Book Review - Belladonna

Daša Drndić interweaves fiction, reality, history, and memory to terrific effect. Her latest novel, Belladonna, brilliantly translated by Celia Hawkesworth, covers the making and falling apart of Yugoslavia, the atrocities of World War II, the war crimes committed by the Ustaše fascists, and the brutality and ethnic hatred of the 1990s Balkan conflict. Drndić attacks history with a novelist’s sensibility and has produced a poignant meditation on love and loss, the insanity of war and the legacy of human cruelty.

Her main character, Andreas Ban, a sixty-five-year old psychologist, writer, and academic, has been forced into retirement and resents the contempt with which he is treated by his former colleagues and employers. Ban is in remission after being treated for breast cancer and suffers from increasingly poor health: “he is rapidly fraying, inside and out.” To compound matters, he has been denied a decent pension and fears for his future. Despite his retirement, people continue to send him their personal stories which he adds to a file named “Destinies.” As he sifts through their memories, and his own, he confronts some horrific events from his country’s past and reflects on how they have shaped him and his compatriots, and comes to the sad conclusion that xenophobia is alive and well.

Drndić’s labyrinthine novel tracks back and forth in time and space as Ban picks over his memories. His beloved mother and wife died tragically young. He grew up in Belgrade, received his degree in Belgrade, was married there and buried his mother and wife in the city, so is dismayed when ethnic tensions force him to leave in 1992. He is dismissed as “an enemy of the state. A Croat. He has his name, he does not consider the fact that he is a Croat significant. But someone does.” In primary school, his eight-year-old son, Leo, is made to read from a newspaper article by his father who is denounced as “an enemy of the nation…” He is told: “Leo’s daddy is a state enemy.” Father and son leave their home and friends and move to a small town in Croatia: “a town with a restricted outlook, a town on the sea without a view of the open sea, a town which surveys its decrepit interior, its physical and social decay the way an inquisitive child picks at its belly button.”

Ghosts haunt Belladonna and Drndić brings them vividly to life. Particularly memorable is Bas’s reconstruction of “The case of Rudolf Sass,” a successful doctor living in Switzerland. Aged sixty, Sass is suffering from depression. Seven years earlier he had developed an acute itching of the anus that has never let up. He seeks help from Ban, who refers him to his neuropsychiatrist friend, Adam Kaplan, for counselling: “In the repository of his soul Rudolf Sass has…been storing a horde of dormant ghosts that, awoken, stir into a mysterious, macabre dance that he finds petrifying.” Originally from Sabac, Sass recalls how in July 1941 “all the Jewish refugees, 1,007 of them, together with sixty-three indigenous Sabac Jews, are taken to the old Saba castle on the Sava, now adapted as a concentration camp.” Sass’s father entertains member of the Utasha, his mother receives silk stockings. On August 12 and 13, 1941, those interned in the Sabac camp are taken to Zasavica and shot. One of them is Sass’s nineteen-year-old friend, Kari Kriss. Sass had attempted to collect money for Kari so that he could escape before the fascists overran the town. His father had denied him the money. Sass’s guilt for his friend’s death and what he perceives as his father’s complicity continues to torment him.

As with her previous novel, Trieste, Drndić includes a roll call of the massacred. In Belladonna, she includes 1055 names of those murdered in Zasavica. Among them is Kari Kriss. Later, Ban visits friends in The Hague and is taken to an empty children’s playground in a small park. In the middle are six climbing frames of different heights built to resemble chairs. On each rung, inscribed in children’s handwriting, are “the names of some of the two thousand and sixty-one (2,061) Jewish children from The Hague consumed by the war…” The Nazis had seized these children, aged between six months and eighteen, and sent them to the death camps. Ban (or Drndić) cannot leave this alone and further research reveals: “In some cases deaths were shared, familial, sometimes the mothers died with their daughters and sons, sometimes the children died alone.” This “merry memorial to the murdered children,” the naming of the dead, is remarkably powerful. Drndić recalls Gunter Demnig’s dictum: “People are forgotten only when we forget their names.”

Belladonna illustrates how past atrocities continue to reverberate down the decades. Drndić warns against the destructive force of rabid nationalism, be it German fascists or the Ustaše in Croatia, and the denigration of “the other.” If the last century was dominated by the Holocaust and its aftermath, then the early part of this century has been defined by mass migration and the world’s diverse response to the ongoing influx of refugees. Drndić makes these connections and more. Belladonna opens with a brief description of sixty people incarcerated in a camp for illegal immigrants. They sew their lips together, in despair at the authorities’ inability to process their applications for leave to remain. Drndić does not say where they are; they could be anywhere. Their act highlights their powerlessness. The sewing up of lips also serves as a powerful symbol for the silencing of critical and dissident voices.

There will always be refugees fleeing poverty, conflict or terror. Ban (or Drndić) asks: What have we learned from history? Distrust continues to triumph over empathy, intolerance of difference persists, outsiders are maligned, inhumanity is rife. Towards the end of Belladonna, Ban tells his son “when I see the other, I comprehend myself. To comprehend myself, to respect myself, I have to respect the other, because I am the other. And responsibility for the other is a fundamental human value. Without it, we become monsters.” He is referring to Emmanuel Levinas, the French philosopher and religious thinker, who advocated ethical responsibility for “the Other.” The contemporary resonances are obvious in this extraordinary novel. Drndić suggests we risk repeating the same mistakes and her book offers a salutary warning against allowing radical nationalism and ethnic hatred to raise their ugly heads in Europe once again.

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