they have been smoothed down from touching or from the elements, searching for a reference point, something to ground you – before you move on. We must move on, mustn’t we? What does it say about humankind that we can walk away from this? What does it say about us that we can’t not ignore it? Drndić’s addition of the list of names is a compelling experiment achieving an effect not unlike that created by a confronting piece of art. But it also splits the book like an axe chop: its usefulness to the narrative is at best debatable; at worst, it is an aggressive act of textual disruption. Yes, behind every name lies a story, but the specifics of these stories are what we need, something to hold and weigh in our palms.

Unavoidable in this particular discussion is the question of labelling Trieste not as a work of nonfiction but as a work of fiction (Drndić herself calls it “documentary fiction”). What does the book achieve by taking this form, and what does it lose? It is perhaps only with the tools of fiction that we can capture this story and this channelling back and forth from the past in this way, and now. But the chance for these stories – and behind every name is a story, Haya, Antonio and Drndić all remind us – to be caught is slipping, their realities fading. Many of these names are now only names, their stories, if they are known, only stories. Using the lens of fiction, then, is the only way to take these and make them into something larger, the only way left to record it as collective memory, or else risk losing it forever.

Trieste is a hollow city of voices, a patchwork of narratives, letters, fragments, memories. Writers appear – Borges, Bernhard, Kierkegaard, Danilo Kiš – their words becoming part of the story. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is especially pertinent and is quoted extensively, because memory, history, and the world at large is a heap of broken images. Ezra Pound also wanders into the narrative, which is curious, given his wartime stance on the matters Trieste addresses. However, his late-life silence is interpreted by Drndić as self-chastisement for his sins. Pound’s muteness is further evidence of the importance of voice to Drndić, and the importance of certain voices being heard and others being silenced. Haya, in her old age, imposes silence on herself, as Pound did; an imperfect punishment, yes, but acknowledgment at least. Special mention should be made of the English translator of Trieste, Ellen Elias-Bursac, who has produced a seamless translation from the original Serbo-Croat, allowing the echo of these words to continue.

The fear of forgetting that is at the foundation of the novel, of having a part of human history erased forever, is encapsulated by the example of the Lebensborn project. Lebensborn, a project designed by Himmler himself, launched in 1936 with the aim of caring for pregnant Aryan women who would give birth to “quintessential” sons. They would be cared for in special homes, breeding grounds for perfect Nazi children, while those not-so-perfect children, those who were mentally ill or invalids, were sent far away or euthanized – the literal farming of the new man. Lebensborn was very much up and running with houses all over Europe when the Nazi regime fell. The files containing the details of where the children were housed were destroyed, so the Lebensborn children, many of whom were stolen or illegitimate, were left to roam the world, their true origins a mystery: “We are a lot unto ourselves, an ilk that has unhooked itself from Earth and now wanders through space.”

Is there anger here? Lebensborn, the cataloguing of the crimes of SS men active in the region, splitting the book in half with a list of 9,000 murdered Jews – surely there is anger here. But as vast as anger is, maybe something beyond anger and larger still is at play; what else could drive a project like this, especially now? Whatever the case, it is the trimming at the narrative’s edges, the filigree, manifesting itself as anger finally, and, only truly, in the voice of Antonio Tedeschi, Haya’s lost son. But this is the anger of coming into the knowledge that your life, and the world, is a lie, and of being left in a state of limbo by this knowledge:

Nazis, many of them with blood-stained hands, some condemned to death, some sentenced to years in prison, a sentence they often didn’t serve out, many who were never brought to justice, who went on working as physicians and judges, engineers and architects, living “distinguished” lives, these Nazis colluded in conspiratorial silence as weighty as a millstone under which life lies crushed beyond recognition.


A pile of ashes from the crematorium in the Treblinka death camp

It is the rootless children – those who were part of the twisted plan that was Lebensborn – for whom Drndić writes; it is the crushing of life beyond recognition, under the weight of profound silence, that Drndić writes against.

“We don’t exist, we get existed,” Thomas Bernhard famously said. It is through Trieste’s project of vocalization that ghosts with empty names “get existed.” It begins simply, but it quickly swells to fill the borders of densely-peopled lands. The story grows so large that it doesn’t even end – it just stops. Drndić knows, intimately, that a story cannot meet its end through forgetting, and certainly not by ignoring. And Trieste is not a book to be ignored.


Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney, Australia. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Music & Literature, Verity La, Seizure, gorse and Black Sun Lit. He tweets at @tristan_foster.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 17th, 2014.