Lucy Popescu

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Posts Tagged ‘MacLehose’

Book Review – Belladonna

Posted by lucypopescu on April 21, 2018

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.

Originally published by

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Book review – News from Berlin

Posted by lucypopescu on January 7, 2014

News from BerlinIt’s wartime, 1941. Dutch diplomat Oscar Verschuur’s family are dispersed throughout Europe. He is posted in Switzerland, his wife Kate volunteers in a London hospital and his daughter Emma is married to Carl, a “good” German, and is based in Berlin.

The “news” referred to in the title of Otto de Kat’s novella comes from Emma. Her husband Carl works in the Foreign Ministry, the only place where there is still resistance to Hitler, and has seen the date and codename of the planned Nazi invasion of Russia. She feels sure her father Oscar will know what to do with the information.

Oscar leads a shadowy existence; helping refugees across borders and feeding information to Winston Churchill’s main intelligence adviser. He’s a consummate “cover-up agent”. He knows that he is watched by the Gestapo and that if he warns the Allies of the impending invasion he may endanger his daughter’s life. But if he doesn’t pass on the intelligence, there will be appalling bloodshed.

Difficult choices are inevitable in wartime. De Kat’s previous novella, Julia, also dealt with the chaos of war and one man’s sense of dislocation after leaving behind the love of his life. News from Berlin is just as engaging a read but Oscar’s quandary is less convincing. When he is given the opportunity to pass on the crucial intelligence, Oscar realises that because the source is German (Emma’s husband) his information won’t be believed. This immediately kills any tension.

The shadowy world of espionage during the Second World War is a familiar subject in contemporary fiction but de Kat weaves various other plot-strands into his main story. The most intriguing of these sub-plots involves Kate’s relationship with a young Congolese soldier. Matteous was wounded in action, while saving an officer’s life, and is sent to Kate’s hospital in Richmond to recuperate.

She finds herself drawn to him, and starts to recall her first love and marriage to a dashing archaeologist. De Kat is particularly eloquent on the nature of memory: “It was as if somewhere far away, in the unconscionable depths of her being, parcels were being unwrapped, mysterious envelopes torn open, stacks of paper riffled through.”

As well as conveying the febrile atmosphere of wartime Europe, News from Berlin is a compelling portrait of love, loss and regret lucidly translated by Ina Rilke.

Originally published in the Independent on Sunday

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Book Review: The Hired Man and Winters in the South

Posted by lucypopescu on April 16, 2013

the hired manThe most recent Balkans conflict was shocking in its cruelty and, for many, difficult to comprehend. Two novels offer a new examination of Croatia’s role in the war. What is refreshing about both these books, written by outsiders, is their impartiality, though neither author is a stranger to the repercussions of conflict. Aminatta Forna was raised in Sierra Leone and her memoir The Devil That Danced on the Water (2002) was an attempt to clear the name of her father, who was hanged for treason in 1975. The English Years (2002) by the Austrian writer Norbert Gstrein was about a Jewish author who fled Nazi Austria only to be interned as an undesirable alien on the Isle of Man.

In The Hired Man, an English woman, Laura, and her two children arrive in the small Croatian town of Gost. They’ve come to renovate a beautiful blue house that has remained derelict for the past sixteen years. Their neighbour, Duro, offers to help the family with repairs, and together with Laura’s daughter, Grace, he uncovers a mosaic concealed beneath the plaster. As they restore it, hidden resentments among the townfolk begin to surface. What the family doesn’t know is that Duro has a long association with the blue house, and is reconstructing a past that has powerful repercussions for the future. The conflict may be over, but memories of the bloodshed linger. Forna is eloquent on the far-reaching consequences of ethnic hatred. Two local men, Fabjan, the owner of the local bar, and Kresimir, Duro’s childhood friend, appear to have sinister connections to the past. The three, we later learn, have blood on their hands – whether by shooting enemy soldiers, betraying a family to the death squads, or bearing responsibility for the murder of their neighbours.

Forna reveals a conspiracy of silence. Duro does not refer openly to the victims but alludes to them as “the people who use the word hleb for bread”. The terrible ethnic cleansing is never spoken about. All that remains is the graveyard, a metaphor for the town’s history. We are told: “There are different neighbourhoods for the rich and the poor and people who worship in one church and people who worship in another. Everything you need to know about Gost is here in the cemetery”.

winters in the southWinters in the South also explores the region’s ethnic tensions, but from a different perspective. Gstrein recalls the end of the Second World War, when the Croatians who had allied with the Nazis tried to flee to Austria. Many were then returned to Tito’s Partisans. Gstrein’s central character, Marija, was six when she found refuge in Vienna with her mother. Her father never joined them and is presumed to have been killed.

Now aged fifty, Marija is adrift from her marriage and comfortable existence in Vienna. Though there are rumblings of war, she decides to return to Croatia in an attempt to find herself. She is unaware that her father managed to elude capture in 1945. Like many other fascists, he fled to Argentina where he has been waiting for the opportunity to resume the fight for Croatian independence. Focusing on the old man’s obsession with the past, and his determination to exact revenge, Gstrein illustrates how old differences left to fester can lead to new conflict.

As war erupts, Marija’s father begins preparations for his return. He hires Ludwig, a disgraced expat Austrian policeman, as his bodyguard, and installs a shooting range in his cellar. He gives the lifesized dummies names: a long list of candidates, among whom there always featured a former partisan general or a minister of the People’s Republic of Yugoslavia whom he hadn’t managed to dispatch himself yet, until Ludwig too knew the names of all these prominent figures by heart, consoling himself with the afterthought that many of these World War Two heroes and postwar fighters were already dead anyway.

Gstrein uses the various settings in his novel to draw parallels between the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia, the 1990s Balkans conflict and Argentina’s Dirty War. Each of his characters has a different perspective on war, and Gstrein cleverly juxtaposes the ideology of the two men in Marija’s life. Her husband is a renowned communist revolutionary and respected journalist whose anti-fascism sits uneasily with her father’s fervent nationalism. The author’s multi-layered approach and convoluted style may frustrate some readers, but Anthea Bell and Julian Evans have done a good job of rendering his complex sentence structure into accessible English prose.

Originally published in the TLS

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