I first encountered Daša Drndić, who died on 5 June this year, in the comments of a word doc of the English translation of her novel Trieste. Christopher MacLehose had acquired the novel, originally entitled Sonnenschein, from the excellent Croatian publishing house Fraktura, and it had appeared already in some five or six languages, but it was her first to be translated into English. It was between Christmas and New Year 2010, and Daša was struggling with glaucoma – eye problems had dogged her for some time, and eye procedures are to be found in at least two of her novels. And yet for her to work through the English translation was an essential endeavour.
Daša was the daughter of the diplomat Ljubo Drndić (formerly the leader of Istria’s anti-fascist movement), who moved the family to Belgrade, then had postings in Egypt, Sweden and Sudan. She studied philology at the University of Belgrade and won a Fulbright to take a master’s in theatre and communications at Southern Illinois University. Later, as refugees from the Yugoslav war, she and her daughter lived in Toronto for some years in the 1990s. Her English was exceptional – precise and exacting, yet versatile and rich in irony. Enviable, in other words. Her work in English should sound – in terms of rhythm, a simple use of punctuation, the ordering of the words – as though she had written it herself. ‘English is not my mother tongue,’ she said. ‘Nevertheless. Language is always logic, no matter which language it is.’
So, a challenge for any translator (and Daša has two of the best in Ellen Elias-Bursać and Celia Hawkesworth). She gave clear indications that the translation of her works into other languages should not stray from her intention, form or style. Dialogue is in italics, always. Inverted commas are reserved for irony, ridicule. Word order is carefully chosen, for stress, and should not be transposed. There should be few commas and even fewer semi-colons. ‘I evade semi-colons when I want my protagonists to speak in a breath – so, comma, comma, comma.’ She often talked about dialogue this way, as a breath. Sentences should not be broken up; she was not in the business of making things easier for the reader: ‘The rhythm and repetition are meant to irritate.’ She abhorred qualifiers which might ‘sweeten’ the text. Her language was not to be sweet, nor soft, nor ornamental, because her subjects were not sweet, and she rarely used ellipses, let alone exclamation marks. Everything should be said, not evaded, and the simpler, the more concise, the better: ‘I weigh words, I respect them, I work with them. Where there are repetitions, they are there for a purpose (rhythm and context).’ Foreign words should not be translated and there should be no help given in footnotes. Her language did not need to be polite.
For an editor (and no doubt for a translator), once her style is absorbed, there is clarity, and form. It is a style that is recognisable and very much her own, although she acknowledged that much of her work is a dialogue with writers she admired:
Today I cannot write ‘pure’ fiction. I am obsessed with names, with the real names of victims, perpetrators and bystanders. So, I turn to good works for help and inspiration. [. . .] The whole book [Trieste] is in a way a dialogue with people I (or, the narrator) trust and whose ideas I believe in. So in it there is Bernhard, there is Saba, there is Montale, there is Kierkegaard, there is the aforementioned Danilo Kiš, there are Niklas Frank and Beate Niemann, there is you. Opposed to them are the voices of the ‘ugly’, the guilty, the perpetrators. I did this, as I have said, because the document (even in fiction) is more powerful than the ‘invention’ which often rings as false, as a construction. The book was imagined as ‘us’ against ‘them’.
Her novels are in part a reaction to the fact that not enough has been said or written about the Second World War on the territory of former Yugoslavia, and that much about both sides – the Utashe and the partisans – has been swept under the carpet or kept secret. ‘Today, I am convinced that if it had not been so, this recent war would perhaps not have happened, or at least would not have been as cruel and bloody as it was, that there could not have occurred another genocide, that there could not have emerged so much inexplicable hatred and inhuman animosity, so much primitive nationalism. In 1989, in Yugoslavia the ghosts were let out of the bottle.’
Daša Drndić never shied away from difficult topics; on the contrary, her novels are both an act of remembering and an insistent reminder of the importance of memory: ‘Because every name carries a story, and history on the whole remembers the names of criminals, while the names of victims are forgotten.’ In the central pages of Trieste there is a list of names – running to more than forty pages – of those Jews who were either deported to their deaths from Italy, or died in Italy between 1943 or 1945. The printing of the Croatian edition stretched to perforated pages, and at an event Daša took part in at Jewish Book Week in London some years ago a copy was passed around, the audience invited to tear out pages containing names they recognised, until the book lost its form, as a society does when an element is removed. The centre does not hold.
In Belladonna there is a list of the 2,061 Jewish children deported from the Netherlands to camps between 1938 and 1945 – People are forgotten only when we forget their names – and in E.E.G., laid over and through the story of Andreas Ban (her protagonist and to some extent her alter ago, an academic battling against ‘perfect bureaucracy’ and the stifling of ideas and initiatives), it is the chess-playing victims of Nazism who are remembered, standing behind Ban and advising him on his next move. ‘Memory and space are in a permanent clinch; when space collapses, it drags memory into its underground, into its non-existence, and without memory, the present becomes sick, mutilated, a torso with amputated organs.’
She wanted to unsettle (even in the rhythm and structure of her texts), and to provoke. In E.E.G., critics of writer/psychologist Ban say of him, ‘He is an inconvenient writer, he keeps punching the reader in the stomach.’ Daša liked to be inconvenient. She was an activist with a clear intention to shake her readers awake, to lay bare injustices and attempt to atone for atrocities that have been forgotten. How else to cleanse our lives and our consciences? In 2011 she emailed, ‘I also found so much hidden rubbish concerning the Croatian puppet fascist state, it makes me want to die . . . Fascism is not dead, I believe.’ Then, in 2014, ‘I’ve been busy “suffering” with and about Bosnia, then the Ukraine, then Venezuela, the centre does not hold, this world is falling apart.’
It was when she was reading over Celia Hawkesworth’s translation of Belladonna in late 2016 that she began chemotherapy for lung cancer. ‘Belladonna, pretty woman,’ she had written some years earlier, ‘The beautiful poisonous blue berries, twenty of which can make one go blind. Nice, eh? Whether the book will be any good is another matter.’ Belladonna was shortlisted for the 2018 Oxford–Weidenfeld Translation Prize and was a finalist in the inaugural E.B.R.D. prize. This week it was the winner of the 2018 Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.
She was warm and generous, witty and brilliant, an attractive and (for some) formidable presence. A friend once said that you were either afraid of Daša, or you loved her – there was nothing in between. She would visit London with Istrian olive oil and mead, chocolates filled with cherry liqueur, a present of an embroidered tablecloth that had belonged to her grandmother, monographs of Croatian artists she admired. She was proud of her daughter, Maša, now a film-maker, whom she had brought up alone. Daša invited us to visit her in Rovinj, where she had a small flat for the summer (‘My little garden is quiet, and my crème caramel is first class’). She loved her country, but was horrified by its politics. She admired its writers and encouraged a younger generation, just as she kept a correspondence with many young writers around the world, and her editors in other languages, some of whom she never met. Her emails, even in the darkest hours of an invasive illness, were full of life, curious, often naughty, always exacting.
The cancer would prevent her from finishing the work she had planned, and this infuriated her. A writer and person of profound empathy, she was beginning a book about Albania, a country whose history she felt had not been explored enough. She visited several times and had written some chapters. But E.E.G. was to be her last novel.
Photograph © Jakob Goldstein