So it is February, and that means that Daša Drndić’s Trieste, a startling marriage of fiction and cold fact, is now to be found in discerning British bookshops. The first Serbo-Croat masterpiece of the twenty-first century, it has been or will be translated into French, Italian, Dutch, Polish and Slovenian for publication by some of Europe’s most prestigious houses and editors.
A challenging work to summarise, Drndić’s novel — which in most countries will be published as some variant of “Summertime” — shines a sombre light on the little known existence of the only Nazi concentration camp to be established on Italian soil, in a suburb of the great cultural city of Trieste. A literary collage of poetry, interviews, testimonies, biography, photographs and rosters of the dead and their murderers, it reveals through the fictional character of Haya Tedeschi — a woman whose only child was abducted and adopted by the S.S. — the horrifying lengths the Nazis were prepared to go to to selectively breed and indoctinate a racially pure army of fanatically loyal soldiers.
Translator Daniel Hahn reviewed the novel in the Independent on Sunday, and it is to his words we will now turn . . .
Haya Tedeschi, a retired maths teacher, sits in her rocking chair, a red basket at her feet.
The scraps it contains – letters, photographs, cuttings – tell her story and the story of her time, eight turbulent decades in the heart of Europe, a place that shimmers with history.
Haya was born in Gorizia (also variously Görz, Gorica, Gurize), though her family also spend time in Venice, Albania, Naples, Milan and Trieste. All around, wars are fought, borders and territories contested. Her own little story never holds the focus for long, budding and sprouting into others – here a sketch of Francesco Illy, there the horrors of San Sabba and Treblinka, gas chambers and euthanasia programmes, or the life of a dissenting Italian mathematician.
Each part is fleeting. We rarely linger long enough to experience a moment or to savour it, but with this lack of depth comes the simultaneous impression of a vast, sometimes overwhelming richness.