By Daša Drndić,
Translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 368 pages. $27
In Gorizia, near Trieste, near Italy’s border with Slovenia, an 83-year-old woman named Haya Tedeschi has been waiting 62 years — since 1944 — for the return of her abducted little boy, Antonio. For years she has been collecting shards of the history that surrounds her life story — writing notes, collecting old, cracked photos and news clippings, rearranging them “as if shuffling a pack of cards.” The promise of this grave, staggering book by the Croatian writer Daša Drndić is that we will eventually get to the bottom of a mystery. We will find out not only what became of Tedeschi’s son but why, as his mother awaits him, she remains “wildly calm.”
“Her story is a small one,” Drndić writes, but a necessary one, for Tedeschi, a mathematics teacher, knows that if she succeeds in “sweeping away the underbrush of her memory,” her testimony will take its place in “a vast cosmic patchwork,” and some truth might emerge about the grotesquely unnerving history she’s lived through.
Tedeschi’s forebears were citizens of the republic of displacement. They spoke Italian, German and Slovenian. Their saga begins long before 1944, in the southern reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand pays a visit not long before heading for Sarajevo in 1914. From there, the saga bulges out in many directions, heading forward, backward and sideways, folding back upon itself more than once, swelling into a boundless weave of facts and inventions, so that everything in Tedeschi’s story touches a million other stories in a delirium through which a historical sequence pokes out, like bones.
First published in Croatian in 2007, “Trieste” is a darkly hypnotic kaleidoscope of a book about characters suffering from a lethal case of history, who barely catch their breath before they are thrown off-balance again, displaced, bent, crushed and buried; it is about those who did evil and survived, some of them with impunity. To tell a story commensurate with the vastness of Nazi evil, Drndić combines historical, archival fragments with excerpts of memoirs, with poetry (including works by T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Jorge Luis Borges, Eugenio Montale), with anecdotes about historical persons, with photographs, with lists of transports and shreds of historical events, with transcripts of testimony given in Nuremberg. She lists the names of 9,000 murdered Italian Jews. Through such means she recreates the dizziness of history.
The reader, gripped by vertigo, will frequently wonder what here is unearthed and what is invented. But this vertigo has the objective of serving truth. For in the age of Google, it is easy to ascertain that, for example, a certain building in Trieste that Drndić describes still stands — a former rice-processing factory called the Risiera di San Sabba, the site of a Nazi concentration camp that functioned both to transfer Jews to Auschwitz, and to conduct exterminations. It is also easy to ascertain that an SS man named Kurt Franz was posted to Trieste in the fall of 1943. “Trieste” contains photos of him.
In Drndić’s telling, the fictional baby Antonio Tedeschi was born of his mother’s affair with the actual Franz. Before being assigned to Trieste in 1943, the not-at-all fictional Franz was a top commander at Treblinka, in occupied Poland. There, in the course of 15 months, he and his apparatus murdered about a million Jews. After the war, he served 28 years in prison.
Reader, if you want to avoid a spoiler, skip this paragraph: The son of Tedeschi and Franz, it will turn out, was abducted into a Nazi program called Lebensborn — an actual program established by Heinrich Himmler in 1935, though not intended for the children of Jewish mothers. Some 20,000 sufficiently Aryan-looking babies of various origins were raised in Lebensborn homes in Germany and Norway, and then dispersed through “orphanages” to loyal German homes to grow into exemplary specimens of the master race. One of the Lebensborn children grew up to become a member in the Swedish singing group Abba. This happened.