In Daša Drndić’s Canzone di Guerra, which first appeared in Croatian in 1998, the fiercely intelligent Tea Radan reflects on her move to Toronto from Belgrade, via Rijeka in Croatia, amid the death throes of her native Yugoslavia. Towards Canada she expresses delicious ingratitude. Here she finds a land of bureaucracy and contradiction, where “cookbooks for recycling edible leftovers are so luxuriously produced that they are more expensive than a Dostoevsky”, and thus affordable only to the elite, who actually eat “French cuisine”. Such an observation – humane, incisive, alert to absurdity – typifies Tea’s voice, and that of Drndić, who died in 2018: always intent on exposing the gloss of progress and the insincerities of democracy. “There was fascism, there was communism and the bugbears of communism”, Tea says, recounting a period of obsessive research prompted by a lover’s fascist family history. “Now, there is, supposedly, none of that, and all the filth of those times has been swept under the carpet. It is here, it is all here, hidden, transformed into democracy, which is not that.” Far more than one woman’s chatty reckoning with her past, Canzone di Guerra is a formidable confrontation with justice, responsibility and remembrance, addressing themes of history, identity and migration.
Moving between Canada and Europe, in both space and time, and reflecting on Tea’s own life and her birth country’s troubled history, the novel mingles fact with fiction, combining relatively conventional narrative prose with “experimental” text (an allegorical passage on “Vietnamese) Potbellied) and Miniature Pigs in America” reads like a niche Wikipedia entry; footnotes list tips from a pamphlet of 1994, “How to survive on humanitarian aid”, written by a Sarajevan in Zagreb). Celia Hawkesworth’s translation expertly captures Drndić’s playfulness and precision, and her concern for relating some of humanity’s most shameful moments (including, here, Theresienstadt and the fate of the St Louisa ship of Jewish refugees rejected in 1939 by Canada and others).
Appalled by the postwar impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of horrors during the Second World War, Tea provides examples of justice individuals who evaded justice (or, rather, whom failed to track down), repeatedly highlighting Canada’s culpability in this. “This whole story is very long”, she states wearily. Similarly, relating the details and context of her Croatian family’s story – via communism, anti-fascism and her “proletarian” childhood – she pauses. “I mention this only so that it shouldn’t be forgotten. Nowadays, many people have become forgetful. These are just gleanings, there is still plenty more.” Like the historian Tony Judt, who, in Reappraisals (2008), warned that “we wear the last century rather lightly”, Drndić is alarmed by our collective amnesia and urgently talks into our ears to prevent our descent from consciousness.
Drndić deftly avoids the crude didacticism that might alienate her reader. She achieves this in part through Tea being an indignant lay researcher, rather than a lecturing expert. Tea ceases her investigation into the lives of war criminals, stopping short at those from the time of the fascist Independent State of Croatia because “all those right-wing groups … [are] nothing but a pile of shit.” Wondering why postwar justice is incomplete, she simply and forcefully asks: “How come?” Her dry humour also helps. In one section we are given Tea’s notes on a radio documentary in which migrants share their stories with an ignorant Canadian reporter. “Is there a lift in that tunnel?”, the reporter asks a refugee who has just fled the siege of Sarajevo. “No”, the refugee replies flatly. “It’s a hole… It’s like going through hell.” Inverting the idea of “tolerance” so often applied to “host” populations to describe their relationship with “migrants”, Tea barely abides either her colleagues (one, at the radio station where she occasionally works, informs her, incorrectly, that “Mostar is pronounced Mastar”; another, “Fat Grace”, makes idiotic “reportages” about the supposedly “murky” Balkans) or her supposed peers. (She trashes, gleefully, a terribly acted play “for Croatian immigrants … devised by a Croato-Canadian hairdresser”.)
Indeed, like Drndić – who, in an interview of 2016 for her English-language publisher, Istros Books, explained that she gave foreign titles to her works to dodge editorial meddling, in the context of linguistic nationalism – Tea resists reductionist logic. Her affinity is with her family. “Sara is thirteen and has beautiful blond hair”, Tea says of her daughter, adding: “my mother’s hair fell out from cytostatic treatment … my mother is a handful of ash”. Tea’s mother’s cremation is referred to multiple times, as is Sara’s childhood having “passed too quickly”. This is a world in which atrocity keeps company with everyday comedy; where streams of consciousness summon jarring juxtapositions (see Sara’s childhood: “orange yolks, Chernobyl – isolation, fear, every two months new shoes…”). The result is a trembling awareness of life’s precarity; its potential to turn to ash. (“Do teeth burn? Do teeth burn?” Tea wonders urgently.)
Where Drndić dismissed questions about how her biography met her writing (her father was indeed a distinguished anti-fascist; and she and her daughter did live in Toronto in the 1990s), Priscilla Morris tells us that her debut novel, Black Butterflies, which is set at the start of the siege of Sarajevo (1992-6), was inspired by family history: the story of her great-uncle, a painter whose studio above Sarajevo’s National Library burnt down in 1992, and her father’s later rescue of her maternal grandparents from that city. Morris’s novel follows whose middle-aged artist Zora, a Bosnian Serb “painter of bridges”, husband and mother head for the safety of their daughter’s English home on the brink of the siege. Zora, meanwhile, stays behind until escape seems near-impossible. She soon faces questions of mortality, identity and work, as she deepens neighbors bonds and renews her creative impulse in this tale of kinship and survival.
Black Butterflies is evidently, as the author’s note suggests, informed by detailed research, particularly of life under siege. Humanitarian aid is viewed as “a blessing and a joke”, with its packages dating from the Vietnam War and its ham sandwiches for Muslims; people sleep on the side of their apartment least likely to be shelled; A dead child is buried at night, in a “flimsy” coffin “weeping sap”. Morris’s protagonist, however, remains frustratingly remote, one-dimensional in her “goodness” and lacking the everyday flaws and contradictions that might make her more possible to relate to (while her gruesome, racist uncle remains a different sort of archetype). Her dismay that war could come to a city “where everyone loves each other” also begins to feel tiresome. Still, Black Butterflies succeeds in showing how societies – and individual citizens – can indeed slide from safety to siege, facing impossible questions about whether to flee as the chance to do so fades.
Like Morris’s book, Bolla, the latest novel by the Finnish-Kosovan author Pajtim Statovci, which first appeared in Finnish in 2019 and is set in pre- and postwar Kosovo, is ostensibly “about” war. But where Morris focuses on the violence of life under siege, Statovci addresses violence in its myriad insidious forms: the violence that precedes war’s outbreak, and that persists when war is “over”; the violence of heteronormativity too.
It is 1995, and the young and married Arsim begins an affair with a medical student, Miloš. “He is a Serb and I am an Albanian, and by rights we should be enemies.” And yet, “as we touch, there is nothing between us that is strange or foreign to the other”. As war arrives the men are spun apart, Miloš into brutalizing combat, Arsim into exile and imprisonment in an unnamed country, with a wife he does not love, towards whom he is violent. David Hackston’s translation maintains the distinct voices of each: Arsim is dissociated, angry; Miloš lyrical and approaching madness.
Before their separation, the men take a paradisiacal trip to the sea. Their peace is threatened by border checks and, later, news of massacres in Krajina and Srebrenica. The day is, nonetheless, the “most perfect” of Arsim’s life: “the way our lips touch right there in the flames of the fading evening, it will never end, even if there’s nothing left of it by morning.” This sense of things being simultaneously ephemeral and everlasting, of being both “hidden” and “here”, to borrow from Drndić, whispers through Statovci’s prose. It is there when Arsim speaks of his wife (“though we are no longer near each other, ever again, we are always connected, blasted together”); and when Miloš writes, in one of the journal entries that are woven through the text, of he and his lover “floating in space, bathing in the eternal morning like sundials”.
Arsim pictures their reunion: “everything between us is taken for granted … he and I in a house that is ours, a place where no one disturbs us … rooms where, over time, our belongings migrate, spreading out like a metropolis”. It reads as a fantasy of repair and return, not only for a relationship, but for the now fragmented Balkans. Indeed, just as the “post” in “postwar” is often a misnomer (“the end of it doesn’t really mean anything”, Arsim and his wife agree), Statovci refuses any neat return to order, instead questioning the very notion of “return”. In postwar Pristina, Arsim finds old landmarks transformed; the men, by the end, are not their prewar selves. We recall Zora in Black Butterflieshaunted by war, as well as Tea in Canzone di Guerra, who, whenever she returns to Croatia, finds that she is “not the person who left”. We recall, too, Daša Drndić’s discomfiting closing words: “Not the end”. Indeed, one might say it is the imperative of literature grounded in conflict to resist closure and the coddling this necessitates. Anything else is a dodge.
Alice Bloch is a critic and producer. She is currently working on a collection of essays
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