Trieste by Daša Drndić was first published in Croatian in 2007 and the English translation by Ellen Elias-Bursać was published by MacLehose Press in 2012. It was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and won the Independent Foreign Fiction Readers’ Prize.
“An old woman’s obsessive search for her son. Fathered by an SS officer, he was stolen from her sixty-two years before by the Nazi authorities as part of the ‘Lebensborn’ project, which strove for a racially pure Germany. Her search leads her to photographs, fragments of verse, testimonies from the Nuremberg Trials and interviews with second-generation Jews, as well as witness accounts of atrocities that took place on her doorstep.”
The old woman is Haya Tedeschi. Her family were baptised Catholics and so survived the war, yet one of the refrains running through the book is Tedeschi ist ein jüdische Name. There is a lot about names in this story. Another recurring motif is that of the secret nature of the Holocaust. Things were disguised, hidden, secret, making it possible for people, whether onlookers or participants, to close their eyes to them.
The son is brought up under a different name. Hans Traube. His story is that of the next generation, coming to terms with his past and that of his family, his nation.
There are stories I’d never heard before about the only concentration camp in Italy. It details the Lebensborn homes, originally set up by Himmler for German women to give birth to purebred Aryan babies for the improvement of the Reich. When the numbers weren’t enough, they set about boosting them by all kinds of criminal means, including kidnapping, as with Haya and her son Antonio.
This was an incredibly difficult book to read, especially at first. I found it so harrowing that I couldn’t bear to read more than a chapter or so at a time. I also felt like I was reading several books at once given the interspersion of interviews, family trees and lists into the narrative of the novel. I’m not a big fan of the Sebald style and it bothered me until I got used to it. By the end, however, I was completely hooked and felt compelled to keep reading, staying up till midnight to finish it. That was partly because I just wanted to have finished it, but also because of the quality of the writing. The stream of consciousness approach to many of the voices works very well and really draws you in to the narrative.
I both loved and hated this book. As many of the quoted reviewers have said, it is bleak, uncompromising, harrowing. A.N. Wilson in the Financial Times went so far as to say that:
It contains no consolation, no happy resolution, no hope. It makes you groan with despair, and you feel yourself going mad as you read it.
Yet he also described it as “a masterpiece”. I also feel that it is a very important book to have read and, once I got used to the style, incredibly well written. On the other hand, I think it would have been easier to read if it had been clearly either fiction or non-fiction. I was wondering too much which parts were true and whether the interviews with camp guards, survivors etc were real historical documents or fictionalised and I felt that that perhaps undermined the impression the author wanted to create. But there again, it did raise my awareness of aspects of the Second World War, the Holocaust and the Lebensborn project that I’d previously been unaware of, despite having studied the period in some detail. And so I go on, back and forth. Whether or not I like the style personally, it is certainly a remarkable book and no mean feat of translation.