Not Your Typical Holocaust Tale
The Second World War and the Holocaust are indeed two of the most gruesome pairs that ever occurred in the streams of history. Horror, death, grief and perpetual suffering are just amongst a collection of adjectives used to describe this phase of history. It is no wonder that it is one of the most fabled and the most portrayed historical events in literature. Daša Drndić’s Trieste is just but one of these many books about the War. What distinguishes it from the rest?
July 2006. It took 62 years of search but finally, Haya Tedeschi is on the cusp of meeting her son who was taken away from her during the height of the Second World War. Whilst her youth has already evaded her and the tides of time took its toll, her resolve to find her long lost son has never wavered. The war may have taken some of the things she has treasured, including her innocence, but she never let it stymie her resilient spirit.
Haya comfortably sat on her rocking chair in her humble home in Gorizia, near the Italian-Slovenian border. Surrounding her is a basket of photographs and newspaper clippings. While waiting for her son to arrive, Haya reflects on these photographs and newspaper clippings she has collected over the years. But they are more than just newspaper clippings and photographs of an era left forgotten. It foretold a gruesome tale that takes the casual spectators not to the heart of the War but towards its alleys too dark that are rarely plodded on.
“She has always been somehow weightless, free of the heavy burden of mother tongues, national histories, native soils, homelands, fatherlands, myths, that many of the people around her tote on their backs like a sack of red-hot stones.” ~ Daša Drndić, Trieste
Piece by piece, Haya’s story unfolds; the first half of the novel is a chronicle of her and her family’s life. Its poignancy reflects the comings and goings and birthday and deaths which simply served to stir the reader’s curiosity, or on a different note, their anxiety. The pivotal point in the story, and Haya’s life was when she met Kurt Franz, a German officer who impregnates her and eventually deserts her. A couple of months after their son’s birth, he disappears on his pram while Haya turned her back.
The story inevitably tailspins to the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War. Through newspaper clippings, photographs and court records that Haya collected over the years, these horrors are relived. But it is no ordinary retelling as Drndić takes her own spin on the story. To her credit, she didn’t make the story overly dramatic. In a digression from the norms, she wrote Trieste in a very discursive manner.
Historical pieces of evidence were scattered throughout the novel – trial transcripts, interviews, photographs, maps, and genealogical charts – were used as interludes to Haya’s story. They rendered credence to the story as they were provided in overwhelming details. On one stretch, 44 pages were dedicated to a list ““of about 9,000 Jews who were deported from Italy or killed in Italy or in the countries Italy occupied between 1943 and 1945.” As Drndić keeps reiterating throughout the narrative, “behind every name there is a story”.
“Is that the chair whimpering or is it me? She asks the deep emptiness, which, like every emptiness, spreads its putrid cloak in all directions to draw her in, her, the woman rocking, to swallow her, blanket her, swamp her, envelop her, ready her for the rubbish heap where the emptiness, her emptiness, is piling the corpses, already stiffened, of the past.” ~ Daša Drndić, Trieste
Drndić brilliantly sewed these historical pieces of evidence into an extensive archival tapestry. This amazing tapestry complimented the rich and cohesive narrative. Trieste’s brilliance lies in this inimitable artistic construction. The richness of Drndić’s rich narrative prevailed over death and suffering that draped over the story. The back and forth movement between the personal and the public is one of the narrative’s most brilliant facets.
Drndić reserved some of her harsher commentary to Haya’s family. Descendants of an Italian Jew bloodline, they survived the war relatively unscathed. In Drndić’s words, “The Tedeschi family are a civilian family, bystanders who keep their mouths shut, but when they do speak, they sign up to fascism.” Bystanders: “For 60 years now these blind observers have been pounding their chests and shouting we are innocent because we didn’t know!…these yes men, these enablers of evil.”
Through Tedeschi family’s history, the novel underlined the reality that we are slowly becoming immune to the disturbing horrors of the Holocaust. Trieste breaks that mold. Over these layers, it adds new horrors. There are always new things to learn, even about the Holocaust. The trial records, the interviews, the photographs offer a different perspective. Moreover, the denouement wraps up this powerful narrative very nicely.
Trieste is a dark tale that echoes with nothing but pain, suffering and horror. There is nothing inspiring about it. However, the artistry with which it was constructed is scintillating. Daša Drndić carefully painted a gruesome tale and its intricacies with such resolve that the beauty of her narrative rose above all these dark elements. Every stitch, every thread is amazingly treated and the result is a magnificent work of literature fraught with darkness but glimmers with brilliance.
“She hears voices where there are none. Her voices are dead. All the same, she converses with the voices of the dead, she quibbles with them, sometimes she slumps limply into their arms and they whisper to her and guide her through landscapes she has forgotten. There are times when events boil over in her mind and then her thoughts become an avenue of statues, granite, marble, stone statues, plaster figures that do nothing but move their lips and tremble.” ~ Daša Drndić, Trieste
The novel recounts the ugly reality that the whole world has already heard of. Trieste is an allegorical peephole, a metaphor to the peepholes drilled into gas chambers for the persecutors to take a peek into the gas chambers where the Jews were suffering. Trieste is an extensive chronicle of the scenes behind the Auschwitz, the Birkenaus, places that we equate with fear, with pain, with suffering, with grief, and ultimately, with horror.
Trieste is no banal Second World War tale. It is a masterpiece that deserves its place in the Parthenon of literature. In less than 400 pages, it incredibly pulled off what most 500-page long novels are unable to pull off – enchant readers despite the horrific backdrop. From the gruesome realities of a war sprung a sensational masterpiece that will definitely endure the tests of time.
Whew. In spite of the dark and heavy subject, Trieste is definitely one for the records. It grips you, the horror grips you, the storytelling grips you. It grips you in ways you never would have expected. To reiterate, it is a brilliantly painted picture with portrayals that are painful. Drndić was an effective storyteller. I’ve read a lot of novels about the Second World War but Trieste wins it all for its vivid imagery and its artistic construction. It is works like Trieste that make me value historical fiction so much.
Author: Daša Drndić
Translator: Ellen Elias-Bursac
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publishing Date: 2014
Number of Pages: 353 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Haya Tedeschi sits alone in Gorizia, in northeastern Italy, surrounded by a basket of photographs and newspaper clippings. Now an old woman, she waits to be reunited after sixty-two years with her son, fathered by an SS officer and stolen from her by the German authorities as part of Himmler’s clandestine Lebensborn project.
Haya reflects on her Catholicized Jewish family’s experiences, dealing unsparingly with the massacre of Italian Jews in the concentration camps of Trieste. Her obsessive search for her son leads her to photographs, maps, and fragments of verse, to testimonies from the Nuremberg trials and interviews with second-generation Jews, and to eyewitness accounts of atrocities that took place on her doorstep. From this broad collage of material and memory arises the staggering chronicle of Nazi occupation in northern Italy.
About the Author
(Picture by istrosbooks) Daša Drndić was born on August 10, 1946 in Rijeka, Croatia.
At the University of Belgrade, Drndić studied English language and literature. With the aid of a Fullbright scholarship, she obtained a master’s degree in theater and communication from Southern Illinois University. She also studied at the Case Wester University. From Belgrade, Drndić moved back to her hometown of Rijeka where she obtained her doctorate at the University of Rijeka. She later taught at the same University.
Drndić wrote a number of books including Put do subote (Way to Saturday, 1982), Kamen s neba (Stone from heaven, 1984), and Doppelgänger (2002). She is best known for her award-winning novel Sonnenschein (Trieste, 2007). It was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
Drndić passed away on June 5, 2018 after a battle with cancer.