Book Review: Belladonna (Daša Drndić)

It is not until seventeen pages from the end of this near four hundred page work that the author chooses to make first reference to the eponymous Belladonna, or deadly nightshade. With its hallucinogenic and, for some, fatal potential effects, it is not a plant to be taken lightly. The same can be said for a book of such ranging content as this is: the historical weaves with the fictional, the horror of past atrocities rubs up against the banality of a main character confronting retirement and disintegration of self (both in terms of intellectual standing and of physical deterioration). There is great effort imbued within the pages, in the fictional coming to terms and in the author’s sheer commitment to a vast sweep of material.

Belladonna (MacLehose Press, 2017; originally published in Croatian with the same title by Fraktura, 2015; translated by Celia Hawkesworth) is not easily placed and is not an easy read. Andreas Ban is a psychologist, a writer, an intellectual with a huge store of referenceable material in his head, which he has collected over his many professional years. Academia, however, no longer requires his services and he is unceremoniously discarded towards his impending age of retirement. Andreas must also contend with his failing body (he is diagnosed with breast cancer, has difficulty with his spine, his stomach, and a whole list of other ailments). He settles on a process of coming to terms with the life he has left.

This is, however, all merely within the cogs of Drndić’s machine: Andreas is born after the second world war but the narrative frequently draws his research and other considerations back to the machinations of the Independent State of Croatia, or the N.D.H. (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska), being the short-lived puppet regime (1941-5) of Nazi Germany following the invasion of Croatia by the Axis powers. Sewn into Drndić’s narrative, and into Andreas Ban’s considerations, seems to be a form of collective Croatian guilt. There are references to the later Balkan Wars of the 1990s and the eventual dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, and knowledge provided by Drndić about the earlier N.D.H. certainly lends new perspective on the latter.

Belladonna is not a straightforward fictive offering: Drndić sprinkles her writing with occasional footnote explanations, historical photographs, and references to other texts and authors within the narrative (even having the audacity to have Andreas Ban have knowledge of one her own previous books, albeit as published with its German title). There are two particularly poignant and disturbing interludes included within the flow: Drndić makes reference to the massacre in Zasavica in 1941, where 2100 ‘Jews and Gypsies’ were murdered in cold blood in reprisal for the killing of 21 German soldiers. Drndić proceeds to list 1055 of these people, over ten and half double-columned pages, because names must not be forgotten. Later, and equally if not more disturbing, Andreas Ban visits Amsterdam and is shown a piece of children’s playground equipment. On closer inspection, he and we discover that this equipment is covered with just some of the names of 2061 Jewish children taken from their parents ‘and from the open space in front of the school, precisely on the site of this playground’ and sent to the concentration camps. Drndić offers us the brief history of Flora Bachrach, born in 1939, who died in Sobibor camp in 1943. She was three years old. ‘People are forgotten only when we forget their names’, writes Drndić, and she lists seventeen and a half double-columned pages filled with the Amsterdam children’s names.

Very late on in the piece, Drndić writes as Andreas Ban’s adult son, Leo: friend to his father, a doctor, and follower of his father’s intellectual aptitude. Drndić references the Hungarian art theorist László Földényi by way of stating that ‘what makes [life] whole is the fact that it is made up of ‘pieces’; parts that can never be fitted together seamlessly’. It would appear to be a reasonable description of Drndić’s Belladonna: this work is a stitchwork, a great amorphous fluidity, a flow from the fictive to the historical and back again. On occasion, the reader is thrown into a deep excursion on the atrocities of the Ustasha, the Croatian fascist movement, murderers of Serbs and Jews; or we are led along lines, with illustrations, highlighting the output of The State Information and Propaganda Office; or we are shown the piles of Andreas Ban’s professional books, their authors and subject matters, extensively arrayed before us. Sometimes the excursions are immersive; sometimes they exhaust.

To sully all of the above with a single word such as shall imminently be presented would be disingenuous, but Drndić is fond of a particular formation (as many authors often are) and it is worth examination. Early on in the text, and before the word appears in any great degree of frequency, it is noted that the fluidity, the fictive-historical flow has a certain hysterical quality. This is not intended to demean. There are long, long sentences, rants and ramblings interspersed with very many italicised emphases, tautological constructs reminiscent of those employed by Ben Okri, although without the attempted poetry. Drndić is acerbic, cynical, sarcastic and seemingly in need of delivering all of her venom towards her intended targets (pulling no punches, for example, in speaking through Andreas Ban in his written address to his academic colleagues: colleagues he considers lacking in intellectual and moral rigour). Drndić explicitly returns again and again to the use of the word ‘hysterical’ or ‘hysterically’. It is evidence of a writing style, in parts, but also of a main character’s struggle to cope with his academic rejection and physical degradation, perhaps a counterpoint to the Croatian national silence regarding acknowledgement of when the N.D.H. was operationally supported by Nazi Germany and Italy.

Daša Drndić’s work is not a simple narrative, but it is a work that will educate. Where it lacks any conventional coherent structure, perhaps intentionally, it gains traction in the accumulation of its component parts. There are citations included, intermittently, as a form of additional information, but these (and sometimes the footnotes too) can stick as too much ‘info dump’. As with all written works, a reader must come to terms with the writer’s style and manner or the two, author and reader, will suffer an irreparable and premature end of relationship: Drndić must be tolerated and trusted here, and it is a long trust to accept. The end effect of Belladonna may not be an hallucinogenic affair but there is a certain knowledge and wisdom locked up in its pages.