In the Grip of Madness
July 2006: Haya Tedeschi, 83, waits at her home in Gorizia, on the Italian-Slovenian border, northwest of Trieste, for the arrival of the son who was stolen from her 62 years earlier, during the war.
An American writer would no doubt focus on, or at least convey, the drama of their meeting. But “Trieste,” by the Croatian novelist, playwright and critic Dasa Drndic, is a work of European high culture. Drndic is writing neither to entertain (her novel is splendid and absorbing nevertheless) nor to instruct (its subject, the Holocaust, is too intractable to yield lessons). She is writing to witness, and to make the pain stick.
The first half of “Trieste” chronicles events in the lives of Haya and her recent forebears, multilingual Jews born under — or, for her generation, just after the fall of — the Hapsburg monarchy. These dense and satisfying pages capture the crowdedness of memory. There isn’t much plot beyond births and deaths, comings and goings and the rise of fascism — which creates more anxiety for the reader, it seems, than for the family, who make it through the war (comparatively) unscathed. Haya’s fate ensnares her one day in January 1944, when she’s 20 and a handsome German officer, Kurt Franz, enters the tobacco shop she’s tending. The following October their son, Antonio, is born. Franz soon deserts her (“My little Jewess, we can’t go on like this”), and Toni vanishes from his pram while Haya’s back is turned.
In time, the mystery of this disappearance will be solved, but in a discursive rather than a dramatic fashion. There is no suspense. And the unsentimental Drndic won’t offer Haya the sympathy you might expect. She condemns her, and Haya condemns herself. “The Tedeschi family,” Drndic writes, “are a civilian family, bystanders who keep their mouths shut, but when they do speak, they sign up to fascism.” Bystanders: “For 60 years now these blind observers have been pounding their chests and shouting, We are innocent because we didn’t know! . . . these yes men, these enablers of evil.”
Almost halfway through, the novel stops abruptly to list, over 44 pages, the names of some 9,000 Jews for whose deaths Italy bears responsibility. From there, Drndic turns her attention to San Sabba, the gruesome concentration and extermination camp in a converted rice mill on the periphery of Trieste, and from there to the ghastly specifics of the Nazi extermination program. The connection is the same Kurt Franz, an all-too-real historical figure who was the baby-faced commandant of Treblinka before his transfer to Trieste.
Drndic uses various methods to recall the horror: trial transcripts, witness statements, biographical sketches, photographs. The technique is Sebaldian, but the tone, especially surrounding Haya, is the old-man-in-a-dry-month rattle of T. S. Eliot. Allusions to “The Waste Land” recur, and the book ends with a collage of bleak lines from the poem. Beckett, too, is present in the insistent imagery of physical discomfort (“a nasty itch plagues her in the early evenings”) and of putrefaction so extreme (“they even leap into the containers voluntarily, choke on the sewage sludge in their own fermented excrement”) that if her tone wobbled for a moment it would cross the line into camp. But even at their most lurid, Drndic’s sentences remain coldly dignified. And so does Ellen Elias-Bursac’s imperturbably elegant translation: There isn’t a sentence that you would guess had been born in another language.
Drndic attempts to stave off despair with her faith in literature, quoting liberally from Borges, Pound, Montale, Bernhard, the Triestine poet Umberto Saba and quite a few other great writers — but then she uses their words to shore up her despair, especially when, in the last part of the novel, she enters the consciousness of Antonio Tedeschi, Haya’s stolen son. We encounter him late in June 2006, when he is setting out to meet his mother at last. He’s not looking forward to it. Since finding out he is the son of “that murderer,” he has come to think of Haya as “that Jewish woman who spread her legs for him . . . while trains rumbled past, right there in front of her nose, on their way to killing grounds all over the Reich.”
If the reader hesitates to judge Drndic’s characters (the perennial doubt: would we have been bystanders? or worse?), the characters do not. They see themselves as trapped by history. Like the boots of a concentration-camp guard, Antonio says, “the Past, my Past, our Past, presses up against my face, which, beneath it, contorts in a grimace like the grimace of a crazed detainee whose innocence or guilt has yet to be determined.”
Innocence or guilt? But how can this man, born in 1944, be guilty? His near-hysterical determination not to let his generation off the hook for its parents’ crimes verges on madness. Then again, madness may be the only appropriate response to the enormity of the Holocaust. To move on is unacceptable if not impossible; to succumb to obsession is self-destructive and potentially suicidal. Once Haya’s son discovers his true identity, he does everything in his power to keep the horror and the pain alive. His anguish brings to mind an author Drndic doesn’t quote: Faulkner, whose Quentin Compson kills himself because he fears that the pain he is feeling is going to fade. Which, thank God, is the nature of everything earthly, including history. The pain of the Holocaust has faded already; it’s fading now.
Craig Seligman is a critic and the author of “Sontag & Kael.”