In Pieces

The fictions of the Croatian novelist Daša Drndić are catalogues of a shattered humanity. Families, communities, countries. Broken social orders beget broken lives. In her greatest work – among them, Trieste (2007), Belladonna (2012) and EEG (2016) ­­­­– fragmentation is everywhere. Personal episodes convolve with historical interpolations and primary documents – lists, epitaphs, inventories, recipes, instructions, ledgers, receipts; syntactic fragments are presented as standalone sentences; lines begin in the lower-case, as if severed from larger notions. Layout, as well, is wrenched to the theme: the splintered stories of young Printz in Doppelgänger are divided by the cutting lines found on paper worksheets, or the body awaiting the scalpel. In EEG, the final novel Drndić published before she died in 2018, a character describes the human body as no longer having borders: ‘it is dismembered, scattered, wild, but again, preserved in pieces’.

Is this state of fragmentation a hallmark of existence, or product of a particular social order? Drndić believed that the ‘boring linear construction’ of bourgeois literature merely sustained an illusion that lives are ‘coherent, seamless, with the stitching not showing and everything appearing to be smooth and logically constructed’, as a character in Belladonna (2012) puts it. Yet, Drndić’s work is at the same time inseparable from the Balkans and its history. In her most recently translated novel, Battle Songs, originally published in 1998, the protagonist, Tea Radan, flees Yugoslavia during the internecine wars of the 1990s, along with her precocious young daughter Sara, to find refuge in Toronto. Differing circumstances might allow them to mend what was broken elsewhere – if nothing else, Battle Songs disabuses the reader of this expectation.

Tea’s hardships in Toronto are sadly predictable. Western bigotry misses its target: mandated to visit a tuberculosis clinic, Tea reads ‘ARABS GO BACK TO BOSNIA!’ tagged on its walls. She spends her days working bad, temporary jobs while worrying about the welfare of her daughter. Tea joins the ranks of other disillusioned refugees underwhelmed by the offerings of liberal capitalism: a Bosnian, formerly a professional violinist, solicits business door-to-door with a sack of cheap toys; an ‘economist by training’ who once allocated social security payments in Yugoslavia, now collects them; a Croatian professional in ‘marketing and tourism’ abandons his search for work, bitterly concluding that the reason Canada accepts so many immigrants is that ‘they need cheap manpower’.

The deeper inadequacy of Tea’s new existence is spiritual. It’s a theme common to the literature of the refugee, where gaps in present experience are filled by the miseries and banalities of the past. Working at an illegal envelope-stuffing operation on the wintry fringes of the city, Tea, overwhelmed by unbidden memories, asks her boss for a distraction:

Couldn’t we have a bit of music? I asked at half past three, hoping that would help drive out the thoughts that were thumping in heavy, leaden lumps into the depths of my skull in crazy succession and at speed. I felt an unpleasant, almost painfully rhythmic drumming in my temples. For a long time, there was a rumour that Hitler was a vegetarian, because he was sometimes overcome by an insatiable desire for vegetarian dishes.

The reader learns to interpret these non sequiturs as reflexive masochism. Tea’s frequent flights into Croato-Serbian history similarly demonstrate that she can escape her present only through delving into the past.

The Serbian statesman Mihailo Crnobrnja once described Yugoslavia as a country of ‘seven neighbours, six republics, five nations, four languages, three religions, two scripts, and one goal: to live in brotherhood and unity’. Tea’s recollections of her time in Yugoslavia present a confounding social portrait. By landmarks and language alone, the reader might locate her in a different country entirely. As a child in Rovinj, Croatia, she noticed that the main street was called ‘Belgrade Street’, its only cinema ‘Belgrade Cinema’. Eventually they move to Belgrade, where Sara’s school workbooks used ‘Serbian terms for chemistry and history, the seal was half in the Latin script, half in Cyrillic, and the language being learned was called Serbo-Croato-Slovene’. Tea reports that the experience of returning from Belgrade to Croatia ‘did not differ fundamentally’ from their later journey to Toronto. In some respects, the culture shock was harder to weather. Tea was warned to ‘tone down that Serbian accent’ and found it necessary to relearn ‘a language that would make my presence in my own country legitimate’.

Whereas Tea describes Sara and herself as ‘adaptable’ to such social volatility, her father is not. A passionate communist in his youth, when Tea would return from Belgrade to visit she found him ‘reduced’, rendered passive and nostalgic:

Before every parting, my father lays out on the kitchen table old letters, photos, newspaper clippings, political tracts. He brings them out and shows me what I have seen innumerable times, what I remember clearly, because what my father lays out in front are in fact mementos of a past life that has marked our whole family…Photographs of my mother. My letters to him. Printed articles, reviews, stories…

A sorrowful image that ritually emerges in Drndić’s writing. The word ‘reduced’ is translated from the Croat smanjen (literally, diminished) which Tea also uses to describe her cremated mother, held in a ‘small, cheap black urn made of tin’. Whether a citizen of a failing socialist federation, or a stranger in a capitalist state, Tea finds that death is not always an immediate affair, that our finer traits can perish long before the body does, reducing us to an animal existence. Hence the characteristic analogy to animals in Drndić’s fiction: the rats of Belladonna; the rhinos of Doppelgänger; and, in Battle Songs, the Vietnamese potbellied pig, whose cultivation as a ‘Western family pet’ is juxtaposed with the experience of the novel’s refugees.

Drndić finds nimbler symbols in the figurines, dolls and game pieces her characters encounter. Waiting for the subway one day, Tea meets a woman selling miniatures: ‘little violins, little guitars, little newspapers, little books, little people, little teapots, little trumpets, little houses, little railways, little tables, little plates, little pianos’. Rather than prompting lamentation for the tragic diminishment of her life, she instead imagines ‘how nice it would be if we all got together and in a shrunken state lived on that woman’s shelf’.

The longing to live in a ‘shrunken state’ finds an affinity with Drndić’s treatment of ultranationalism and fascism. More than once, Tea declares confidence in the ‘purity of my Croatian blood’, which benefited her during the craze for ‘counting blood cells’ in the Balkans. Tea seems both bemused and faintly proud of this asset. Still, Tea has no serious affinities for the far right. The history of her Partisan family was marred by the violence of the Ustasha, the militia of the NDH (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska), the Croatian puppet state of the Axis powers. Drndić frames their ‘call for blood and soil’ as a petulant appeal for narrowing social concerns. Tea recalls an instructive example in a student magazine published in Zagreb, 1942.

Croats may only be Croatophiles. Any other allegiance that crosses the boundaries of our shared commitments, is not only completely nonsensical but also absolutely harmful. So all contradictions can be manifested only within the borders of our national and state benefits. It is better that those borders should be narrower rather than wider, it is better that in establishing those borders we should be narrow-minded, rather than allow ourselves greater liberties.

The fascist’s demands for ethnic purity and national fealty betray his vulnerability. Tea’s passing daydream of life in miniature – to live simply amongst the ‘little people’ and ‘little houses’ – becomes the fascist’s consuming political ambition: to produce an uncomplicated, uncontaminated society by externalizing the forces of reduction he feels within himself. The emotional antecedents of fascism are widely felt in Drndić’s characters, and her presentation of them is often seeded with acknowledgements of their humanity. Battle Songs reminds its reader that the Ustasha, too, had parents and lovers and sang ‘ditties’ to their children. Monsters are made, not born, she insists; the structure that Drndić implicates in their making is the turmoil of the Balkan nation-states.

Nationalism, likewise, is the subject of Drndić’s most direct parodies. Battle Songs shares a late-90s fracas within the Balkans over ‘Grandfather Frost’. National factions insist on their own version of the childhood legend, or, in the case of Bosnia & Herzegovina, reject it altogether as something ‘imposed from the outside’. The episode is amusing – and, to Americans, familiar – until a radio host who maintains that ‘Grandfather Frost is one of the rare things that unites people’ is assaulted for his opinion. Similarly, in EEG, the narrator reports that Latvians despise the widespread perception of Rothko as an American artist; they insist that Markuss Rotkovičs ‘is in fact ours, he’s not yours, but in fact ours’.

Of course, this is how nations function, by guarding distinctions between their constituents and foreign nationals, while neglecting divisions within their borders. Nurturing the illusion of nationality, these tendencies can only preserve or expand social fragmentation. Drndić is a pessimist, yet her will to fragmentation cannot help but accentuate, through sheer contrast, the human bonds that remain untroubled by it. In an illustrative paragraph towards the end of Battle Songs, Tea reflects on her daughter’s childhood:

Little keys for tightening the tooth braces which kept getting lost, glasses, doctors’ checkups, orthopedists – ugly high shoes, diaries (allergic to Pentrexyl, sleeps well, sleeps badly, high temperature, low temperature, likes pureed squash, likes apples, doesn’t like sour things, can take cherries, not oranges, will eat spinach, dumplings, dresses herself, ties her shoelaces, right-handed – left-handed, draws circles, distinguishes colours, doesn’t distinguish colours, has grown 2 centimeters, gained 300 grams, doesn’t like the story ‘Hansel and Gretel’, does like ‘The Ugly Duckling’: When I grow up I’ll be a white swan, hard stool, soft stool, throat swab sterile, new words: I can’t get down!)

Like everything else in Drndić, Sara’s life is ‘preserved in pieces’. But this collage is somehow free from the contortions of identity or manias of self-maintenance; rather its parts are suspended in the resin of a mother’s love, boundless, transparent, selfless. What is civilization but the hope that this local, instinctive love can be extended? Drndić spent her career anatomizing how this remains a fantasy within nation-states that must feed fraternity and acrimony at the same trough. In Toronto, Tea sometimes overhears Sara in the shower, singing to herself: ‘What can we do to make things better, what can we do to make things better. La-la-la-la.’ Another daydream: the prospect of people cooperating toward their mutual flourishing is something children sing to themselves when they think no one is listening.

Read on: Robin Blackburn ‘The Break-Up of Yugoslavia and the Fate of Bosnia’, NLR I/199.