Daša Drndić; Celia Hawkesworth, trans.
  • Review
By – May 7, 2018

Daša Drndić’s Bel­ladon­na is a nov­el easy to admire but hard to love: Admirable for its pro­found explo­ration of twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry his­to­ry, its in-depth explo­ration of the aging process, and its laser-like moral acu­ity, but hard to love for its unre­lent­ing bleakness.

Andreas Ban, a psy­chol­o­gist and the cen­tral con­scious­ness of the nov­el, is in a state of decline. He suf­fers from numer­ous ail­ments, includ­ing a rare male breast can­cer. He is also haunt­ed by his­to­ry, par­tic­u­lar­ly the his­to­ry of Croatia’s role in the Holo­caust. Though not Jew­ish him­self, Ban bears per­son­al wit­ness to Croatia’s stud­ied, delib­er­ate indif­fer­ence to the fate of its Jews. As in her ear­li­er nov­el, Tri­este, Daša Drndić’s nar­ra­tion — frac­tured, non­lin­ear, and episod­ic — mod­els the world it portrays.

Seared into the cen­ter of Bel­ladon­na is the inter­lard­ed sto­ry of Rudolf Sass, a Croa­t­ian whose father was a col­lab­o­ra­tor. As a teenag­er, Sass endures the occu­pa­tion of Bel­grade and watch­es the Jew­ish chil­dren who were fel­low friends and stu­dents dis­ap­pear. Drndić writes, It is July 1941. Rudolf’s friends are gone, Kari, Enzi, the lit­tle bal­le­ri­na” Lil­li who flits on the tip of her toes.”

Then, in August, the killings begin, the corpses hung from tele­graph poles, and Sass’s father instructs him not to look as they walk down the street. Sass’s moth­er still wears silk stock­ings and the fam­i­ly dines on plump fowl. The fol­low­ing Octo­ber, Sass learns that all the Jews who had been gath­ered in a near­by cas­tle have been tak­en into a killing field.

After the war, in 1945, the mass grave is opened up. The mor­tal remains of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Zasav­i­ca are trans­ferred to the Šabac Jew­ish Ceme­tery and then, in 1959, to the Sephardic Ceme­tery in Bel­grade. Drndić sim­ply lists in two columns the names of 1,055 souls, last name then first name, with their ages and occa­sion­al­ly their pro­fes­sions. The list, one of sev­er­al in the book, con­tin­ues for thir­teen pages.

Rudolf Sass leaves Yugoslavia to become a doc­tor in Switzer­land, where he mar­ries and rais­es a fam­i­ly, but suf­fers from (clear­ly sym­bol­ic) pru­ri­tus ani. Con­sult­ing with Adam Kaplan, a psy­chother­a­pist and Holo­caust sur­vivor, Sass opens but clos­es a win­dow into a reck­on­ing with his past. Drndić pow­er­ful­ly writes, Life pulled its strings which Rudolf Sass obe­di­ent­ly accept­ed, in the end, by anaes­thetiz­ing his Swiss patients, him­self becom­ing numb, qui­et, rec­on­ciled to his pol­ished inner being in which he stored his fam­i­ly filth.”

Adam Kaplan, who is Andreas Ban’s friend, ulti­mate­ly kills him­self. And Andreas Ban, his­to­ry-haunt­ed, even­tu­al­ly ingests a large num­ber of bel­ladon­na berries, the poi­so­nous plant, in a com­plex and ambigu­ous sui­cide attempt.

Bel­ladon­na is an extend­ed explo­ration of the Euro­pean fam­i­ly filth” that arose in the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, and sad­ly is still with us today, as nation after nation suc­cumbs to auto­crat­ic urges. This is a crit­i­cal nov­el for our time.

Josh Han­ft holds Advanced Degrees in Eng­lish and Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and curat­ed the renowned read­ing series, Scrib­blers on the Roof, for over twen­ty years.

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