History, That Ornate Lady
By Erica Wagner
Translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
2014, pp. 368, $26
Creating art from the events of the Holocaust remains as daunting as ever. Soon, those awful events will move beyond the reach of living memory while the need for testimony grows more pressing, not less. But the responsibilities of art are different from those of history: Theodor Adorno’s much-misrepresented dictum that “it is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz” can simply be used as a lazy shorthand for refusing to engage with difficult and challenging creations. Recent Holocaust fiction pushes further and further against easy sensibility, forcing us to consider not only the perspectives of the victims of this atrocity, but also—in many ways something much more difficult—to see through the eyes of the perpetrators.
Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones—which won the Prix Goncourt when it was published in French in 2006—caused a storm of controversy with its compelling portrayal of Max Aue, a fictional S.S. officer deeply involved in the Final Solution. Some, such as the historian Antony Beevor, considered it “a great work of literary fiction, to which readers and scholars will turn for decades to come”; others, such as New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, wrote that “the novel’s gushing fans…seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness.” A few years later, Laurent Binet’s debut novel, HHhH, put a post-modern twist on the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the Holocaust’s main architects. (The title refers to a piece of what one might call Nazi wit: Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich—Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.)
These novels, however, still distance themselves from the reader: Any reader may imagine himself at a certain distance from a senior Nazi such as Heydrich, or even a fictional one such as Max Aue. But the Holocaust was perpetrated by thousands, by millions, besides such men with their ghastly visions, perpetrated by those who stood by while those visions were enacted. Toward the end of his life, Adorno revisited his thoughts about poetry and Auschwitz and came to a different conclusion: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living—especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living.”
This is the question that Daša Drndic’s novel Trieste—first published in Croatian as Sonnenschein—attempts to address. On the surface, its plot might almost be described as conventional. Haya Tedeschi is born in 1923 in Gorizia, an Italian town on the Slovenian border, into a family of assimilated—indeed, Catholicized—Jews. But the sacrament of baptism cannot protect them from history: The growth of Fascism in Italy pushes them around the country, first to Trieste—just a few miles from Gorizia—and then to Naples, Venice and a spell in Albania before the family returns to Gorizia in 1943. Despite all this, the war and its ramifications for Jews such as themselves do not really affect them. They keep their heads down. “The Tedeschi family go on living in the illusion of ignorance. Those who know what is happening do not speak. Those who don’t know ask no questions. Whoever asks gets no answers. Then, as now.”
Back in Gorizia, the 20-year-old Haya gets a job in a tobacconist shop, and it is there, in early 1944, that she meets and falls in love with “a dashing German second lieutenant, S.S. Untersturmführer” named Kurt Franz. When her family moves to Milan, Haya stays in Gorizia to be with Franz; theirs, you might think, is a romance like any other. They have a little son, Antonio. But then, in October 1944, Franz tells her: “My little Jewess, we can’t go on like this.” He reveals that his fiancée awaits him at home in Germany; Himmler has given him permission to marry. Once he returns to Gorizia, they are never to speak again. And then, in April the following year, just as the war is drawing to its close, her baby boy is stolen from his pushchair. Over the course of the rest of the novel, Haya, now an elderly woman, searches for her son, attempting to puzzle together the exploded history of her family; unbeknownst to her, that stolen son searches for her, too.
A straightforward enough story, perhaps, but the fragmenting of the Tedeschi family, the fragmenting of Europe, is echoed in the construction of this original, rewarding novel, which builds a dense, complex fabric of fact and fiction. Literary allusion flows into the testimony of survivors and perpetrators; Drndic has drawn extensively on trial transcripts from the Holocaust Research Project and Harvard University’s Nuremburg Trials Project, as well as from a great many other sources. Her own fictions—Haya and Franz are entirely her creations, though Haya’s early life, the author tells us, is based upon the life of a woman called Fulvia Schiff—are often abruptly interrupted by long lists of names, by texts lifted directly from interviews, by photographs. These devices thread larger themes into Haya’s tale: the still largely hidden tale of the deportation of Italy’s Jews during the war, the development of the San Sabba concentration camp in Trieste, and the ramifications, for generations to come, of the Nazi “Lebensborn” project, in which children—like Haya’s—were abducted in the service of creating a racially “pure” Germany.
Reading Trieste is a disruptive experience. For instance: More than 20 pages of the novel are taken up with the names of the 9,000 Italian Jews forced from their country. This section of the book is called “Behind Every Name There Is a Story”—an acknowledgment that these personal narratives will not be told, at least not here. What is the reader’s obligation to these names? The section forces a disturbing choice. What does it mean to read these names? What does it mean not to read them? And for those, such as Haya’s son, who are descended from those who committed atrocities: How are their stories to be told? Drndic does not attempt to answer the question as to whether evil may ever be erased or atoned for. “History, an ornate lady who does not die easily, dresses again and again in new costumes, but keeps telling the same story.”
Those lines, perhaps, contain the real message of this fascinating book. The Holocaust is an event in the human past, but the present is not safe from the repercussions of any act of wickedness. We must be on our guard. Recollect her remark on the Tedeschi family’s willful ignorance: “Then, as now.” This novel is a powerful warning.
Erica Wagner is the Eccles British Library Writer-in-Residence 2014 and a judge of this year’s Man Booker Prize.