Book Review: Trieste by Dasa Drndic Translated by Ellen Elias- Bursac

Trieste by Dasa Drndic  was translated to English by Ellen Elias-Bursac. A book of the Historical fiction genre with 432 pages and published on February 2012 by Maclehose Press.

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Haya Tedeschi, an 82 year old woman, sits alone in Italy, waiting. She waits for the adult son she hasn’t seen since he was a baby. As Haya waits, she goes through her red basket of photographs and memorabilia, hanging out her life on an imaginary washing line. She then takes the reader back in time, back to her life as a Catholicised Jew, before, during and after World War II in an area called Trieste.

Daša Drndic is is a distinguished Croatian novelist and playwright and what she and translator Ellen Elias-Bursac have created here is nothing short of remarkable.

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                           Dasa Drndic
Initially unaware of the place Trieste holds in world history, I was surprised that a Croatian would be interested in an Italian city. However, Trieste borders the former Yugoslavia and, therefore, modern Croatia. By the beginning of the 20th century Trieste was a cultural melting pot including many settlers from Slovenia and Croatia and had been fought over by the French and the Italians and eventually becoming part of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire. A fact more pertinent to this book is that it didn’t escape the holocaust. In fact, of the 720 Trieste Jews who were deported to concentration camps during the Second World War, only 20 returned.

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So, what makes this book so remarkable? Firstly the method of writing (and also, therefore, translation) draws the reader in easily. The fictional characters mingle with the historical, their lives played out through actual events. There is also so much information captured within the pages but it’s not presented in a dry, ‘history book’ way. Ms Drndic includes the minutiae that personalises war. For instance everyone today knows about the horrific cattle truck trains that took victims to the concentration camps, but what about the ‘unaffected’ war-time neutrals who lived along the route?

Trieste includes the account of a Swiss girl who was a child at the time but still hears the voices of the Jews and gypsies as they bang on the walls of the trucks, begging to be released. Her parents and other locals knew the terminal destinations of the trains parked overnight in the sidings, but still they complained as the noise of the travellers kept them awake at night. For this particular girl that knowledge came later, along with the guilt.

This is a book of life though, so it’s also a book of contrasts. There are smiles and even laughs as the reader journeys through Haya’s life. For instance the Nazis’ ill-fated plan to amuse off-duty soldiers at the front with a mass supply of sex dolls.

The second way in which this book is so special is the way in which it’s presented. This is almost a multi-media of print. There’s the story narrative, as one would expect, but the past is also personalised via photos, poetry, documentation like war crime trial transcripts, and the centrepiece of Trieste – the list of names.

The theme permeating throughout the book is that behind every name there’s a story. The reader becomes acquainted with this idea as the stories of Haya and her contemporaries unfold. When the reader is used to this they almost expect or anticipate the story behind each name. Then a list of 9,000 names appears. Column after column, page after page of names, no stories are attached. No stories are necessary. Daša Drndic releases her literary incendiary device. These are the names of the 9,000 Italian Jews killed in concentration camps and in Italy between 1943 and 1945. Realisation strikes: these are more than just names. These are people like us.

Trieste is more than just a novel, As the author puts it: History, an ornate lady who does not die easily, dresses again and again in new costumes but keeps telling the same story. Books like this are necessary whilst there’s still a glimmer of hope that eloquently reminding us of the past may prevent its repetition.

Book Review by Ani Johnson from search the book bag.

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