Daša Drndić is a novelist of startling juxtapositions. Whatever her narrative thrust, she is always embellishing (or interrupting) with images, footnotes, inventories, songs, police reports, snippets from other works, lists—especially lists. Much has been written about her pages-long accounting of murdered Jews in her novels Trieste and Belladonna. For further consideration, I submit a scene in Doppelgänger, wherein an outdoor handjob between two elderly strangers, both of whom will shortly commit suicide, is interposed with an alphabetical list of some of the most radioactive signifiers of the twentieth century, from Auschwitz to Zyklon B.
Drndić, who died in 2018, has only recently achieved widespread attention in the anglophone reading world. Battle Songs, with Celia Hawkesworth as translator, is the sixth of the Croatian writer’s books to come out in English. “Art,” Drndić once said, “should shock, hurt, offend, intrigue, be a merciless critic of the merciless times we are not only witnessing but whose victims we have become.” Merciless Drndić is; she is one of literature’s great obsessives, and her main fixation is the violence of the European twentieth century and its aftermath. But her project might be not so much to retrieve the horrible past—much of which is unrecoverable, as her work intimates—but instead to stash parts of it, whatever she can grab hold of, in her books. Though this is not the only drive of her fiction, she is certainly out to discomfort, to make squirm those sheepish, complacent, bored, cowardly, lazy people who teem in the frictionless fogs of forgetting—most of us.
It’s not that Drndić avoids her central characters’ interior lives—read Belladonna, for example, and you’ll find yourself so interior that you reach entrails—but that at times her narrative zigzags so far into documentation that one briefly wonders why Drndić didn’t become a historian. But then, she has little interest in linear chronology or economic or political exegesis. Drndić cannot be dispassionate. Her work throbs like a hurt human heart.
A single consciousness usually keeps her stories moving, and in Battle Songs, it belongs to an unnamed woman who, with her daughter, after the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, flees Croatia to Canada, the promised land. Disillusionment ensues, and more. New Directions, its publisher, calls Battle Songs a novel, but it is more a book of interconnected stories. Although it shares genetic material with the other Drndić translations out there—digression and fragmentation are hallmarks of this volume, too—its penning preceded them. Not that it feels like an early work or a warmup. If anything, the shorter form puts into sharp, gemlike relief the deadly inventiveness of her literary technique.
“Little Unfinished Story” begins: “There is a lot of literature about pigs. There is almost no genre of the written word into which they have not worked their way.” Reading this, I was reminded of the moment in Belladonna when Andreas Ban, the narrator, thinks of the “Deaf age of defiled silence through which pigs grunt as they stampede over the paving stones of memory.” (See above: frictionless fogs of forgetting.) But the pigs in Battle Songs are actually pigs. And they get eaten by people. Through brief sections with titles such as “A brief history of the origin of Vietnamese Potbellied Pigs” and “Pigs in socialist Yugoslavia,” Drndić delineates communal differences and shared humanity from Kosovo to Slovenia.
Then, all at once, we are safely in Canada, listening to a chorus of Yugoslav refugees, including a poet turned hot dog seller, speaking on the radio about loss and hardship. The narrator only briefly steps in, primarily to try to make up for all that she couldn’t fit into the narrative. Soon after, we are back to pigs. This time they are denizens of North America, and instead of being eaten, they’re taken in as pets, only to be abandoned. Thus:
A network was arranged to place abandoned and abused pigs in adoptive families. In the families, however, the Vietnamese (potbellied) and miniature pigs had problems adapting. There were changes in their behavior, mostly as a result of being isolated from other pigs. The most prominent symptoms of such unacceptable behavior in the pigs were: depression and withdrawal into themselves, insecurity, anger, fear and aggression . . . Those with experience in treating trauma in pet pigs say that they come across pigs that are not even aware of the fact that they are pigs.
The active juxtaposition here, as is common in Drndić’s work, is unsubtle. Yugoslav refugees, pig refugees—what’s the difference? A review can’t do justice to this tightly woven story, but let me assure you: it’s good.
The middle section of the book, a novella entitled “Glasshouses and Gallstones,” feels more cobbled together. It winds through the narrator’s grandparents’ letters to Yugoslavia’s dictator Tito, wartime diary entries, the histories of Theresienstadt and the MS St. Louis, an accounting of unprosecuted war criminals (in particular those who found sanctuary in Canada), and the narrator’s love affair with a man whose mother might have denounced her own mother, but it doesn’t quite benefit from the sheer onslaught that more effectively powers Drndić’s longer novels.
Luckily, the four stories that bookend the novella put the short form to good, punchy use. Of those, the best title belongs to “Hitler Liked Quail and Father Christmas Abandons Bosnia,” a story of the immigrant underclass under Canadian capitalism in which the narrator stuffs envelopes for extra cash, but my favorites are “Little Unfinished Story” and “Oh, Donna Clara.” They represent perfect miniatures of Drndić’s strangeness, irony, and dark humor.
Like “Little Unfinished Story,” “Oh, Donna Clara” involves animals. This time, cats. The narrator and Sara visit the Toronto Humane Society in order to adopt a feline. But just as she had to convince the powers that be in the opening story that she was fit to leave her homeland, here she needs to convince them that she’s fit to adopt a cat. At some point she even feels forced to say, “We have no sexual or perverse designs on the cat.” Whether Sara and her mom succeed in procuring their pet, I won’t tell. Not just to avoid spoiling the ending, but also in order to say that there’s so much more of life and feeling and history and anthropology and irony in this story and the others than the simple setup might suggest. Also because Battle Songs ends with the affirmation: “Not the end.” So, in solidarity, I won’t properly end this review.
© 2023 by Ben Goldman. All rights reserved.