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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Daša Drndić

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To purchase Doppelgänger

Title: Doppelgänger
Author: Daša Drndić
Genre: Stories
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 159 pages
Original in: Croatian
Availability: Doppelgänger - US
Doppelgänger - UK
Doppelgänger - Canada
Il doppio - Italia
  • Croatian title: Doppelgänger
  • Translated by S.D.Curtis and Celia Hawkesworth

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Our Assessment:

A- : quite remarkable writing; sharp, deep, and darkly comic stories

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 16/11/2018 Eileen Battersby
The Guardian . 8/12/2018 Claire Messud
The NY Times . 24/12/2019 Parul Sehgal
TLS . 14/12/2018 Amanda Hopkinson
World Lit. Today . Spring/2019 Michele Levy

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) boldly virtuosic novella in two parts, mirroring the realities of Croatia and Serbia, sees Drndic delighting in Beckettian high art. (...) More than any of Drndic’s wonderful collage, archival, semi-autobiographical narratives thus far translated, it is the brief, if immense, Doppelgänger that may surprise even her established readers. (...) Doppelgänger, a book of the year, will seduce." - Eileen Battersby, Financial Times

  • "Many of the ideas so forcefully and directly articulated in E.E.G. appear in this earlier novel, but here they are organically embedded in a fictional world. Fragmented but not disjointed, Beckettian as well as Bernhardian, Doppelgänger is complex, dark and funny: a strange gem." - Claire Messud, The Guardian

  • "Damage to heads, mouths, lips are common in these novels. So too are references to asthma, lung disease and cancer, pulmonary obstructions. Drndic’s fondness for commas gives her sentences their peculiar gasping quality. The characters choke on what they cannot, will not, say." - Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

  • "Doppelgänger reads as a shadow companion to E.E.G. -- its double and opposite. (...) Although less challenging than E.E.G. it is the more shocking." - Amanda Hopkinson, Times Literary Supplement

  • "In these subtly linked stories, memory bleeds past into present as three clear-eyed protagonists, distanced from their truest selves, approach the void. (...) Strategically braided narrative strategies -- stream of consciousness, dialogue, and a seemingly omniscient voice -- produce a Kafkaesque humor that highlights the sterility of this brave new world." - Michele Levy, World Literature Today

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:

       Doppelgänger consists of two long stories, 'Artur and Isabella' and 'Pupi'. There's only the slightest overlap between the action of the two, and style and subject-matter differ, but locale -- Croatia --, history, and the focus on solitary individuals and the backgrounds and surroundings that shaped them do unify them.
       Drndić's two tales are, in many ways, grim, her protagonists presented, arguably, often completely abased. So, for example, the first story opens with Artur, the first sentences:

     Oh. He shat himself.
       Drndić doesn't shy away from the unpleasant details of basic bodily functions and failures, both Artur and Isabella -- both nearly eighty -- in physical decline, incontinent, shriveled. The two come together on the New Year's Eve of the new millennium -- or rather the early morning hours of the new year -- finding some companionship and fumbling old-aged mutual sexual gratification (yes, Drndić doesn't shy away from anything natural, though it's about as unsexy a close encounter as one can imagine). There's a connection -- but each also remains in their own little world:
     It seems Artur and Isabella complement each other.
     We complement each other, says Artur.
     I cannot complement anybody, says Isabella. I'm empty.
       Drndić's story moves back and forth across several planes. Along with the present-day activities of Artur and Isabella, separately and together, it includes police dossiers that provide further biographical information about the pair, both from the early 1990s and then from that New Year's Eve (as the police search and describe both of their flats while the two are out). The backgrounds of the two are introduced in various forms: Isabella, for example, came from the German Chemnitz (later called Karl-Marx-Stadt, in the German Democratic Republic), and lost most of her family in the Holocaust; in her apartment she keeps a collection of garden gnomes -- 36 of them -- each with a metal ID plate around its neck, corresponding to her deceased relatives. As she explains to Artur:
     I have garden gnomes, says Isabella. Then adds: They don't die.
       Artur was in the Yugoslav Navy, stationed on the island of Vis. He too is a collector -- of hats: he has a collection of 274 at home, and never leaves the house bareheaded.
       The action of the story is limited, Artur and Isabella spending part of the night together, then going their separate ways back home, but in what they share -- verbally and otherwise -- and what is filled in of their backgrounds in the essentially documentary police reports and other asides, a rich, dark picture of both, and both their situations emerges.
       In summary, it all sounds terribly grim and bleak -- so also the (three-page) alphabetical recital that is surely the darkest hand-job scene found in contemporary literature, which Drndić concludes:
     A one-minute wank, ten years pf history, ten year's of Isabella's life.
     Isabella's hand is full of Artur's lukewarm diluted sperm.
     Isabella has small hands. Artur hasn't got much sperm.
       Yet despite this -- and the even darker ending to the morning Drndić finds for her two protagonists -- there's also a sense of almost comic absurdity to these scenes and histories, too real, too great to bear otherwise (hence the gnomes, the chocolate and silver foil, the hats). Drndić doesn't play on emotion; the story of these two isn't so much sad as it feels convincingly real -- and it's all the more powerful for that.
       The second, longer piece, 'Pupi', centers on an individual, Printz Dvorsky (nicknamed Pupi), and describes a more extended decline -- one that arguably also is very grim, yet doesn't feel like it, in no small part because Printz never feels sorry for himself. He was born in 1946, to a family that was able to establish itself in the new socialist regime, his father Rikard a chemist and spy who was given the abandoned villa 'Nora' as a residence (before, eventually being moved on to a still sizable flat). The two sons' names are telling -- Printz and the younger Herzog (German for 'duke') -- and they lived in comfort and style, a carry-over to socialist nobility. Even in the end, when Printz is a homeless vagrant he wears a Pierre Cardin-shirt (albeit one that's worn-out, its collar black) and a silk Dior tie (full of blotches).
       Printz dreamed of becoming a sculptor, but followed in his father's footsteps, as chemist and spy. He married twice -- "Printz likes getting married. It is a ceremonial act" -- but when the story opens he is back living at home, fifty years old and unemployed, his mother dying. As she, and then his father die, and his brother pushes him out of the fold, Printz's life spirals down. Yet he's not miserable, accepting his lot, making do, uncomplaining.
       Among his favored locales is the local zoo, with its two rhinoceroses, and the story opens and closes with him engaged with them. He has limited human contacts, though he interacts with a variety of people who are, in various small ways supportive; mostly, he talks to himself -- though at one point the words come gushing out at one of the art gallery openings he likes to attend when he is still halfways presentable, appreciating the fine free food and drink.
       Much of the narrative itself proceeds in a sort of dialogue with Printz:
     Small animals move into Printz's head. He looks after his little animals; feeds them and settles them to sleep. Sometimes they are alive and they move, sometimes they are like porcelain figures and stand still, stiff.
     Like me. I sometimes stiffen on purpose.
     All Printz's little animals are the same size regardless of what kind they are. So there is a grotesque disharmony in Printz's head.
     What disharmony ? There's no disharmony.
     Cats, small cats, big as dogs, small dogs. Small rhinos, as small as small birds, like snakes, lions, bugs.
     Bugs ? What bugs ?
       Drndić riffs all around in her stories, and the educated Printz is a perfect outlet for her, too -- as in, for example, obsessing on the year of his birth, finding: "It was not a good year to be born. No." and:
     Printz makes a list of the dead and executed in 1946. That year, 1946, there were a lot of executions. On the list there are few actors or singers, few researchers or sportsmen, but a lot of previously dangerous people. On the list are also those whom Printz loves, and he makes up tender stories about them, touching and filmic, so that the newspaper sellers she tears.
     I like it when they cry, I like that.
       Among the few possessions he does anything with is some old silver that belonged to the family that the family villa had preciously belonged to, but Printz isn't eager to cash in; rather he looks for the rightful owners -- their story, of course, one of the countless tragedies of the times, as Printz surely long sensed (and burdening him with a guilt -- even if he bears no personal responsibility -- he has long carried with him).
       Printz's sense of self-preservation doesn't focus on the usual -- the security of money and home -- and he lets himself be taken advantage of by his brother. Instead, it's a more internalized self-preservation that matters to him -- and one more difficult to find. As one of his few conversation-partners suggests:
Maybe none of us has his own life. Is your life unconditionally yours ?
       This, of course, also plays into the subtle (everywhere-except-the-title) theme of doppelgänger that pervades both stories, the underlying question for Drndić.
       Summary and examples give only the roughest idea of everything Drndić does in these two tales. They are remarkable pieces of writing, simple and straightforward in some ways -- reading easily and smoothly -- yet so complexly and variously spun and woven, constantly shifting tone, approach, and perspective. They capture both near-present-day Croatia, as well as taking in huge swathes of Yugoslavian history and the crimes of the Nazis leading up to and into the Second World War, and all the weight of history on individuals who lived through some of these experiences and times. Incredibly dark, there's also a great lightness to the stories; they're not weighed down by what grimness they seem to have, and though not really funny there's a comic touch and a well-captured sense of absurdities of human existence.
       It's hard or impossible to describe and convey everything Drndić does -- which is, of course, why you should read it. This is remarkable writing, and this is a very, very fine twinned multi-faceted work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 October 2018

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Doppelgänger: Reviews: Other books by Daša Drndić under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Croatian-writing author Daša Drndić lived 1946 to 2018

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© 2018-2019 the complete review

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