Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac
Maclehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
BEHIND EVERY NAME THERE IS A STORY
These words, on an otherwise blank page, some 140 pages into Daša Drndić’s Trieste, and the forty-four pages that follow which contain the names of “about 9000 Jews who were deported from Italy or killed in Italy in the countries Italy occupied between 1943 and 1945” form the breath-taking core of this remarkable book. Trieste, Drndić’s first novel to be translated into English, ostensibly tells the story of the elderly Haya Tedeschi as she waits for the son she has not seen in sixty-two years.
Tedeschi, a native of the town of Gorizia, a small town at the eastern extremity of Italy, sits in a rocking chair, sorting through a red basket that contains her entire life. As we spend time with the old lady, we come to learn of Gorizia’s colourful past – its location means that it changed hands several times during Haya’s lifetime – and of the history of her family, a family of Catholicised Jews trying to survive through turbulent times. This history, complete with photographs and document snippets, comes in the form of a disorganised narrative that might be prompted by an old lady taking documents from a basket, glancing through them, then providing her own summary. In some cases, the timeline is clear – the events leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for example, the catalyst for the First World War – while in others, we will see a single character’s story through to death, or that point at which they pass out of Haya’s ken, before jumping back and picking up the main thread where it left off.
As the story progresses, we learn that Haya’s son, stolen from her in 1945, was fathered by an SS officer serving at the San Sabba camp on the outskirts of nearby Trieste. The child was stolen and placed in one of Himmler’s Lebensborn homes, which were set up to maintain the purity of the Aryan race. The child’s father was none other than Kurt Franz, a brutal man who spent time as a sub-commander of the Treblinka camp before being transferred to Trieste and who counted amongst his hobbies a form of target practice that replaced the traditional clay pigeon with live infants hurled into the air by his comrades.
Starting slow, and taking us back to the very start of the Twentieth Century, the story of Haya and her family and the region in which she has spent the vast majority of her life, lulls us into a false sense of security before knocking us off our feet with detailed descriptions of the atrocities committed by Kurt Franz and the other members of Aktion T4 who ended the war in Trieste. Cleverly blurring the line between fact and fiction, Drndić pulls no punches, and leaves the reader slightly shell-shocked by the time the book comes to a close.
Using witness narratives, both real and imagined (‘“How old are you?” “I’m dead.”’), from both victims and perpetrators, as well as brief biographies of the key SS men involved, and a number of other narrative tricks and tics, Drndić builds a story that is all the more shocking for being true. This reader tends to be somewhat jaded after almost thirty years of reading crime and horror fiction, but nothing can prepare you for the sheer onslaught of horror in this catalogue of atrocities.
Two Germans stood there listening to what was going on. At the end they’d say Alles schläft – They’re all asleep. Then we would open the door. The bodies fell out like potatoes. Bloody, covered with urine and shit. People bled from their ears and noses. It was dark inside the chamber. People would jump over one another to catch some air. They’d try to break down the door. The stronger ones would trample the children and the weak. Some people were unrecognisable. There were crushed children’s skulls…
Odd phrasings make for disturbing images, as in this description of the crematorium at San Sabba:
The ovens are inaugurated on 4 April, 1944, with a celebratory test run incinerating seventy bodies of hostages killed at the Villa Opicina shooting range the day before.
Or the matter-of-fact descriptions of the men who ran these camps:
Josef Hirtreiter, S.S.-Scharführer…Low I.Q….Hadamer 1940 (washes dishes); Sobibor and Treblinka 1942-43. Speciality: killing one- and two-year-old children: when transports are being unloaded, grabs children by the legs and smashes them against a freight car.
As the story nears its end, and we meet Haya’s son, we discover that his abduction is far from an isolated incident. As with the experiences of those in the camps, the stories of these young children (now men and women in their sixties and seventies) who have no idea who they are, or where they came from, are told in their own voices (one notable voice here is that of Anni-Frid Lyngstad: “I was a singer in ABBA. The brunette.”).
Through it all, Drndić threads a number of themes: the importance of family, from the family tree of the Tedeschi family, as far back as Haya is able to trace it, through the witness accounts which mention, on more than one occasion, sending loved ones to their death, or shaving the heads or extracting the teeth of fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, grandparents before their final trip to the gas chambers, and on to the victims of the Lebensborn program, and the family ties that bind them, ultimately, to men and women who are infamous for being monsters. There is also the notion that what happened in those places was only possible because of the veil of secrecy that surrounded them. Each instance of the word secret, or secrecy, or whatever other variation, appears in the text in italics, emphasising the fact that these were secrets that should have been questioned and exposed much earlier, and a warning for future generations not to make the same mistake. And, of course, the tenet that behind every name there is a story. Drndić tells some of these stories here, as have many others in the past – Tom Keneally, Primo Levi, Chil Rajchman, to name but a few – but there are still more names, and more stories than there is time, or willingness, to tell.
Trieste feels like a very personal book for Drndić, and one can’t help but wonder if this anger is hers, disguised as the anger of a man who has never existed. Where blame is warranted, she points the finger of her avatar, from Arnold Schwarzenegger (seen as an apologist) to the entire Catholic Church. There is also credit where it is due, most notably for the sons of Hans Frank, and the daughter of Amon Göth (famously portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List).
This is a difficult book to read, as horror builds upon horror until the reader feels numb, but it is an important novel, and one that deserves a wide readership. In the end, Trieste is more documentary than fiction. It’s a beautifully-written work (despite the often-horrific subject matter) and appears in a wonderful translation from the ever-reliable Maclehose Press. I certainly won’t claim to have enjoyed the experience, but it’s one I’m glad I had, and one that will stay with me for a long time. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.