Thursday, 4 April 2013

'Trieste' by Daša Drndić (Review - IFFP 2013, Number 10)

We're back to WW2 fare today, this time along Italy's Adriatic Coast.  However, the book we'll be examining looks at things from a slightly different angle from usual.  So, where are we exactly?  Well...

Trieste by Daša Drndić (translated by Ellen Elias Bursać - review copy from MacLehose Press)
What's it all about?
In 2006, Haya Tedeschi, an elderly lady, sits at home in Gorizia, near Trieste, surrounded by piles of papers and newspaper clippings.  The mounds of paper scattered on the floor all have to do with the events of the war, stories of atrocities and biographies of some of the heroes and villains of the era.  It may seem to be history to many people, but for Haya the war is still very real.

We then move back in time to the start of the twentieth century and are introduced to the Tedeschi family and the region around Trieste.  It is a European crossroads, a city on the borders of Empires, a multilingual cultural melting pot - great for music and literature, very bad when the great European powers decide to go to war...

The writer takes us carefully through the first part of the 20th century until we reach the main focus of the novel, the Second World War.  It is here that Haya meets SS officer Kurt Frank and has a secret affair.  The result of the relationship is a son, Antonio Tedeschi - a boy who one day goes missing, leaving his mother with a sixty-two year wait for his return.

Trieste is a heavy book on a weighty subject.  Drndić uses the novel to discuss what happened during the war in and around the title city, an area many people would know little about.  We learn about the death camps in the region and the men who ran them (and what happened to them after the war...).  We read about the post-war trials and how some of them were conducted in the absence of the accused, empty procedures which had no consequences.  In short, we are reminded of the past, a past which the writer wants to make sure is not forgotten.

Eventually, the focus shifts to the Lebensborn project, a Nazi plan to ensure the dominance of their Aryan super race.  Homes were opened all over the German Reich, where suitable women gave birth to children who were then to be brought up in a manner deemed fit for the heirs of the master race.  When Himmler realised that the numbers weren't impressive enough, he decided to order the removal of suitable children born to inferior races in the region (including little Antonio Tedeschi...).

The final section of the book is devoted to Hans Traube, a man who knows that his name and upbringing is a lie, and his quest to uncover the truth.  Like his birth mother, Hans has been searching through documents in the vain hope of finding his true identity, in the process finding out much more about his possible biological father than he would like to know.  The Lebensborn children are doomed to live with uncertainty, hoping they might some day uncover their true origins, but also scared of what they might find:
"Then, when I least expected it, the Past jumped out at me in a flash, Hop! like a carcass, like some rotten corpse it draped itself around my neck, plunged its claws into my artery and it still isn't letting go. I'd like to shake it off, this Past, but it won't let me, it swings on me as I walk, it lies on me while I sleep, it looks me in the eye and leers, See, I'm still with you."
p.339 (MacLehose Press, 2013)
Of course, it's not just the Lebensborn children who have to worry about the burden of the past.  Drndić contrasts their fate with that of the children of the SS officers, the men and women responsible for crimes against humanity.  They also struggle to live with the legacy of the past...

Trieste is minutely researched, comprising a dizzying collage of fact and fiction, stories and interviews.  In its inclusion of photographs and original documentation (and even forty pages of the names of Italian holocaust victims), with a narrative frequently shoved aside in favour of a tangent, there is something almost Sebaldian in its structure.  We are taken on a tour of WW2, from Aushwitz and Treblinka to Reinhard Heydrich at the Salon Kitty brothel in Berlin (for the second time in a week...), with anecdotes about concentration camp guards shooting prisoners for fun, and convoys of the doomed through Switzerland, where locals think they are helping by providing blankets and warm soup...

What comes through very clearly though is the mass slaughter, the senseless, deliberate waste of human life on a grand scale.  One of the more interesting features of the novel is the occasional Q & A with both holocaust victims and their captors, giving insights into what happened - and how.  As one guard says:
"When I was on a trip once, years later in Brazil, my train stopped next to a slaughterhouse.  The cattle grazing in the pens trotted up to the fence and stared at our train.  They were very close to my window, one jostling the other, looking at me through that fence.  I thought then, This reminds me of Poland.  That's how the people looked at me there: trustingly, just before they went into the... I couldn't eat tinned meat for a long time after that.  Those big cows' eyes staring at me, those animals who had no idea that in no time they'd all be slaughtered...

So you didn't feel the camp inmates were people?

Cargo.  They were cargo." (p.206)
Trieste is certainly an ambitious, expansive work, but if I had a criticism to make, it would be that it is a little over-ambitious at times.  The main story, what little of it there is, is frequently pushed into the background, seemingly only there to serve as an excuse to write about the history.  As with HHhH, the reader is left wondering what the actual focus of the work is, and whether it might have been better left as non-fiction...

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
Possibly not.  It's a worthy book on an important subject, but it wanders a little (OK, a lot), and I was never quite sure what the focus was meant to be.  The last section, centred on Hans Traube and his search for the truth, is excellent, and I would personally have preferred a much narrower focus on the Lebensborn project.

Will it make the shortlist?
Despite what I said above, I think it has a good chance.  I don't think I'm the best judge of literature dealing with the Holocaust, and other readers seem to appreciate books like HHhH and Trieste a lot more than I do.  I suspect that one of those two will make the cut, and this one is much weightier and better written. 

Moving on, and we're (finally) lightening the mood a little; it's time to head off to Paris for some drinking, dancing and writing in the park.  Whatever you do, make sure you dress for the occasion - suit up, everyone ;)