TRIESTE. By Dasa Drndic. Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 360 pages. $27.
Europe struggles to contain its restless ghosts. So many of them, tens of millions rendered to the mists of history in the middle of the 20th century alone, increasingly strain to make their presence felt. They are the spirits of the forests, the death camps, the laboratories. It is difficult for the living to understand them.
And it is difficult for novelists to bring them back to life, difficult and fraught with risk. The ghosts are almost impossible to appease, of course.
"Holocaust" is a term at once enormous, its full meaning unfathomable, and reductive, as if a label can sum up the murder of 11 million civilians, as if a word can represent so many lives, so many deaths. We know about the concentration camps, and we've heard about the firing squads, medical experiments and failed rebellions. But the complexity of Germany's war against Europe included many efforts that are little discussed, and hard to imagine.
The Croatian writer Dasa Drndic makes no attempt to simplify or summarize the war in her novel "Trieste." Nor does she dwell much on the better known actions of the Nazis. Rather, Drndic tells a human story, presenting an aging woman (loosely based on an actual aging woman) who forages through the events of a life lived in a kind of void, for she is remembering children who grow up and sometimes die with no knowledge of who they are. She is remembering her own stolen son.
This is a book that hones in on the human cost of the war and dares to name the dead, to replace statistics with human names and recall a time when they were still flesh and bone, thinking, feeling individuals.
"Trieste" does not sensationalize pain and loss, nor does it ask us to cry for the victims. Drndic is too good a writer to grasp at anything sentimental.
Her prose (masterfully translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac), with its intentional repetitions, use of italics and creative devices such as transcripts of real testimonies, lists and atypical formatting, illuminates a corner of Europe with a special light that penetrates the dirty crevices and forgotten episodes of history.
The book splices fiction and fact, presenting history in vivid, sober, elegant language and achieving a certain kind of reckoning that likely has satisfied many of the wandering spirits left in the wake of the Third Reich's insane campaigns of violence and terror. It takes place in what is today the southern part of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy, but which once was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and, culturally, more aligned with Slovenia and Austria than with Italy.
There, in this borderland, Haya Tedeschi grew up, an assimilated Jew uninterested in her cultural heritage. She is a passive witness to the darkening of Europe who, years later, peruses the memorabilia she's collected in sad reverie.
She remembers when she met Kurt Franz, the German second lieutenant, S.S.-Untersturmfuhrer, "a passionate amateur photographer" who appears one day at the tobacco shop where she works, uniformed, "handsome as a doll." She remembers the seduction and love affair, the pregnancy and birth, the cold abandonment: "My little Jewess, we can't go on like this," Franz whispers. "My fiancee is waiting for me at home. ... When I come back, I will not be in touch. Please do not ask for me."
Haya Tedeschi remembers how, a few months later, on the way to the nursery and briefly distracted by the postman, her baby Antonio disappears. Stolen by the Nazis. Added to the supply of children deemed to have Arian characteristics worth protecting.
In a former rice-husking plant outside of Trieste, in the town of San Sabba, the Nazis incinerate 150 people a day, from 1943 to early 1945. "Between 3,000 and 5,000 souls are killed, following rules and regulations, in a tidy fashion; the job is done." Then Kurt Franz goes to Treblinka to oversee the last of the "gas operations." He beautifies the camp with flowers. "Before closing down the camp, Kurt Franz kills time by killing people."
Meanwhile, the stolen children are distributed among a network of orphanages, many of them ushered into the arms of Germany's eager parents-to-be, in a "secret Third Reich project for preserving the racial purity of the German nation." This was the Lebensborn project. In German, "Lebensborn" means "fount of life."
The records on missing children are stored in, or relocated to, an archive in the small town of Bad Arolsen. The aging Haya Tedeschi, examining the materials she has collected and kept in her red basket, remembers her son and contemplates the voluntary and the forced baptisms, the erasures of identity, the unappeasable sense of loss, the deceit. She waits, patiently, all these years later, for the return of her son.
Drndic is not gentle, she is not circumspect or diplomatic. She is blunt in her disdain for such cruelty, sarcastic, brutal. Yet at the same time, her story, fragmented and structurally unorthodox though it is, contains within it a beauty akin to the colorful prisms of light that reflect from a vast pool of toxic sludge.
To understand - to remember properly - one must wade through the sludge of the Holocaust. One must slide one's index finger down 43 pages of names that suddenly appear in the middle of the book: 9,000 names of Jews deported from Italy or killed in Italy or the countries Italy occupied between 1943 and 1945. "Behind every name there is a story."
Drndic ends her unusual and unusually affecting "novel" with Antonio - Hans Traube, who was born on Oct. 1, 1944, in Salzburg, but not really. Hans Traube has discovered who he is, he has learned of the Lebensborn project, and he is on the way from Salzburg to Gorizia to meet his birth mother.
Hans Traube recounts what he cannot himself remember. He wrangles with his history, condemns it, struggles to apprehend it. "The truth is absolutely simple," he insists finally. "Our fathers were criminals and murderers, so screw those platitudes about the banality of evil. There are no justifications, there is no valid relativization, there is no excuse."
Silence is no option, nor denial. Guilt is transmitted across generations.
"To the children and grandchildren of the murderers and criminals I propose a verbal Exerzier and exercitationes of self-denazification, a mea culpa in the name of the second generation and the third."
No one is innocent. The past is inescapable. All we can do is seek to understand. And remember.
Reviewer Adam Parker is book page editor.