Waxing Press

Book Review: Belladonna by Daša Drndić

book reviewsIan WissmanComment

In my ignorance of Croatian literature, I'm going to make a claim that I'm completely unqualified making: Daša Drndić is one of the country’s finest, most artful writers. Belladonna, her penultimate novel, is a timespanning journey and mediation on time, history, the human body and heredity.

History is heredity is culture. History repeats itself because it's a genetic inheritance that deteriorates us as we try to push back against it. We try to correct it. The body tries to reject our history and write new history carried forward, but we’re only a silhouette of the past, shadowed forward into a future we don’t yet know. All humans are a physical bearing, borne with all history before them trapped within them, and the future can only be inscribed by the past, therefore there is no past and there is no future.

In the novel, Drndić uses her protagonist, Andreas Ban, a deteriorating retiree, to tell the history of Croatia; it's bloodied past, marred by fascism, antisemitism, and The Holocaust. Belladonna tells a side of history I was not intimately familiar, a side that often goes unnoticed, untaught in America (to my experience), and so therefore it is ever more vital to see it, to learn it, to experience it. The book works by building layers and layers of metaphor into Andreas's body and mind, and shows how the body—like history—is only the manifestation of all events leading to the present. Deterioration is inevitable. Andreas’s experience of Europe is the experience of European history. His body and poor health is defined by Croatia's history. This comes to bear in his life in myriad ways, and one of the most striking is when he feels the culpability for the dead Jewish children when he looks at a sculpture in a playground with the inscription “People are forgotten only when we forget their names.” Drndić then dedicates 20 pages of the book listing the names and ages of Croatian Jewish children ripped from their families and murdered by Nazis. Reading every name is unbearable, but you must. It is a mere fraction of the devastation of this sliver of horror.

I feel like I'm failing to capture the essence of Belladonna, but in some ways it works like a rubik's cube, trying to unlock the pattern of history and humanity. Being progeny of the horrors our ancestors wrought, how can we even begin to correct them? The book wrecks you over and over viscerally, intellectually, emotionally. It is existential and fatalistic. There is no optimism here as Drndić clearly sees the great, looping chain of history coming back around. Belladonna is one of the most moving reads I've experienced in my life, and I imagine will be a hard one to top.