In her final novel, Daša Drndić continues to confront
EEG, by Daša Drndić, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, New Directions, 394 pages, $18.95
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The canon of chess tales in the narrative arts is slim but formidable: Stefan Zweig’s Chess Story, Vladimir Nabokov’s The Defense, and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal are classics of the genre. A deserving addition to this list is a novella tucked within Croatian writer Daša Drndić’s EEG, which for forty-odd pages catalogs the intrigues of Europe’s twentieth-century grandmasters: they leap from windows, go insane, collaborate with (or are murdered by) the Nazis and the NKVD. The biographies are deadpan and detail-oriented, attending to birth and death dates, gulag geography, and specific SS campaigns. Midway through arrives a cameo by Zweig himself: “Are we not guilty of offensive disparagement in calling chess a game? Is it not also a science and art, hovering between those categories . . . mechanical in structure, yet made effective only by the imagination . . .”
Drndić’s novels hover somewhere between the categories of history and fiction, documenting the horrors of European authoritarianism in uncomfortably riveting narratives; archives are activated by the novelist’s imagination. Her incorporation of court testimony, photographs, and lists of the names of the murdered invites comparisons to W. G. Sebald. But where Sebald’s nested “I” is indirect and dispassionate, circling around history’s silence in order to amplify it, Drndić is abrupt, ruthless, rageful, and rude. Reading her is more like being plunged face-first into a bucket of ice.
Drndić, born in Zagreb in 1946, passed away last June and did not plan for EEG to be her last book. Nevertheless, it serves as a metafictional capstone to an eminent career. EEG is deeply concerned with the twentieth century’s penchant for blurring games and reality, aesthetics and politics, spheres that shouldn’t always mix but which, in novels, are impossible to keep separate. Not surprisingly, it is a book enormously preoccupied with its own formal justification.
Narrator Andreas Ban is a retired psychologist turned writer with strong opinions on literature. He appeared in Drndić’s earlier Belladonna (“a jerky confession passably shaped by D.D.,” he says), and, now quite ill, has moved back home to the seaside town of Rijeka to continue gathering “vestiges of other people’s lives, to give them shape.” The narrative unfolds as a series of novella-length digressions loosely linked by this pathological obsession with recovering the past. He spends his days rifling through documents about family members and friends lost to war—an ex-lover, an almost-aunt, a former colleague. That these figures remain recessed, serving as narrative excuses used to motivate broader investigations into Europe’s recent history, sits uncomfortably with Ban’s resistance to the violence of summary: “I now name people fanatically,” he says, because it “separates them from general, universal chaos, from the cauldron of turbid, stale mash.”
The lengthiest of these digressions is devoted to the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Latvia, an unflinching chronicle brought about by Ban’s research into the life of his uncle’s former fiancée Frida Landsberg, a Jewish-Latvian violinist who disappeared in Riga. The precision with which Drndić traces the history of this fictional family—Frida’s father’s shoe factory is nationalized under the Soviets in 1940, while Frida, still a student at the Riga Conservatoire, is transferred to the Jewish ghetto when the Nazis invade in 1941—speaks to EEG’s encyclopedic care. Most of these “characters” are actual historical figures. Drndić roll calls the victims of fascism at length, and is especially interested in exposing esoteric horrors that have escaped public scrutiny: the Croatian Ustasha, the Riga ghetto, the Sonderkommando Arājs—a cadre of Latvian volunteers charged with the “spontaneous” elimination of the Jewish population—and the CIA’s clandestine embrace of former Arājs members during the Cold War.
The succession of regimes and cover-ups serves as a timely reminder that most national projects lead to the same end. And yet, myopically, we show little evidence of changing course. It’s no coincidence that the title, EEG, refers to an electrode-dependent test used to detect abnormalities in the human brain.
Ban’s misanthropy is delightfully Bernhardian, and despite the sobriety of his mission, he proves a perfect vehicle for the comic monologue. He rants about the radio, jingles for Milka chocolate, Croatian nationalism (“What an illiterate, haughty, puffed-up nation”). He harangues the poor design of dumpsters whose lids “cannot be lifted,” people talking on cell phones, autobiography, everyday love affairs, stories designed to offer solace or comfort—in short, Karl Ove Knausgaard, “who has already written six autobiographical volumes . . . absolutely intolerable unless the person reading them is riddled with holes.” (And you have to admire the chutzpah of lampooning one’s contemporaries—not to mention most of one’s readers!—in print.) Drndić treads carefully around sentiment and aestheticism, and there is something almost deliberately ugly in the patterns of her prose. Translated from the Croatian by the award-winning Celia Hawkesworth, Drndić’s sentences are stubborn, direct, functional as doorstops, though when she lets a thought swing wide on its hinge, it can sweep a hyperbolic arc: “During the Second World War, significant chess events waned. Reality was so noisy (and bloody) that it suppressed the imagination, reality imposed its own game, mercilessly and cruelly; reality outgrew itself, like some kind of giant, arms akimbo, legs apart.” The novel’s self-proclaimed aloofness to ordinary literary pleasures ignores the power of its own exaggerated, allusive imagery. “I feel . . . like a chess player pinned like a butterfly,” says Ban, “one of a row arranged in a decorative frame on someone(else)’s wall of reality.”
Drndić was cynical about the contemporary reader’s intellectual and moral capacities, and EEG’s occasional didacticism leaves one sympathetic to the critic-within-the-text who deems Ban’s discourse “too moralizing.” At the same time, who would disagree that humankind is in need of a swift kick in the arse? Ban’s crazed insistence that literature’s raison d’être is to hold history accountable for its dilations of reality, to represent “a world in a state of decay in that state of decay, incomplete,” is deeply moving, precisely because it admits of failure. Novelists are obliged to gather as much life as they can, but in the end even Knausgaard must settle for something less than whole.
“Art should shock, hurt, offend, intrigue,” Drndić once told The Paris Review. In an era of nationalistic revivalism, she considered it literature’s imperative to checkmate the world’s amnesia. What is missing from this formulation, however—and yet feels so prominent in EEG—is play. Nabokov himself considered literature a game, the direct descendant of fairy tales, and even the implacable Andreas Ban cannot, in the final scenes, suppress his admiration for frivolity, however absurd and fruitless it may seem. “He loved giving,” he says of a dying friend, “all his life he gave us small gifts, pointless, but in fact with a point.”
To give useless presents, to indulge in the impulse to give at all—are these not also the duties of the novel? Wonderfully, EEG’s metafictional antics and tragicomic rage manage to undermine its own literary pessimism, reaffirming for even the most disaffected reader a conviction in empathy, knavery, and unlikely beauty; in the human capacity to accept, in the form of a book, a gift.
Jessi Jezewska Stevens’s debut novel, The Exhibition of Persephone Q., is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Her fiction and essays appear in the Paris Review, Tin House, the Los Angeles Review of Books, BOMB Magazine, The Rumpus, Guernica, and elsewhere. She lives in New York.