Thursday 18 January 2018

Review: Trieste by Dasa Drndic

MacLehose Press, £20

Jennifer Ryan

Stomach-churning work of docu-fiction is not flawless but, finds Jennifer Ryan, it is highly original and gripping

Trieste is a detailed work of documentary fiction covering more than 80 years of European history. No one could accuse Dasa Drndic of not doing her homework. In fact, if anything, she may have overdone it. An overload of tangents, histories of towns and people, take from the power of Haya's own tale. Trieste will be a nightmare for those seeking a clean-cut, linear narrative. An abundance of photographs, footnotes, song lyrics, train transport lists, testimonials and -- most notably -- a list of 9,000 Jews deported from, or killed in, Italy between 1943-45, make for a busy read.

We first meet 83-year-old Italian Haya Tedeschi sitting quietly in a room on Via Apria in the Italian town of Gorizia, in 2006. She is anxious about a pending reunion with her son, Antonio, from whom she was separated just five months after his birth. Haya's story begins alongside that of the Great War and continues to weave its way through European history before, during and after the Second World War.

Her parents moved their young family across the borders of Italy and Albania throughout the Thirties and slowly began discarding their Jewish heritage in favour of a safer Catholic existence under the increasingly omnipresent Mussolini. As the political landscape changes, the Tedeschi family observe the terrifying impact of the 1938 race laws on all around them.

Years later, the octogenarian Haya is performing an audit of her memory bank. Images of bodies piled in town squares appear, followed closely by "columns of Italian Wehrmacht prisoners of war". Belzec and Treblinka are among the place names elderly Haya now knows to associate with mass extermination, but in her youth and under her parents' guidance, Haya found herself "living in the illusion of ignorance" in an Italian town anxious to avoid the horrific realities of what we now know was genocide.

In the town of Gorizia, against a backdrop of ominous and continuous railway traffic, fear and feigned ignorance, Haya falls for an SS officer named Kurt Franz. She must surely have sensed that her future was not only uncertain but most probably littered with inescapable tragedy. After fathering her child, Franz ends his relationship with Haya, calmly informing his "little Jewess" that theirs is not a relationship for public eyes. Besides, he must return home to marry his German fiancee.

Five months later, baby Antonio is snatched from his pram as Haya's back is turned. This is the crux of the tale: Lebensborn, Himmler's clandestine project which strove for a "racially pure" Germany boasting an Ubermensch species.

What, for years had been happening all around her, has

now happened to Haya. The German authorities believed Antonio's life would be better lived as the child of "pure Aryans". Now, years later and with the help of the Red Cross, Haya will meet her grown-up son, renamed Hans Traube, whose tale is told in the final quarter of Trieste.

At times the lyrical nature of the language is a testament to the translator, Ellen Elias-Bursac. There is a skill to translating; remaining loyal to the original story while also adequately reflecting the beauty of the writing is always a tricky balance to strike. Managing to do so with a novel as dense, multi-faceted and wide-reaching as this one is a noteworthy achievement.

Trieste is a massive undertaking, both for the author and the reader. It swings from stomach-churning but compelling testimonials from former concentration camp workers to fluid fictional prose. Its English-language publisher is declaring the novel to be a "shattering contribution to the literature of our 20th-Century history". Many may dispute the claim and more still may dislike Drndic's style, but few will be able to ignore this highly original title.

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