Daša Drndić obituary

Croatian author who shone a spotlight on her country’s complicity in the Holocaust

The author Daša Drndić, who has died of lung cancer aged 71, was incapable of writing a sentence that was not forceful, fierce or funny – or all three simultaneously. A major theme in her life’s writing, which comprised a dozen novels and some 30 plays, has been the overlooked (or deliberately omitted) complicity of her native Croatia in the Holocaust, expressed in a style that has been described by critics as “neo-Borgesian”.

Daša disliked that description as much as that of “documentary fiction” – another attempt to capture her particular meld of historical fact with personal testimony, and of meditations with memorabilia (bus tickets, concert programmes, above all apparently random lists and photographs, all of which build their own story). Her literary hybridity lends power to what are often stories about insignificant individuals who become sadistic monsters through opportunity and sanction.

Of her own writing, Daša said: “I use fiction and faction – transcripts, photographs, documents and I twist them. I enjoy myself, twisting these realities.” And of others: “When I feel a writer is inventing everything, I don’t believe it. It only [works] if he’s a very good liar and builds the story – there are ways of doing this, because writing is a trade, not a talent.”

Daša named Franz Kafka, Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek as her inspirations and she might be better compared with any of these writers than with the Italian author Elena Ferrante, whose successor she has often been hailed. Her works have been translated into 15 languages, and three novels are available in English: Trieste (2012, first published in Croatian as Sonnenschein in 2007), translated into English by Ellen Elias-Bursać; and Leica Format (2009, first published in 2003) and Belladonna (2017, first published in 2015), both translated by Celia Hawkesworth, who is currently working on Doppelgänger (2002), scheduled for publication in English in September.

They weigh in like doorstops, yet do not contain a surplus word. Trieste traces the port’s history from the end of Habsburg rule through fascism in the 1920s to Nazi occupation and the establishment of the San Sabba concentration camp in 1943. Cities change names from German to Italian and back again, while indigenous languages and identities are spurned and suppressed.

There is linguistic irony even in the name of the protagonist Haya Tedeschi – meaning, etymologically, German, although she is a Jew. It is a name her son Franz never knew, for under the Lebensborn programme his Nazi father had him adopted (or abducted) by an Aryan family. The book opens with a first reunion between Haya and Franz when he is aged 62.

Documents interspersed into the narrative reinforce Haya’s desperation to gather all she may retrieve of a largely obliterated past. Included are 42 pages naming the 9,000 Jews deported to or murdered by Italy during the second world war. Daša circulated the book around the packed audience while I was interviewing her at a literary festival in Kings Place, London, in 2012, so they could check whether their own family names were included.

In Belladonna, the names of Dutch child deportees, some as young as 15 months, fill 17 double-column pages of small print. When all we have left is their names, this is the only homage left to give.

Daša was born in Zagreb, when Croatia was part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, into a middle-class family of intellectuals. Her mother, Timea, was a psychiatrist and her father, Ljubo, who had been a wartime partisan, later became a diplomat, serving as ambassador to Sweden and Sudan. He raised his family in both Serbia and Croatia. Daša studied philology at the University of Belgrade, before winning a Fulbright scholarship to the US, and taking a master’s in theatre and communications at Southern Illinois University.

She studied for a PhD at the University of Rijeka, where she later taught for a while. She came to love the port city and lived there for 25 years. In her 30s she worked as a journalist and translator –“It was exhausting. I wanted to write, not waste time on translations” – then as a publisher’s editor and in Radio Belgrade’s drama department as playwright/producer.

Despite being unpredictable, even temperamental, and although she guarded her private life, Daša grew to enjoy being a public figure. She was a longstanding activist in PEN Croatia and the Croatian Writers’ Association, and in numerous free speech and human rights campaigns. She was delighted to be shortlisted for the Independent foreign fiction prize in 2013, and to learn earlier this year that Belladonna was a finalist in the new European Bank for Reconstruction and Development award. Characteristically, and knowing she was dying, she used the prize money to host a farewell party in her favourite Rijeka bookshop.

Doppelgänger, which she once described as “this latest ugly little book of mine”, tells the tale of two old people meeting on New Year’s eve, he a former naval officer in the Yugoslav armed forces, she an Austrian Jew who fled to Croatia. “It ends with their suicide. It’s grotesque in a way ... probably repulsive for readers. But it’s my favourite.” Recounting what might otherwise be suppressed or thought better left unsaid was ever Daša’s mission and she remained courageously true to it to the end.

Daša is survived by her daughter, the film-maker Maša Drndić. Her brother, Gojko, died last year.

• Daša Drndić, writer, born 10 August 1946; died 5 June 2018


Amanda Hopkinson

The GuardianTramp

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