How can the contemporary novel speak the unspeakable? It’s an old question, a tired one perhaps, now that “the unspeakable” has come to encompass many forms of trauma that writers regularly speak about: self-harm, sexual abuse, genocide, fascism, climate change. Search for “speak the unspeakable” online, and the encyclopedic range of results, from the horrific (mass death) to the trivial (relationship advice) to the downright offensive (men’s rights forums, campus “free speech” controversies), makes it easy to start feeling cynical about how people deploy their memories for recognition. As the social theorist Zygmut Bauman observed, a plausible and individualized account of suffering has become a passport to social and political visibility in a world of indifference and insensitivity. “The more we try to think the unthinkable, and to speak the unspeakable, the more likely we become to qualify for a niche in a power structure, whether local or global,” Bauman writes. For the novel today, the more valid aesthetic and ethical questions concern the possibility of speaking about trauma without commodifying or further devaluing it. In what form can the novel speak, and speak self-critically, about its own processes of constructing unthinkable thoughts or unspeakable speech?
The late Croatian novelist Daša Drndić’s Belladonna (2012, English translation 2017), perhaps the most ambitious novel of the twenty-first century so far—along with its sequel, EEG—opens with three vignettes of not speaking. They are undated and without definite location: in a camp for illegal immigrants in an unidentified country, sixty incarcerated people sew their lips together and wander the grounds, not knowing how long they will be detained. Elsewhere, a woman in a red kimono throws herself through an open window. In an asylum, thirty-nine people sew their lips together to confront the staff, who refuse to address them by their names. Yet even when the pain of censorship and social death surfaces with such violent literalism, nothing comes of it. The suffering is atmospheric, the indifference unrelenting: “A still greater voicelessness reigned, a vast silence which now wafts like steam, like smoke, from the ceilings and walls of the ruined building in the back of beyond, and climbs in clouds toward the sky,” Drndić writes. “That same voicelessness, that fateful human muteness, apparently insane,” can exist anywhere and everywhere, now and throughout history.
These scenes of not speaking act as the novel’s earliest outcry on behalf of those who remain voiceless: refugees, amnesiacs, inmates, and suicides, the dead and dying souls who throng around the main character, Andreas Ban, as he sits alone in the dark, all his possessions stuffed into black plastic bags. Andreas is a sixty-five-year-old academic, ailing and bitter, “a psychologist who does not psychologize anymore. A writer who no longer writes.” He has glaucoma in both eyes, a broken wrist, a severely degenerated spine, bulging hemorrhoids. His asthma makes it difficult for him to breathe without an inhaler. Recently he has been treated for breast cancer. Unable to escape his bending frame and breaking flesh, he resolves to turn himself into a creature who “no longer thinks”—a body without a mind, a mind whose painful memories will be transferred to his books, his clothes, and his knickknacks, so that, in their solid form, the “accretions of his botched days” may be thrown away, eradicated forever. Once he has banished his thoughts, he may kill himself by eating the hundred poisonous belladonna berries he keeps in his kitchen.
It’s an impossible fantasy—the total exteriorization of interiority, the casting away of consciousness—and from the beginning, we know that Andreas’s project is destined to fail. It fails, though, with a certain tragicomic flair, excruciating and hilarious, narrated in a third-person that lurches from objectifying (Drndić only ever refers to her character by his full name, “Andreas Ban”) to psychologically intimate. Belladonna gathers Andreas’s obsessive, fragmented thoughts as he sits in his dark room trying not to think them, the “shreds of memory that land, singed, on his shoulders.”
The events of his life are relocated, rearranged, pieced back together, and everything—the whole human inside of his mind as the novel tries to hold it together—becomes touched by death and disintegration: his childhood in Zagreb, growing up down the street from a dollmaker’s workshop, where discarded dolls with no eyes, arms, or legs haunt his dreams; his arrival in Belgrade, where he meets his wife, Elvira, marries her, then buries her after she dies of breast cancer; a trip to Venice, where he sleeps with a stranger while conjuring Elvira, “decayed, her maggoty thighs gripping him, her one charred breast, which he sucked, which he bit until thick, dark blood ran from it”; a stay in Paris where his mother lies in a cancer ward bleeding to death, her insides “peeling in layers, disappearing”; his return to Belgrade as Yugoslavia is disintegrating, and his flight with his only son, Leo, from Serbia to Croatia; his forced retirement from his middling university post, where he writes articles about “academics whose claws cling to the walls of their dark, moldy cocoons.” A living corpse, he summons for company the nonliving, the insensate, those whose bodies have become as other to them as his “hybrid postmodern body” is to him.
The first item Andreas contemplates throwing away is a three-foot plastic model of the human body that his mother, Marisa, once brought home from China. Its “charming miniature imitations of organs, heart, lungs, liver, intestines, pancreas, everything, three-dimensional blood vessels, veins and arteries, bones, brain, everything” can be “dismembered, relocated, rearranged, turned over, put together like a jigsaw.” “The whole human insides,” he reflects with mounting excitement, can be made hard and touchable.
Confronted with the plastic body, his macabre doppelgänger, he remembers his mother: her trip to China for acupuncture training; the diagnosis of uterine cancer she received there; the suitcase she brought back with elaborate gifts for him and his sisters, “a small case in which his mother locked a glimmer of insight, which he later read as a decision and fear.” Recalled to himself through her, he tries, once again, not to think; to estrange himself from her memory; to expel her from his mind and body—birth, but with the roles of mother and son perversely reversed: “Now he squeezes that huge rubber ear with its reflex points for the whole body. An ear like a miniature fetus.” With the image of the fetus firmly in his hand, Drndić suggests that what looks like death may double as a prelude to rebirth.
Yet the novel also suggests that Andreas’s commingling of living and dead, self and other, is an extension of the political reality that he and other survivors of fascism had inhabited for nearly a century. Born in Paris after World War II, Andreas returns with his parents to Zagreb just after the reign of the Nezavisna Država Hrvatska (NDH), the puppet state of Germany and Italy, and its ultranationalist militia, the Ustasha, responsible for the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Roma, and political dissidents during the war. The children of his generation learn early on how to live among the mechanized, the anesthetized, the dead, as well as how to kill the guilt and pain of survival—realizing that, in being allowed to live after the Holocaust, after the war, and through the crimes of the Communist regime, they will each have to stay “nailed to his own being, to his body” in an “ironed society with no creases.” Some people, like Andreas, begin to fall apart, to disappear, to banish bits of themselves to hidden compartments of the mind. Others obediently accept their fate, becoming “numb, quiet, reconciled to [their] polished inner being.” Still others, like Andreas’s colleague Adam Kaplan and the main characters of her short novel Doppelgänger (English translation 2018), kill themselves, exercising their freedom by joining the ranks of the dead.
The state’s undoing of the difference between the living and the dead emerges as the representational logic that threads Andreas’s thoughts through everything around him, past and present. He finds it in the books he reads, diaries of soldiers who helped liberate Bergen-Belsen and found women sleeping on beds of corpses, women bathing in water that the remains of their children were still floating in. He discovers it in a novel he reads called Trieste (a reference to an earlier novel by Drndić, published in 2007), whose main character tries to visit Bad Arolsen, the library of the Third Reich, where forged birth and death certificates reveal how blue-eyed, fair-haired children stolen from Jewish parents had their names changed and were given to German families. He reencounters it in the old medical files he digs up of his patients’ dreams and prophecies, filled with hundreds of complaints from patients who claim they have turned “hollow” under the red bourgeoisie’s limited freedom of speech and art. Their bodies feel “far away, with no bones or organs, just covered with skin.” They suspect they may be already dead.
The novel reproduces these textual storehouses of memory, assembling other people’s words, both fictional and nonfictional, and weaving them so tightly into Andreas’s that what he reads in order not to think and what he thinks when he stops reading become virtually indistinguishable:
Many of those lives crossed one another,…many of them were like others,…they were in fact the same life, or rather, they could have been one single life, the life of a single person, both male and female, both adult and child, the lives—or life—of one single time that both vacillates and stands still. Whose voice is this?
The impossibility of answering that question is the great virtue of her novel. The thought that appears to emanate from one person could just as easily belong to his closest companion, to a total stranger, to all individuals in history.
It is easy to misread Drndić’s descriptions of the degenerating bodies from which this shared voice echoes as cruel or masochistic. “The failings of the human body, that is a normal process,” she said in an interview with The Paris Review in August 2017, nine months before her death from lung cancer at the age of seventy-one. What disturbed and frightened her, she continued, were “the failings of the human mind.” By this, she did not mean mental illness or the loss of memory. Rather, it was the danger of living in a historical epoch when thought and language had become so corrupted by public rhetoric, so attenuated, that the only thing that distinguished the dead from the dying was the material condition of the body, its relative degree of decay or disintegration.
In postwar Yugoslavia, and later in Croatia—and now in many countries around world—the living had become as thoughtless and as silent as the dead. The word had to “fight for its rite of passage,” Drndić observed, even among those who had pledged to protect it. “A whole country…may be imbued with that provincial spirit, the spirit of the ‘kingdom of darkness,’” writes Andreas in his resignation letter to his colleagues, chastising them for their easy assent to the state’s vision of order, their acquiescence to the bureaucratized university’s castration of the free intellectual. “Anything predominantly individual is undesirable, because it is the embodiment of versatility, the pure personification of sound, which for the provincial spirit is the music of sheer hell.”
Belladonna, then, produces a sound, a music, a voice attuned to the irresolvable paradox of survival: on the one hand, the difficulty of living as a true individual in the long shadow of fascism; on the other, the difficulty of existential self-annihilation in a world where the annihilation of an entire people can proceed smoothly and without opposition. Drndić suggests that the desire for autonomous selfhood can only be driven underground—scattered and buried, but never erased. Andreas’s attempt to become nothing, to not think and not speak, perpetually undoes itself, and the novel enacts that undoing, recovering his thought, his voice, at precisely the moment of its self-erasure. “Record your nothingness by writing down the fragment, because the description of annihilation is the right fragment, because it is itself an expression of the destroyed whole,” Andreas thinks toward the end, and he does not try to unthink it, because he can’t. The novel’s very form won’t let him.
None of Drndić’s five translated novels resembles anything that passes for political fiction today, at least not among English-language novels. To place her, we must look backward. It is tempting, but incorrect, to align her with W.G. Sebald, since both share an interest in the aesthetics and ethics of documentary. Yet Sebald’s commemorative revivals of the past in Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn can lapse into a wounded sentimentality that Andreas denounces at the beginning of Belladonna: the wistful arrangement of “walks, landscapes, smells and touches” into a “pathetically touching rapture.” “Proust gets on my nerves as well,” announces one of the narrators of her second novel, Leica Format (2003, English translation 2015), a jagged collection of testimonies from inhabitants of the former Yugoslavia.
Andreas admits that the resurrection of lost people and places, the luminous collapse of the past into the present, has its appeal for writers—for “phonies” who manufacture “false solace” for readers too fearful to confront the material impossibility of restitution. “People imagine that they will be together again, they and their derelict past squeezed into small dead objects, that they will touch each other again, tell each other mislaid, withered tales,” he thinks. But “memories die as soon as they are plucked from their surroundings, they burst, lose color, lose suppleness, stiffen like corpses.”
Through Belladonna’s tangled web of quotations, Drndić names as her predecessors the great thinkers of negativity, the writers of self-annihilation: Kafka, Bernhard, Eliot, Pessoa, Kierkegaard, Gombrowicz, Adorno, Fanon, Debray, but above all Beckett, whose plays she repeatedly invokes as a model for how to think about the relationship between language, thought, and the body. One of the hidden nerves of the novel is a trip Andreas takes to Amsterdam, where he attends a production of Beckett’s Not I. In a dark theater, a single ray of light illuminates a woman’s mouth that floats several meters off the stage. The mouth begins to speak, and what Andreas believes to be one part of a hidden whole, a mouth lodged in an actress’s body, disintegrates into its component parts: lips, tongue, teeth, palate. Yet the parts also reconstruct themselves into a different whole—“the creature,” Drndić calls it, the uncanny bearer of voice, whispering, rasping, screaming out “remnants of the life of the unnamed woman who after many years of silence has been converted into her own (or someone else’s?) mouth.” The words she speaks are difficult to catch, the sentences broken. Their meaning arrives only as an afterthought, if at all. “The audience members catch scorched flakes, particles that fall, billowing, onto their shoulders and chests, so that the small stage appears to be turning into a repository, a storehouse of carbonized corpses,” Drndić writes, echoing her description of the singed memories that Belladonna dispenses.
Drndić’s novels aspire to a similar logorrhea, an outpouring of words so momentous that they can unseal the lips sewn together at the beginning of Belladonna. But Belladonna also demands the idea of the mouth, of speech, to supplement thought. In the Sephardic Cemetery in Belgrade, Andreas finds the engraved headstones of 1,055 murdered Jews—the entire Jewish population of the Serbian town of Šabac. Later, during his trip to Amsterdam, he stumbles onto what he thinks is a playground in The Hague, with six silver climbing frames. When he looks closely, he discovers the names and ages of children scratched into the frames—some of the 2,061 children rounded up by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz, Sobibor, Bergen-Belsen, and Theresienstadt. Drndić reproduces these names as text, constructing within the novel its own storehouse of corpses. Of Belladonna’s 378 pages, thirty-one contain lists of names. (The lists in Trieste, Drndić’s earlier novel about a woman’s forty-year search for the son the Nazis stole from her, run to 100 of its 357 pages.) “People are forgotten only when we forget their names,” repeats Andreas, frozen before the “merry memorial to the murdered children,” unsure of whether he should stay to read the names or “conclude that life is insignificant, shrug my shoulders and go.” The novel never reveals what he does.
How are we to read these lists? On Yom HaShoah, the day of commemoration and broken covenants, many Jewish communities gather to read the names of victims aloud. Belladonna asks that we imagine something similar, as a secular practice of historical acknowledgment. Drndić suspects that most readers will not submit to her text despite its ethical significance. They will skip the lists, bored, eager to get on with the novel, or they will read them in a curious but noncommittal way, a name sampled here or there, just to feel they did it. Yet only by reading them can we approach the possibility of restitution and grasp its impossibility.
What do the names mean? How can they signify? While one’s throat might close around the names of children the same age as children one knows, or people who share names with the people one loves, the falseness of the association is immediately felt. The reader knows nothing about the people she names, and she does not want to imagine anything, because whatever she imagines would be a lie and a trespass. The names do not signify. They are not comparable to anything. They simply are what they are, just as the children were who they were.
How long does it take to read the names and ages of 2,061 children? Approximately forty-eight minutes. If one reads aloud (the easiest way to keep track), those forty-eight minutes include pauses to clear the throat; to correct the descent into muttering or rushing; to check suspected mispronunciations. What seems like a mechanistic exercise (“a rattling off”) turns out to be a sustained projection of self and otherness, an imaginative process by which history can “get under people’s skin.” “It is polite at least to scan through a list of victims for whose destinies all of us bear responsibility,” Drndić told The Paris Review. But as her tone suggests, politeness will not do; complete ingestion is what the novel commands for the past to open up “unexpectedly, even several decades later, uninvited, swollen with vitality, introducing slight disorder into our reality.”
Whereas Belladonna brings Andreas to the brink of suicide, his body rent apart, his being shattered, its sequel EEG (2016, English translation 2018) begins to pull him together. “Now I’m gathering up the remnants (of myself), this amalgam resembling the wet sand that children squeeze and make into wobbly figures, swollen, deformed and gray,” thinks Andreas, as the novel takes a tentative turn away from the third-person of Belladonna to the first-person. “Now I’m porridge-like, I’m porridge that is curdling, refusing a form, a porridge of squeezed organs, mush.” Unlike the plastic body from China with its neat and transparent compartments, and unlike the Aryan body encased in its sculpted, muscular shell, the mushy self is infinitely porous, secretive, pocked by “those mysterious little chambers of the mind” that Belladonna sought to preserve, and that EEG—the title refers to an electroencephalogram, a neurological test that tracks and records brain wave patterns—makes visible. Remnants of other people seep and settle into it: memories from Andreas’s son, Leo, his sister, Ada, his grandmother Ana, his uncle Karlo, and his parents, Marisa and Rudolf, whose deaths we glimpse in Belladonna but whose lives surface in EEG. “I understood that in this book the narrator is investigating other people’s lives, those close to him and not so close, to reach his own,” Andreas thinks after reading a novel by the Serbian writer Dragan Velikić. “And, again, I saw that our umbilical cord wraps around this planet on which we walk, thinking that we are alone and abandoned.”
Part of the novel’s umbilical form lies in how Drndić imports entire episodes from her earlier novels into EEG, creating, within it, memories that are capable of simultaneously standing on their own and nesting into a larger literary space, like a set of Russian dolls. Whereas in Belladonna Marisa was only ever dying, here the narration of her death (which Drndić reproduces verbatim from the earlier book) gets folded into a longer reconstruction of her life. She was, we learn, a swimmer, a singer with perfect pitch, the best student in her high school class, a young woman so absorbed in her love for Rudolf, and he for her, that they could not think of how “a little to the east the ground was rumbling hollowly, in concentration camps the profile of the inmates was changing, a terrible storm was building.” Rudolf, who remains, for most of Belladonna, silent and impotent, uninterested in life, comes alive in death. (His final days are also reproduced verbatim.) An antifascist resistance leader, he is exceedingly generous, respectfully argumentative, politically optimistic, and afraid of solitude—a fear his son respects even when his father can no longer feel either fearful or alone. “I brought Rudolf from Zagreb to Rijeka,” Andreas recalls. “The next day I took the bus that goes around Istria, I put my father on the seat beside me (the urn was wrapped in maroon corrugated paper…) and took him for a drive.”
Drndić knows that there is something appealingly bourgeois about the narrative of being recalled to one’s self through the loss of family. “Father died is a famous, quasi-striking literary opening,” she writes. “If Father died (or, Mother died) isn’t an opening, then it is an ending, the packaging and sealing of an ostensibly resolved guilt, a final leap into the waters of spiritual purification.” Yet EEG continues to refuse any form that absorbs the novel’s assorted parts—the long digressions into the history of chess in Nazi Germany, the files of psychiatric patients, the biographies of Latvian SS collaborators—into a complete and self-contained whole. “What is wanted is a form with continuity,” Andreas writes, dismayed by the critical desire for stylistic polish, for harmony and nuance, for an anodyne realism that manipulates the reader into positions of quasi-philosophical profundity. “What kind of continuity? What continuity?”
Everything around us, including ourselves, it’s all in patches, in spasms, in ebbing and flowing, our whole envelope, this whole earthly covering, is crisscrossed with loose stitches, which keep coming undone, and which we keep persistently trying to tighten. Under these unstitched tatters chasms open up into which we don’t dare look, into which we don’t wish even to glance.
The novel ends with Andreas leaping into the sea off the coast of Croatia. Poems from Cioran and Dom Sebastian run through his mind, soothing him. Enveloped by the sea, his body feels unusually agile, free of pain. “I speeded up the movement of my legs and arms, I breathed steadily, I cut through the water, wounded it, and the sea softened,” he thinks. “I swam for hours, that was my last marathon of account-settling.” The accounts he settles are not with his father or mother, his state or country. They are with his suffering, his madness, which in deforming him have given him access to a new form of articulated consciousness: a form conscious of its incompleteness; a form that, in refusing continuity, can catch and hold flashes of life’s secrets and illusions. “My misery is my castle,” Andreas thinks, quoting Kierkegaard as his arms throw their last strokes. “No one can conquer it. From it I fly down into reality and snatch my prey.”