The narrator of “Belladonna”, Andreas Ban, has recently retired. He worked for years as a clinical psychologist at a university hospital in Belgrade but, as a Croat, the breakup of Yugoslavia imperilled his existence in the city.
He takes up a post in a provincial university in Croatia but that has now come to an end. His wife has died and his son has left the country. All that is left are memories, fragments of the past.
Andreas Ban is not in the best of health and he provides searingly honest descriptions of bodily illnesses.
He is very disgruntled, savage in his observations and haunted by what he knows from research into Croatian history as it pertained to the Holocaust. What he knows and remembers point relentlessly to the horrors of history.
This bald summary of Daša Drndić’s compellingly angry novel does little to prepare the reader for Andreas Ban’s unfolding story.
There are time shifts and changes of locale and the non-linear narrative is driven by a fierce distaste for ethnic ideologies – those of nationalists in the Balkan wars in the last decade of the twentieth century as well as those of Nazism.
Recalling a remark about people being only forgotten when we forget their names, Ban compiles lists.
One of them fills more than ten pages, naming Jewish refugees who were murdered on 12 and 13 October, 1941, and buried in a mass grave. Another list stretches to sixteen pages, naming children sent to death camps from the Netherlands.
Ban’s body – an allegory for contemporary politics – is failing him but his mind is razor sharp and he cuts into the complacency of bigots who prefer not to remember.
A deep melancholy pervades his spirit and suicide beckons as a bodily and metaphysical response to living in the charnel house of history.
“E.E.G.” is the sequel, as its opening words make clear: “Of course I didn’t kill myself.” Like Beckett’s desiccated characters, he is condemned to go on living. He continues to measure the pulse of a past that his fellow citizens would rather have discreetly buried.
He speaks of gleaning “vestiges of other people’s lives, to give them shape, even a distorted, deformed shape which occasionally emits a spark, and then I believe that not everything around me is utterly dark”.
Ban’s curmudgeonly nature is still evident – he dislikes nuns, loud people and noise generally, preferring people who walk their dogs: “they don’t talk, they walk in a straight line and pick up shit”.
It is tempting to see Ban as Daša Drndić’s alter ego, the canary in the m
ineshaft who is choking on lies and false memories of others.
“I’m not offering ‘a story’”, Ban tells us, “because I write about people who don’t have ‘a story’, not about those or for those who are looking for other people’s stories in order to find their own in them.”
(Images were supplied by the publisher)