She loved her country while detesting the people in power; the lies told, the atrocities committed, the vile secrets, all the hurt experienced. Intolerant of fools and cowards, Croatian writer Daša Drndić was warmth, good humour and kindness personified: she was a truth-teller, determined to give a voice to generations of victims who perished in the Holocaust. On the eve of the publication of her final work, EEG, a characteristically wry narrative, rich in story, fact and opinion, the public juxtaposed with the personal, it appears timely, if belated, to pay tribute to a courageous witness. One of the handful of truly great artists of our beleaguered epoch, her historically-based, semi-autobiographical fictions are as exhilarating as they are disturbing; dense, profound and extraordinarily readable.
Ironically while EEG, a truculent leave-taking laced with jaunty defiance, is much anticipated as a companion of sorts to the magnificent Belladonna (2015), many will be left speechless at the sheer brilliance of an earlier work, Doppelgänger (2002), consisting of a story and a novella, published in English for the first time earlier this month. For a writer who was overlooked in life by the literary establishment, her time has finally come. Sadly, though, this is after her death in June, aged 71, following a vicious illness.
Since the English-language publication of Trieste (2007) in 2012, an international readership has become gradually aware of Drndić’s formidable vision: singular, relentless, passionate and often, blackly, horrifically, funny. The success of Trieste beyond Croatia, where she said “no one bothered to read it,” encouraged her British publishers, MacLehose Press, to publish an earlier book, Leica Format (2003), in 2015, translated by Celia Hawkesworth. Although it had been well received in Croatia, the UK publication went unnoticed. A subtle collage, Leica Format would mark the beginning of an inspired collaboration and Hawkesworth would go on to translate Belladonna, EEG and collaborate with Susan Curtis, the head of Istros Books, on the Beckettian Doppelgänger.
Drndić’s quest was immense, as Printz, the central character in Doppelgänger concedes: “I’m not looking for anything, I’m remembering.” She confronted the burden of history, memory and the distortion of it, through a forensic examination of historical material, fact, human tragedy and the inhuman cruelty with particular reference to events initiated under the 1940s Ustaše regime. Her source was the appalling legacy of the Second World War and the evils perpetrated against Serbs as well as Jews and Roma. As she told me: “I use different stories, all connected; I wanted a book full of stories all contained in little packages, fragments, as in a child’s picture book. I wanted the reader to be able to go and cut open each little story, to examine them, one by one. But no publisher would do this. “Too expensive” they would protest. Everything is about money, except it is not.”
One of the handful of truly great artists of our beleaguered epoch, her fictions are dense, profound and extraordinarily readable
In person, Drndić was as vibrant, as urgent as her prose. Language is literature she believed — and hers was. The exactness of her writing, throughout her 13 novels and plays, is tied to the rhythms of speech itself, Croatian as spoken, with its insistent repetition, intended to pinpoint meaning and intent. “I use whatever feels right at the moment, but you know, the word order – the syntax – that is so important.” Rhythms convey nuance I suggest, and her face lights up.
I met Drndić by chance: she read a review I wrote of Belladonna for the Los Angeles Review of Books and contacted her British publishers. At that moment she was shortlisted for the inaugural EBRD Literature Prize and had reached the final three. She didn’t win, yet was philosophical: “I never win prizes.” Her arrival in London was doubtful as she was so ill. But she did travel; and I flew over from Ireland to meet her. She was then in the late stages of lung cancer. I had been prepared, but she looked very well and I told her so. “My dear” she said, “I am pumped full of cortisone.” In my stupidity, I asked if I could get some. She laughed and replied that one would have to be dying, “like me.” Death she regarded as an irritant. “I am very angry about this business: I lost all my hair — this is a wig — I love life; life is wonderful, beautiful. I want to be alive. I have work to do. But you know what bothers me, what makes me want to peel away the secrets and lies? I cannot understand why there are people who want to eliminate other people. I cannot understand this need to hurt, to destroy, to take. Why are we as a species so very cruel to one another?”
It was 10 April — and 56 days later she died in a hospice in the Croatian port city of Rijeka, where she had lived for many years. I had never seen anyone facing death with such open annoyance. “There is a book I need to write, it is about Albania. When I think that Jonathan Franzen, a writer…a writer…I ask you… how could a writer go to Albania to write about bird watching, for National Geographic, and not feel obliged to write about a country that was so closed, as tight as a fist, until 1991? I need to write that book — but will I get the time?” She sighed, asking: “Can you imagine Joseph Roth… overlooking such a story?” I mention having a framed cover of The Radetzky March in my study, she approves, and again declares: “You are coming to my home, I will feed you.”
There were so many books she wanted to write but one story in particular that she regretted not writing was an account of her remarkable father, Ljubo Drndić, a journalist, who had been a Yugoslav partisan and later a diplomat posted to Sweden and Sudan. He had a love-hate relationship with the Communist Party. “He was expelled, but then they wanted him back,” she said. He was instrumental in abolishing visas for tourists visiting Yugoslavia. “My father: I loved him so dearly. My family, we were close. I loved my mother. She died young, only 50, my father lived to be 93, almost 94. My brother died only last winter. But my father, he got things done and helped begin the Croatian tourist industry. Oh yes, my father had a story to tell.”
Drndić’s formidable vision was singular, relentless, passionate and often, blackly, horrifically, funny
From the moment of first meeting her, she was wry and eager, announcing with a likeable sense of wonder that she was “fascinated” by the pain in her bones from radiotherapy. “Even my fingers hurt,” she said. She asked me whether I enjoy the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, one of her major literary influences, and she described her time studying at the University of Southern Illinois in the United States while on a Fulbright scholarship. As for America today, she said with theatrical understatement: “A corrupt man is in charge and fools lap it up. History always repeats itself.”
Her books will be read and re-read; her voice resonates. Writer Edmund White said Trieste made him cry. Never sentimental, Drndić possessed an unusual, candid and genuine empathy. What was she like? Well, she gave Doppelgänger, her favourite book, “an ugly little thing” to independent publisher Susan Curtis as a gesture of affection, but also as a practical, if subtle, way of thanking Curtis for her support of writing from Southeast Europe. That is what Drndić was like: an artist for sure and a very rare individual.