Shifting Histories: Belladonna by Daša Drndić

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Whatever other faults Andreas Ban may have, he is not sentimental. A former writer, psychologist, and academic—now retired, against his will, from the university where he taught—he spends his days in a small Croatian town at the edge of the sea, sorting through his belongings and his memories. And he’s getting rid of it all. “The past is riddled with holes, souvenirs can’t help here,” he thinks. “Everything must be thrown away. Everything. And perhaps everyone as well.”

The past may be riddled with holes, but it cannot be dispensed with as easily as possessions. While Andreas mercilessly purges the physical debris of his life, his mind twists and turns through personal recollections and historical events. He recalls his career as a therapist, stories old friends told him, the breakup of Yugoslavia and its aftermath. But his thoughts are most often drawn to the atrocities of the twentieth century, particularly those of the second World War. Meanwhile, his body deteriorates. He breaks his arm. He is diagnosed with breast cancer. He develops a cataract in his right eye.

In a style somewhat reminiscent of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, Daša Drndić’s Belladonna weaves together Andreas Ban’s fictional reminiscences with true histories. An overnight stay in the hospital finds Ban thinking about the graffiti artist Banksy, then the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. A memory of a cousin’s funeral leads Ban to a consideration of Croatians who collaborated with the fascists during the war. On a trip to Amsterdam, history accosts Ban at every turn, and though he tries to avoid it, the ghosts of World War II inevitably appear. “He kept pushing the past away,” Drndić writes, “Go back to your catacombs, he told it, but, like a slimy rivulet it surfaced and began to trickle around him, under his feet.”

Unlike the histories in The Rings of Saturn, which run through a variety of registers, the histories Drndić incorporates into Belladonna almost always cause despair. Despair that humans are capable of such horrifying acts, despair that they continue to happen, despair that the perpetrators are rarely brought to justice. The tone is set from the beginning, in a harrowing, two-page chapter that tells stories of people who have sewn their lips together in protest. In a passage characteristic of the way Drndić interpolates thick, fictional description with stark facts, she writes:

In an asylum in the south, or perhaps in the north too, thirty-nine inmates also sew their lips — with surgical thread. To carry out the sewing, the prisoners use a wide, curved needle, and each mouth is sewn with three, at most four, stitches. The patients were protesting against the staff who did not address them. Then, in the asylum, a still greater voicelessness reigned, a vast silence which now wafts like steam, like smoke, from the ceilings and walls of the ruined buildings in the back of beyond, and climbs in clouds towards the sky; in moonless night that same voicelessness, that fateful human muteness, apparently insane, is borne back as a breeze; it falls like feathery rain on the opaque windows of our refuge in nowhere-land and, in order to survive, for that is their only air, the patients fill their by now slack, consumptive lungs with that sickly but odourless breeze, that invisible cobweb of silence.

That silence, used as a weapon, can cut the other way, too. Later in the novel, Andreas recounts the story of Ken Saro Wiwa, a Nigerian activist who protested the environmental devastation caused by oil companies (especially Shell) in Nigeria. He was brought to trial on trumped-up charges by the country’s military regime and executed. “The Shell Company does not wish to make a statement,” Drndić writes. “The Shell Company has no intention of halting oil extraction in Nigeria. Particularly if Ken Saro Wiwa is out of the way.”

Andreas is a profound, confusing, contradictory character. He’s a sour old man, grumpy and uncharitable towards the people around him, and particularly angered by those who embrace nationalism. His writing has made enough of an impact that he receives invitations to residencies and letters from admirers of his work, but he no longer writes. Abruptly terminated from his university post at the age of sixty-five, he rails against the small-minded ways of his colleagues. He dislikes the small town he lives in, but he no longer wants to travel. He has a grown son, Leo, to whom he is close, but Leo has moved away. Most distressingly, though Andreas appears to harbor a deep love for Leo’s mother, her appearances in the text are brief, descriptions of her are absent, and she hardly registers as a character, as though Andreas wants to keep his memories of her separated from the sorrow he feels at the state of the world.

That sorrow of his is deep, and abiding. His is a troubled conscience, not because he has committed crimes, but because he is an inheritor of a world shaped by the crimes of others, crimes that have often gone unpunished. He recalls the terror of the Ustasha, the Croatian fascist organization active during the war, and the many members of it who prospered afterward despite their crimes. He relates the events in Šabac, a Serbian town, where Jews took refuge and were captured and killed by the Nazis. He recounts the abduction of 2,061 Jewish children from a schoolyard in The Hague, and their deportation to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Theresienstadt.

The writing moves in unpredictable ways. Timeframes, locations, and even the point of view shift quickly and without the usual signposts, sometimes even in the middle of paragraphs. In the sections where Andreas, suffering from one or another of his various maladies, has to deal with the Kafka-esque health system, the writing becomes excruciatingly detailed, cataloging his aches and pains, the various other patients he meets, and the maddening encounters he has with nurses and doctors. Grotesque imagery abounds—this is a novel that does not turn its gaze away. But then, sometimes the writing surprises us with humor, or beauty:

As time passes, as his medical problems pile up, the garden becomes ever darker, dampness sways from its bare, sickly trees, the stone paths are now dug up, the lawns covered in dead leaves and undergrowth. In spring, violets suffocate under the piles of rubbish and rotting matter and Andreas Ban sometimes liberates their petals with his foot, bequeathing them uprightness.

In the sections that relate history, the voice becomes colder, less descriptive, more stark. The facts speak for themselves. And in the novel’s most chilling passages, Andreas simply lists the names of all the victims of specific events, recalling the artist Gunter Demnig’s words that “People are forgotten only when we forget their names.”

Belladonna is bleak, but its bleakness is justified. It is a complicated, moving book which engages with the horrors of the past, and it affirms that however painful it is to remember those horrors, the greater crime is to forget them. Like Demnig’s stumbling blocks—referred to several times in Belladonna—the book interrupts the path, and forces us to remember.

John Flynn-York is an MFA candidate in the UC Riverside–Palm Desert low residency creative writing program. He writes fiction, poetry, and essays. More from this author →