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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.