Daša Drndić, Trieste (2014 English translation; Croatian edition 2007, Sonnenschein)

June 12th, 2014 § 7 comments

She is wildly calm. She listens to a sermon for dirty ears and drapes herself in the histories of others, here in the spacious room in the old building at Via APrica 47, in Gorica, known as Gorizia in Italian, Görz in German, and Gurize in the Friulian dialect, in a miniature cosmos at the foot of the Alps, where the River Isonzo, or Soča, joins the River Vipava, at the borders of fallen empires.

Her story is a small one, one of innumerable stories about encounters, about the traces preserved of human contact. She knows this, just as she knows that Earth can slumber until all these stories of the world are arranged in a vast cosmic patchwork which will wrap around it. And until then history, reality’s phantom, will continue to unravel, chop, take to pieces, snatch patches of the universe and sew them into its own death shroud. She knows that without her story the job will be incomplete, just as she knows that there is no end, that the end reaches on to eternity, beyond existence. She knows that the end is madness, as Umberto Saba once told her while he was in hospital here, in Gorizia, in Dr Basaglia’s ward perhaps, or maybe it was in Trieste with Dr Weiss. She knows that the end is a dream from which there is no waking. And the shortcuts she takes, the quickest ways to get from one place to the next, are often nearly impassable, truly goats’ paths. These shortcuts may stir her nostalgia for those long, straight, rectilinear, provincial roads, also something Umberto Saba told her then, so she sweeps away the underbrush of her memory now, memories for which she cannot say whether they even sank to the threshold of memory, or are still in the present, set aside, stored, tucked away. It is along these overgrown shortcuts that she walks. She knows there is no such thing as coincidence; there is no such thing as the famous brick which falls on a person’s head; there are links – and resolve – of which we seem to be unaware, for which we search.
She sits and rocks, her silence is unbearable.

It is Monday, 3 July, 2006.

HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME. (pp. 7-8 iPad e-book edition, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać)

When one talks about reading a story that deals with the Holocaust, there likely springs first to the mind images of gas chambers, of trains that disappear into the night and fog, of cruel commandants and crueler experiments. Perhaps images of frightened men, women, and children flicker in one’s mental eye, or maybe there’s that short staccato burst, rat-a-tat-tat, of bullets thudding into human meat, or possibly the rending tearing of human flesh as canines sink their teeth into fleeing bodies. No, it is very difficult not to think of violence of some sort when that ghastly word, “Holocaust” (or Shoah, or Endlösung), is uttered. But there are more terrors and more violence than those visited upon human flesh. In Croatian novelist Daša Drndić’s recently-translated novel, Trieste, the graphic horrors give way to something more subtle and much more insidious, creating a work that makes its readers want to flinch, if only because we might just see part of ourselves in its characters.

Trieste opens in July 2006, as an aged Jewish woman, Haya Tedeschi, is preparing to meet her long-lost son. She reminisces on her youth and her experiences in the then-Italian alpine town of Gorizia during World War II. At first, her dry, almost clinical reflection on the changes of fortunes and empires in her border town seem too close to the actual meanderings of a woman who might be on the edge of senility. However, as her story progresses, what we witness is something unsettling in just how preternaturally calm Haya appears to be.

The heart of the tale deals with Haya’s meeting with a young German officer and the love affair that they have in the last two full years of World War II. It is only later that we learn just who the German officer really is and that their tryst near Trieste, the site of the worst Italian-specific concentration camps, takes on new levels of ugliness. Drndić carefully develops juxtapositions of lust and fear, of life and death, of individual emotion and industrial-scale depravation throughout Haya’s narration. There are some surprises, however, that punctuate the narrative and make it even unsettling for readers. The appearance of her son and his point of view provides such a contrast to what Haya has narrated that the reader is forced to reassess her previous opinions of the primary narrator and consider her “lost” son’s take on his parents’ affair in a light that shines harshly on all it touches.

Trieste takes no prisoners in its story of the Italian/Slovenian Holocaust wrapped around Haya’s fictional tryst and subsequent pregnancy. Drndić peppers her narrative with a plethora of actual data of the lives lost in the Italian Holocaust, devoting over 40 pages of text to reproducing the names of each of the 9000+ lives lost. She shows the suffering of some and the complicity of others like Haya in the genocide. The result is a story that feels like the infamous Part IV of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, where the matter-of-fact narration of the dead adds an ominous layer to an already powerful narrative.

Drndić’s prose is excellent and the translation captures the spirit of her writing pitch-perfectly. The characterizations are well-rendered and the slow, methodical buildup from Haya’s youth to her meeting of her son is executed very well. The result is a novel that may be one of the best Holocaust-based fictions written in the past two decades. Very highly recommended.


§ 7 Responses to Daša Drndić, Trieste (2014 English translation; Croatian edition 2007, Sonnenschein)"

  • Rina Gent says:

    Most of this book is not fiction….it is my mother’s story.

    The story has been recognised by some members of the family in the UK and in Italy as well as friends.

    The first third of this book is a copy, with a few name changes, of my mother’s autobiography, dictated to my brother in 1996 and then published privately for the family as ‘My Mother’s Family’.

    The book can be found if you Google ‘Thorn Gent Family Home Page’

    As well as my mother’s actual narrative there are additions from my brother who published the book.

    In the Dasa Drndic’s fictional story, it is obvious to everyone who knows my mother, whose family the story is based on. Some actual names are used. E.G. Emilio Finzi and Constantino Finzi, my great grandfather and great great grandfather, respectively.

    It is obvious if you read my mother’s autobiography that this book, up until 1943, is an almost complete rewrite of that work with only some minor changes of some names. It is not fiction but is a copy of that story.

    My mother is extremely distressed about the whole matter. Some of the personal information used is causing a lot of upset both in the UK and in Italy within the family.

    I personally have contacted the publishing house, Maclehose and received a reply which states it was not their intention, nor the author, to cause distress. But we feel that stealing someone else’s life story, which at times is very painful and distressing to tell, and use it in a work of ‘fiction’, is going to cause distress. They offered to change names and put mention of my mother’s book in further editions.

    My mother is especially upset about the woman representing her has an illegitimate baby in the ‘fictional’ part of the book, with an SS Officer, which she certainly did not! Mention is also made of her mother’s drink problem, this was true but obviously is a very personal matter and not one to be used in a work of fiction by someone who knows nothing of our family.

    In conclusion we have been promised by the publishers MacLehose…that all further copies of the book will include the following in the front of the book….we do not know at this time if this has been carried out or not.

    Here is that promise…….I have the original email still.

    To confirm with you that there will be reference once again to Fulvia Gent’s own story on the permissions page at the back of the book, but also more prominently at the front, as discussed with Fulvia, on the CIP page (copyright page with publishers details etc) as follows:

    “This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. For example, the early life of Haya Tedeschi is based on an account by Frank Gent of the life of Fulvia Schiff and her family (My Mother’s Story, 1996). The affair with an S.S. officer and subsequent birth of a son is fiction. In reality the Schiffs fled from Sicily to Albania in 1938, and lived there for six years, when they returned to Italy via Yugoslavia, Hungary and Austria. Fulvia Schiff met a British soldier, Frank Dennis Gent, in Milan in 1945. She returned with him to England – where they still live – married, and had six children.”

    I would not call this a work of ‘fiction’ and I am still very upset that my mother’s story was stolen and used in this way….as is she is too.

    • Larry Nolen says:

      Thanks for bringing this to my attention. For what it is worth, the American edition (I am an American, even though the site is hosted by and owned by a friend living in the UK) has just that promise published on the copyright and permissions pages.

  • Rina Gent says:

    Thanks for that information, I will let my mother know today…..that will give her some comfort as she often mentions it when we talk and I have not been able to find out……Fulvia Schiff, (Haya Tedeschi) will be very pleased to hear this.
    It is their 68th Wedding Anniversary today.
    Thanks to MacLehose for keeping their promise.

  • Daša Drndić says:

    Mr. Gent’s booklet is a dry 16 page pamphlet (placed on the web), with pretensions of being an account of one’s family. My book has some 400 pages. What I did do was take some facts from a family’s life (so, I borrowed a life), which, those facts, are by no means literary nor do they make literature, and tried to transform some of them into literature. One or more of those factual sentences are followed by pages and pages of my literary fiction or historical faction. That is always being done in all spheres of art.
    Below is an article on the outcome of a similar “case”.

    Gabriel García Márquez Wins Lawsuit

    While Márquez has long admitted his book was inspired by Palencia’s family history and the murder of Chimento, the author argued that the names and the rest of the book’s plot were the fruits of his own imagination.
    In its ruling on Tuesday, the court agreed. “Hundreds of literary, artistic, and cinematographic works have had as their central story facts from real life, which have been adapted to the creator’s perspective, without this being an impediment to [the author’s right] to claim economic rights over them.”
    The court also dismissed Palencia’s demand to be credited as a co-author. “Mr Miguel Reyes Palencia could never have told the story as the writer Gabriel García Márquez did, and could never have employed the literary language that was actually used. The work is characterised by its originality.”
    Speaking to the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, Márquez’s lawyer, Alfonso Gómez Méndez, celebrated the verdict.
    “This ruling is important, because it helps enhance the central thesis, which is valid for literature and art in general, that what matters is the way it presents an object of reality, not reality itself. It’s like a woman who poses for a painter [but] then demands half the copyright. She owns her body but the work itself belongs to the painter,” he said.

    • Larry Nolen says:

      Thanks for providing your rationale here. For what it’s worth, I think the information provided on the copyright page was sufficient, if not more than sufficient, to explain source/inspiration materials. Sonnenschein/Trieste (yes, I read it in parallel, as I’m slowly learning Serbian/Croatian) was a moving story and the fictional elements really drove home the micro-level devastations of the Endlösung as much as the macro-level accounts of the atrocities. Certainly one of the more powerful novels based on it that I’ve read.

      • Rina Gent says:

        There was absolutely no mention at all in the book anywhere of the source/inspiration until a family member in Italy, recognized my mother’s story, which in fact, was mostly dictated by herself…..and contacted my mother about it.
        First part of my mother’s autobiography….not a fictional work and not acknowledged in any way by Dasa Drndic…..we only wanted her to acknowledge using my mother’s autobiography in her book….she never has done this and makes no apology for using a copyrighted work which my brother put into print for the family only.

        Thanks to the understanding and sympathetic way MacLehose handled this matter, was that information added to the book, first at the back, and later at the front after discussion with my mother. After all it is her story and is a painful and private one. Enough said.

  • Rina Gent says:

    I think I should ask people to read this ‘dry’ 16 page pamphlet….it was for our family and only our family originally….he only put it on the web to show that it was in fact the sole basis for your fictional story….you used our family name only one generation removed…..this was total plagiarism….it is wrong what you did and nothing you say will make any difference to the facts. The only interesting part of your book is the part you stole from my mother’s story…..the rest is just a list of statistics. You are very lucky that my mother is 87 and my father 92 as that is the only reason we did not take legal action. On asking a firm of copyright lawyers in London they stated that we had a case against you. As I said the only reason we did not proceed was the upset it was causing my mother….and still is to this day. She is angry and hurt by the use of her very personal story. Nothing you say or do will make any difference to that now. MacLehose publishers at least had the decency to be very upset and apologetic about this situation….pity you are so arrogant you cannot do the same.

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