The question for the writer intent on incorporating the Holocaust in his or her novel is not whether to represent it, but how. An insensitive and ham-handed depiction by a third-rate writer is not all bad, for it still rams home the horror and keeps the flame alive. Contemporary Holocaust novels that stand out are those that find a new angle on the catastrophe and highlight the hitherto unsaid through bold and unique storytelling.
Daša Drndic, a distinguished writer and critic in her native Croatia, has done just that. “Trieste,” seamlessly translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac, explores the 20th century’s darkest chapter in an original way, both thematically and stylistically, without ever diluting the disaster. Like the work of W.G. Sebald, the book is consumed with history and memory — the necessity of remembering, and the ordeal of forgetting — and conflates fact with fiction while flitting between cold, hard truth and soft, sensual lyricism.
Drndic opens by introducing Haya Tedeschi, an old woman sitting alone in the small town of Gorizia in northeast Italy. From the basket at her feet, “she takes out her life and hangs it on the imaginary clothesline of reality.” She surveys letters, poems, photographs, postcards and newspaper clippings, but also lists of Holocaust victims and transcripts from the Nuremberg Trials.
Drndic slowly trickles in the truth: Haya has been waiting 62 years for the return of her son, Antonio, who was fathered by an SS officer and stolen from her by the Nazis as part of their top-secret Lebensborn project for preserving the racial purity of the German nation.
Haya’s reminiscences take us from pre-World War I to the rubble of 1945. The checkered history of Mitteleuropa, with its battles and rulers and fractured peace, is expertly woven into the novel’s fabric. The changes over the years are considerable: Trieste, a city that attracts artists, writers and musicians, experiences a huge exodus and becomes “the Italian city of longing” with the rise of fascism; Haya’s lover begins as a charming soldier and is later unmasked as a sadistic killer; and an old rice mill in San Sabba on the outskirts of Trieste is converted into a concentration camp with crematorium.
Drndic describes convoys of camp inmates (“Cargo. They were cargo”) being sent to Auschwitz and Treblinka, but most of her events take place on the lesser-documented Italian front. So unflinchingly does Drndic present her detail that after certain passages concerning freight-train journeys, gas chambers and euthanasia centers, it pays to put the book down and take a break and gulps of fresh air. Potent, candid writing, while deserving of praise, is not always the easiest to digest.
The book’s ingenious mishmash of styles and its collage of material reflect Trieste and its geographical environs, a region that over the centuries has been privy to shifting borders, crumbling empires and an overlapping mix of languages and cultures.
Haya reminds us how, as one war bleeds into another, humanity makes the same mistakes: “Despite the fact that history stubbornly repeats itself, we are bad learners.” Revelations concerning Switzerland, the Red Cross and the Catholic Church routinely shock, whereas Drndic’s treatment of love and loss is consistently affecting.
All of which is another way of saying that “Trieste” is an exceptional reading experience and an early contender for book of the year.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.