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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Belladonna

by
Daša Drndić


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Belladonna



Title: Belladonna
Author: Daša Drndić
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 396 pages
Original in: Croatian
Availability: Belladonna - US
Belladonna - UK
Belladonna - Canada
  • Croatian title: Belladonna
  • Translated by Celia Hawkesworth

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Our Assessment:

A- : wide-ranging, absorbing engagement with its subject matter

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 1/8/2017 Amanda Hopkinson


  From the Reviews:
  • "If this narrative sounds depressing, it is surprisingly not so. For Ban thinks, feels and analyses on a grand scale. He may satirize Freud and the post-Freudians, or denounce the hypocrisy of political compromise and selective, collective historical amnesia, but he does so with wit and insight. (...) Daša Drndic’s prose is similarly erudite and heterogeneous. (...) Celia Hawkesworth’s translation indelibly transcribes perhaps one of the strangest and strongest books on ageing and rage, and the need to bear constant witness." - Amanda Hopkinson, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       'Belladonna' is the misleadingly soft name of the deadly nightshade plant, and as such an appropriate title for Drndić's novel, a novel that in its presentation and tone manages to treat dark and darkest subject matter in surprisingly light form. It's not that Drndić doesn't batter the reader, but she does so in a way that doesn't make the reading experience uncomfortably oppressive -- as too easily and often happens with fiction tackling such weighty matters. (The deadly nightshade berries do also eventually figure in the novel -- and not only because they are native ("Up until the First World War, in Europe most belladonna was cultivated in Croatia"); a nice touch has the bitter hallucinogenic berries sprinkled with sugar to make them more palatable .....)
       The novel does begin almost too awfully, citing examples of desperate acts such as immigrants and asylum inmates who sew their lips together in protest and frustration, or a patient who is medicated, allowing her to remember the childhood she had repressed -- leading her to commit suicide. They are examples -- if more extreme -- of what the protagonist considers, too:

He could do that too. Stop speaking. Stop remembering.
       But Belladonna is a book about remembering, and the struggle to speak the truths that are covered up, ignored, twisted, quashed.
       It is a book about a man living in contemporary Croatia, just forced out of his university post by the mandatory retirement age:
His name is Andreas Ban.
     He is a psychologist who does not psychologise any more.
     A writer who no longer writes.
     He is a tourist guide who no longer guides anyone anywhere.
     A swimmer who has not swum for a long time.
     He has other occupations that no-one any longer needs. He, least of all.
       Andreas Ban -- and it's almost always 'Andreas Ban', throughout the novel -- is a longtime-widower, with a son who has been away, abroad, the past decade or so. Andreas Ban has held up well, but the forced retirement and a medical crisis get to him: "Now he is rapidly fraying, inside and out". He has cancer -- breast cancer, and: "The prognosis for breast cancer in men is significantly worse than in women". Eventually he has an operation, removing the tumor, followed by radiotherapy.
       Many of the pieces eventually fit together, but Belladonna is not a straightforward person-account -- or memoir, even as, as is ultimately revealed, almost the entire work is Andreas Ban's own, a personal account that, even as much of it is focused on his person, he tries to present from a different, detached perspective. Family and family life figure only briefly, largely peripherally; the story of his father is left: "incomplete, it's a long, dense story, a complex story from a painful time", while the story of his son Leo -- now thirty and a doctor in Switzerland -- "is a stump", quickly summarily dealt with despite the closeness between the father and the son he raised essentially on his own.
       Andreas Ban's professional and personal life was repeatedly cleft -- by the death of his wife, for example -- but most noticeably so in the ruptures of the Yugoslavia he grew up in, and then the conflict between Croatia and Serbia. The last fifteen years of his professional life are spent in Croatia, while the preceding twenty-five were spent in Serbia. When the conflict broke out, he -- a Croat -- fled Belgrade for Croatia; he establishes himself there, ultimately attached, uncomfortably, to a university, but feeling always that he was: "a superfluous man in his new homeland, neither a local nor a nomad, an exception".
       The perceived ethnic-national differences between Serbia and Croatia are a constant source of tension. Language, in particular, is an issue: despite being so close -- it was called 'Serbo-Croatian' in Yugoslavian times, after all -- the slight, small differences are immediately picked up on, and those who don't know or speak the 'pure' Croatian marked (or even maligned) as different. Ugly Croatian nationalism continues to rub Andreas Ban in all the wrong ways -- in no small part because he finds himself confronted with it at every turn, overtly manifested or seething just beneath surfaces.
       In particular, Andreas Ban is outraged by the incapacity and unwillingness of Croatia to confront its uglier past, and the war crimes of the Second World War -- with many from that time respected and honored as patriots rather than recognized and treated as war criminals. One section considers the German literary phenomenon of sons trying to deal with their complicit (Nazi) fathers' actions -- in contrast to the silence around him:
     So, in Germany and Austria, almost seventy years after the end of the war, ever new serials of undigested Nazi trauma keep appearing, while in Croatia, in a patriotic trance, Ustasha crimes and their perpetrators dress up in carnival robes of rotten nostalgia, their descendants keep quiet or lie about their fathers' or grandfathers' pasts [...], it is a deaf age of defiled silence through which pigs grunt as they stampede over the wax paving stones of memory. And Andreas Ban languishes in his exile in a mouse hole on the edge of the world.
       Andreas Ban occupies himself some with the literature dealing the horrors of the Second World War; among the books he reads is the unattributed Sonnenschein, which readers might recognize as the Drndić-novel published as Trieste in English ..... Other literary treatments that he deals with are Harry Mulisch's The Assault and The Discovery of Heaven ("so much stuff layered up that ideas and sentences barely breathe, crushed in asthmatic clinch"), as well as Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones -- "the tedious report of a deranged mind". Ban/Drndić's reaction to and criticism of these works -- including: "give me a Cees Nooteboom to get over them" -- is useful also in considering Drndić's own approach to covering similar ground -- including the observation that:
Worst of all about Littell's book is that it is written in a language which is not, but aspires to be, the language of literature.
       (Drndić has much more success in that regard in her work.)
       There are also historical tangents -- small episodes or examples frequently woven in, of both contemporary and historical outrages, as well as some longer examples, proper testaments. So also Drndić devotes several pages of her text simply to naming the victims: readers of Trieste may recall the forty-page, four-column list of the names of the 9000 Italian Jewish victims in the Second World War, while here there are three similar double-columned lists memorializing the victims of other outrages. A longer piece focuses specifically on 'The Case of Rudolf Sass', another man's story, told relatively fully -- another connection to which is only (glancingly) revealed in the novel's closing section.
       Drndić's swirling narrative can seem unfocused -- a blur at times, losing itself in asides -- but in returning to her subjects, from Andreas Ban himself to Croatian historical amnesia or issues of language and identity, and broader themes like memory and repression, she builds a surprisingly solid work. At times the reader may feel unmoored in Belladonna -- and some may have less patience for this -- yet the ground ultimately proves very firm.
       Shifting across past and present, Andreas Ban remains enigmatic, with hints of some more significant parts of biography tucked aside much smaller memories. So, for example it's only slipped in that in the 1970s he traveled to the United States with a Fulbright scholarship to study for a Masters degree, while the narrative focuses only on his three-day layover in Amsterdam on the way there (marked also by a lack of specifics: "he does not remember" is repeatedly invoked.) The knowledge that Belladonna is apparently the first in a trilogy of books featuring the character -- a second, EEG, has already been published in Croatian -- shifts reader-expectations: what appears quite whole (if full of holes ...) is apparently only part of the story, as it were.
       Belladonna is a powerful and very effective indictment of a failure -- past and present -- to deal with the uglier parts of national history. The Croatian example may seem particularly concentrated and extreme -- with ugly nationalism reanimated by the Serbian conflict, to top it off -- but similar silence about or regard for the unacceptable remains widespread essentially everywhere.
       Drndić's treatment is also historical, social, and psychological but it is primarily literary -- abounding also in references, casual and in-depth, and even, for example, with an incidental (and almost comic) Dubravka Ugrešić-cameo (Andreas Ban runs into her in Amsterdam).
       Drndić suggests some doubts about the possibilities of literature in contemporary times -- and not just in its misguided form (i.e. Jonathan Littell); she even has Andreas Ban muse, while considering his (impressive) book-pile:
     What Andreas Ban would most like now would be to burn all these books together with their authors, most of whom are in any case already dead. Today there is barely room for them in the world. [...]
     Why bother with the second-hand shop. His books might be bought by some other lost souls, already damaged, half deranged, but most probably they would not be bought by anyone.
       But of course the writing of Belladonna suggests a deep-rooted belief in the continuing validity and viability of the literary -- and it is indeed a fine example of what is still possible with the novel.
       A very fine, and in many ways exceptional, work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 September 2017

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Links:

Belladonna: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Croatian-writing author Daša Drndić was born in 1946.

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© 2017 the complete review

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