“She has always been somehow weightless, free of the heavy burden of mother tongues, national histories, native soils, homelands, fatherlands, myths, that many of the people around her tote on their backs like a sack of red-hot stones.”
This is Haya Tedeschi who, at the beginning of the novel, is an old Jewish woman sitting in a rocking chair in the Italian town of Gorizia, near Trieste. She is surrounded by documents, photographs, cuttings. Her head is swarming with memories, “melting in her mind like chocolate”.
It should be remembered that Trieste was one of those places which was a disputed territory in both world wars. A kind of no-man’s land perennially awaiting the outcome of some new military action. Its inhabitants never quite sure of where they belonged, pressed in by borders that were continually shifting around them. In short, it’s an inspired place to set a novel about the horrors of world war two.
Haya’s story is constructed piece by piece with frequent brilliantly researched documentary interludes. The artistry with which this novel moves back and forth between the personal and the public, a microcosm and a macrocosm of the Holocaust is, for the most part, brilliant. Haya’s story is told with a kind of disarming playful lyricism at times which reminded me of Nicole Krauss but without Krauss’ whimsy, her artificial sweeteners (which I enjoy) . We learn about Haya’s family’s displacement during the first world war. We learn that, like most Italian Jews, they are integrated into Italian life and do not identify themselves primarily as Jewish. To outsiders they are essentially indistinguishable from any other local resident. We see how they are forced by events to become nomads. Work takes them to Albania, Milan, Naples, Venice and Trieste. The hub of the novel is Haya’s relationship with a seemingly and, relatively speaking, innocent German soldier who is also a keen photographer. Haya is a typical young girl. Wilfully ignorant. While transports are leaving Trieste in the middle of the night she is often to be found at the cinema or dining in a trattoria. (Drndic is very tough on Haya and her family: “The Tedeschi family are a civilian family, bystanders who keep their mouths shut, but when they do speak, they sign up to fascism. For 60 years now these blind observers have been pounding their chests and shouting we are innocent because we didn’t know!…these yes men, these enablers of evil.”) Kurt Franz, the German boyfriend, leaves her when she is pregnant. A year later her son mysteriously vanishes when her back is turned. The central mystery of the novel is what happened to her son. The personal horror of the novel is the gradual unfurling of who his father was, what he did.
There’s a sense we’ve become a little immunised to the horrors of the Holocaust. This novel rips through all those palliatives. It adds new horrors to the Holocaust. Some of the things you learn are as disturbing as anything you already know. I won’t spill any beans because these details are very much an integral part of the novel’s emotional charge. You also learn a few more light-hearted facts like, for example, how when Mussolini’s Ministry of Culture clamped down on the infiltration of foreign words into the Italian language they forbade Italians to refer to Louis Armstrong by his American name; instead he had to be called Luigi Braccioforte! More unsettling we discover that the Swiss allowed the transport trains to pass through their territory when the Brenner tunnel was snowed up on the provision that the Red Cross be allowed to serve the prisoners hot soup and coffee.
I read some of the other reviews of this and noticed one person objected to the Nuremburg transcriptions and especially the list of the 9,000 Jews deported from Italy. I found this list very moving because you knew every one of those people had a deeply moving human story like Haya’s. And you don’t have to read every name on the list so this seemed a rather querulous complaint. There might be a case for complaining that, at times, the documentary dwarfed the human story of Haya; that perhaps one didn’t quite get to know Haya as much as one would have liked and occasionally the large scale narrative detracted rather than added to the momentum of the small scale narrative. Personally, for example, I found the quoting of Pound, Borges, Shakespeare, Eliot and others clumsy rather than illuminating. But this is a small misgiving.
There’s also a fabulous twist when, late in the novel, we learn who is narrating the novel. This is without question one of the most painful novels I’ve ever read. It’s no Schindler’s List, softening the horror with acts of moving kindness. There’s nothing uplifting about this narrative – except the artistry with which it’s constructed.