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Daša Drndić's Battle Songs
Why do we still read? A heavily discursive consideration of process, trauma, and resistance through the example of a newly rereleased mid-career novel by the polyphonic Croatian master badass
I’ve had a hard time focusing on reading fiction lately: a refrain that seems to have become industry standard the last few years. Who could care about a model when the larger structure it’s housed inside of is in flames? Why speak of fabrications in the face of the unspeakable? In the past, I’ve never admitted much to this sensation, insisting that at least the fabrication wields its own truth, accepting its condition as a replica in a way that allows us past the transactional nature of naming facts as if they’re ours—but this can only go so far. Adorno’s infamous dictum, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbarism,” makes sense emotionally, in that participation in and of itself in any system that manages to coexist throughout atrocity begins to feel like waving a white flag; though considering the inverse, “To remain silent after Auschwitz…” casts a much different horrific tint over the field, leaving the work of resisting, much less remembering, to the context of long shadows, imminently available only through death. Do you want to die, bitch? a paranoid mind might sense inscribed there in the cramped blank fields between the letters on any page, as if all it takes to outpace our own destruction is the desire to proceed—never mind the headlines, much less the map. If we really live in a page-turner’s landscape, inscribed by clickbait and laundered data, then whoever best can simulate the possibility of thriving—not just surviving—should seem a hero to the cause, a lesson to be disseminated into culture overall by dint of having surfaced. Don’t you want to live, bitch? those who clamor for coherence at all costs wax lackadaisically, as if navel-gazing on its own should be a sin. As if the navel weren’t the bridge through which we’d been fed to fund our life.
It's not that I don’t want to read lately, it’s that my eyes fall off the page. It’s that I find the mental processes that narrate consciousness refuse to step aside for very long, converting the potential energy a sentence carries into other sentences that pop and veer. I find myself aware of my body more than ever, like the pages are meant more as a distraction than a vessel, as if were there something there that could transform me it should give me no other room for choice. But isn’t what Adorno meant by barbarism speaking more to precisely that—the narcotic sway that expect its fate to be delivered on demand, having absorbed enough of the zeitgeist through its appropriation that one might think we already know lies ahead, which means we must have already survived. I find my mind gets caught as in a polishing tumbler, taking constant bumps and brushes both from the text and from the thought that it knocks free, while aware somewhere of a timer counting down, as if I just hang out in here for long enough I’ll come out different. It’s perilous ground to leave out to blind trust, which in turn reassures the would-be discerning reader that if they stick to what they know, or what they already understand how they might parse, then all is well and right and good. Soon, Reader might find themselves consigned into a world that fits their needs, having taken good care of any feedback from the world the way a master does for its dog. It might even begin to seem as if the world had been created for Reader and Reader alone, described by laws that ensure survival of the fittest now that we have a properly self-preserving tautological model for what fit means—to have survived.
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It’s not that I don’t want to survive lately, it’s that my eyes fall off the page. It’s that we know the game is rigged and we keep playing as if somehow we figure out how to overcome the game on its own terms, we will be given the opportunity to rewrite it from inside, confident in our ability to do so despite the inherent fallibility of both the process and the product in due time. Somewhere along the way in wanting to address the record as it stands, we forget our own complacency and want for safety in the same breath, suddenly chasing the disappeared horizon of a night so thick only muscle memory or faith (also based on mass-produced texts and viral word of mouth, btw) can offer form. If history belongs to the winners, as the game consistently reminds us, we either conceive ourselves a winner on mere ambition, or we begin the work of being damned. Luckily, there are slew of open jobs available for any Sisyphus who doesn’t mind signing away rights to his own image in exchange for the right to be considered. If we can’t find the right role that suits you now, just come back later, if you can. If you can’t, it wasn’t meant to be. If you’d prefer just not to play, that’s also fine, just take a knee and sign right here. Someone else will be happy to take your place and make a life of it, until there isn’t, which would mean the game has finally run its dire course, and all that’s left for those who played correctly, according to the measure of the law, is celebration.
If it seems I write in circles, that’s the point. Were it possible not to, this text should be called scripture, and you could have no say over its aims besides its claim on your attention, unless you’d like to kill me, so as to save us both the time—as if there weren’t already an alternate reality awaiting in which every possible action taken could become the forefront of the future. The nature I manifest in saying whatever I want whether you hear me or not only has as much utility outside my mind as my ability to coexist within whatever apparition you subscribe to, and yet the actions that I take to end up where I am at any given time also provide me with an opportunity to provide feedback to that system by being what I am. Even my death, followed by the echo of my life held on in void in those who shared it, may continue volatize that organization so long as there remains a forum where light remains, where there are minds capable of perceiving the casting of a new shadow across the old, deforming both for just a while. In this way, memory itself becomes a sort of war ground, requiring a much different sort of weapon than the kind that only harm the body, leaving ultimate control in the hands of trauma, which in turn serves only to create more of itself. The conceit of coherency, then, moves from an abstract notion, designed for nurses, to an overriding principle in which principle itself has little choice but to absorb its faults. The abstraction of intent makes better reins than the inevitable impossibility it circumscribes, and quickly progress takes a backseat to idealism, made available only to those who have pledged their allegiance to the rules the game provided them as from square one. Once you’re in, you’re in, the law commands from sight-unseen; each of us all at once the salt of the Earth and its denial, no looking back.
For years, I avoided therapy in a similar mindset, thinking I was saving myself the disgrace of having to roll around in my own shit to learn to smile. Didn’t every second I spend speaking aloud about my troubles only make them less abstract, becoming clothes rather than airspace? Wasn’t it better to pile my private horror into coded fiction and learn to love to watch it bleed? What I didn’t consider was that in fact these two concerns could work together: that knowing more about myself and how I am didn’t in fact lessen my ferocity, but gave it form. Knowing more about the factors that sent me raving made me better able to respond to them in kind, no longer at the mercy of a maelstrom, indescribable, but derived from actual events and trends fused to my life. Rather than being at my knees in my own head from waking up, I could see it from afar, learn how it worked, for and against me, and raise my aim off my own feet. Funny how every sentence in this paragraph so far sounds at least partway mumbo jumbo, rounded off at edges because we don’t like to hear about the work of self-care of someone else—as if all it does is pour cement around the map we’ve made of our own brains’ countless booby traps and jerry-riggings; as if we aren’t all signified in the same world. Didn’t I just tell you this is war? How do you think you win a war—by playing fair? What we’re really trying to do here, my therapist finally levelled with me, is separate some of the strands out of the gnarl; to lay them out before us on the table so we can see them side by side for what they are. It would contend at times to make me even more mad, like a numbed person perceiving life in a dead limb, counterbalanced this time with a foresight previously obscured by seeing red or getting fucked up to drown it out. I’d spent long enough flinging my shit back at the apparitions; now how about actually getting something done? What does getting something done mean re: psychology? Re: aesthetics? Where does the rubber really meet the road between the unseen and the reality of now?'
If there’s a difference to be split here, Daša Drndić fits the bill. Born in Zagreb in 1946, when Croatia was still part of Yugoslavia, her appearance manifests in the maw of a Fascist puppet state whose Jewish population had been reduced from 40,000 to 9,000 by the end of WW2. The ambient weight of existing and maturing in conflict with one’s own birthland is clearly central to the essence of her work, including 11 novels she would publish from 1982 until her death in 2018. Compared to more immediately narrative Holocaust-related literature, however, Drndić’s style works more discursively, employing a trove of forms and tones and mechanisms of approach. Within each of those, too, her voice is wildly polyphonic on both a page and paragraph level, moving around intuitively in a way that feels akin to consciousness itself, most coherent, if you must, in how it flows and binds together like with unlike. The first full page of Battle Songs, for instance—her fourth novel, originally published in Croatian in 1998, and recently rereleased from New Directions in translation by Celia Hawkesworth—opens with fragments of family dialogue, framing the narrator’s choice to move to Canada, annotating statements with personal reflections to underline the subtext of the speech, before pushing the narrator out into her own “I,” remarking on her failure to find work, and what she read, and then into a short but stocky paragraph describing the fate of one of the authors, before again returning to a consideration of the various strands of language that filled her household—Croatian, Serbian, French, German, English. Rather than being forced along a path that intends to manufacture for us a brittle balance between how it was and how it felt, Drndić relies on the perspective of collage to manufacturer a proper mirror for the reality of the mind more so than of the body. This perhaps is what makes Drndić’s writing feel so fresh—it isn’t, finally, trying just to wake us up and ward us off in the same breath, as if the only way to relay horror is through hell. Like Sebald, sure, or maybe more so like Acker, or sometimes Jelinek, the view from Drndić’s chair is looking out from deep within, vacuuming up seeds into the silence the lines the will for transformation.
Transformation into what? The choice is yours, or so you think. Drndić’s isn’t one for pulling at dim heartstrings, clearly. Instead, she compiles data and makes arrangements of it, weaving immediate human anecdote and testimony among the tuning forks of recorded history, while leaving room for light to wander in and create shadows of the multi-layers as they align with intuition, off the page. Following the family narrative opening chapter, Battle Songs’ unnamed narrator provides an essay about the origin of Vietnamese potbellied pigs, including their history of breeding, their high and low state in different regions, recipes as footnotes, and the effects of industrialization on their health. Pressed up against that, she then provides 20 pages of various reports of immigrants fleeing Yugoslavia for Canada, allowing the devices of lists and dialogue, rather than her own direct reporting, to relate, in Marksonian-sized bursts, whole swaths of lives reduced to pawns for law. “Overnight you become a person without anything,” a briefly occurring character named Branko lets us know. “A person without property, without money, without land. You have nothing.” You don’t even really have Branko’s testimony, either, as just as quickly it is overlapped by several others just as lost. Any sense of empathy or dint of hope is prey to Drndić’s nerve for shifting plates under the reader’s feet mid-step, akin to testimony from the front seat of a runaway locomotive whose guiding light only shines as far as the device it’s been installed with can allow. Sometimes it feels like reading a play, then like reading through files in a federal cabinet, then archival descriptions of a place, menacingly straight; then suddenly the prose slows and takes on a Christine Schutt-like flow, rich and constrained in pulchritudinous tandem; then an extended footnote about the range of zeal of certain countries in their employment of the Final Solution; then detailed transcriptions from street traffic or in the narrator’s memory or in the narrator’s imagination; layers and stacks, left spinning like the plates of information that they are, containing data about life that cannot be transcribed or coded; is known; grown into; ever-growing.
Until the locomotive hits a wall. Which is precisely where some of Drndić’s most unnerving and provocative textual contraptions gleam like wire netting in brutal artificial light. Following a long chapter comparing the narrator’s experience of Croatia before and after her immigration, the narrator describes realizing the multitude of German war criminals who escaped their homeland similarly, allowed to weave their way back into society through Canada’s lack of timely prosecution and their need for workers. “Orwell is naïve material these days,” the narrator states. “Fifty years have passed, in the West there was no communist censorship or reign of terror, but justice over these issues has not yet been completely realized. The ‘truth’ is still being revealed. How come?” She then provides a list of brief biographies of Nazi-state mass murderers, including cold details on their cruelty and often their eventual integration back into society, many of them still alive and well, somebody’s neighbor. Drndić would later use this tactic elsewhere, most notably in her final and greatest opus, E.E.G., which describes the usefulness of fiction as a legal shelter against attempts to silence condemnation as public knowledge. More than a bombshell, the matter-of-factness with which Drndić’s narrator outlines and illustrates the mass corruption and deceit inscribed onto the back of commercial reality takes on an emotional texture akin to experience itself poised at a distance no longer reliant on abject horror to relate evil, spank its butt. By interweaving her own experience with ambient data available only long after the end of the war, Drndić shanks off the sheet we’ve laid over the intolerable and reminds us its reincarnation is in the making as we speak. It is as much a part of us, akin to our experience, as music, food, or money; it’s who we are. The insincerity of hope for hope’s sake reveals itself once again as woven strands, needing something more than violent rage to find its mouth, its eyes. Rather than feeling defeated by the circularity of history, the impossibility of time, we come to a congress between the parts of us we do believe we understand and the parts of us that feel like someone else, beyond control. It is a portrait, not a prayerbook, nor a bedtime. It is what it is—and nothing more. “I did not research further,” the narrator concludes her deposition by pointing out, “because all that fascism, that nationalism, that xenophobia, all those right-wing groups, yesterday and today, are all nothing but a pile of shit. They always were and always will be.”
And there it is—the dire advantage proffered by fiction that most mass media itself refuses by remaining too authoritarian in its own grips to tell the truth. Because the larger truth, that facts alone so often mostly fail to imagine, much less grasp, is neither fact nor chaos, past or future, but the scene inside which life takes place; a module meant to be obscured the second it transpires, like suicide, but without death. There’s a feeling much like floating I associate with reading Drndić, derived less from the prose itself than the unboundedness thereafter, head full of fumes and heart aswim. It reminds me now of something a long-time regular at the suicide survivor support group I attended for a while back when I couldn’t stand to read at all: how though you’d think the first year of a trauma is the hardest, for him it’d been the third year, then the fourth. It’s not that it gets worse, I’ve begun thinking, as I approach the third anniversary of my own trauma—it’s that the shock and awe wear off; the care and closeness that manifested out of caretaking return to everyday-like, and back to work; and though you have changed, both in ways you see and ways you don’t, so has every other person in their own path. You are left with a reality that isn’t the reality you ever would have imagined for yourself, with only fits and starts of half-reflections of a world forever molting its own skin, consuming its own cells to make another. You are precisely where you are and nowhere else. To expect the narrative to mold itself to fit you, to take care of you, becomes a form of ambient suicide; a noxious gas perhaps inspired by one’s thankless witness to horror that demand to ring out louder and longer than all hope. “The suicide doesn’t want the solution to the riddle,” writes Hermann Burger in his Tractatus Logico-Suicidalis, “he wants to see the lights go out and everything come to an end.” It’s one thing to perceive that, and see through it, as might a nit lodged in a fur coat; it’s another entirely to exhibit for another how they could ever find the strength to do the same. Battle Songs is special, in that it exhibits its own model not discreetly, as pure literature, nor overtly, as diatribe, but than a kind of handbook for revolution without the necessity of violent change.
That I speak of suicide and life when writing about a novel reminds me of the dire necessity of work that makes you think outside your shell. In so deftly intermingling everyday experience with imminent casualty, work like Drndic’s reminds of a kind of constant bottomlessness to existence that does not alone deny itself. By so deftly intermingling the everyday with undeniable atrocity, Battle Songs takes on the texture of a street studded with Stolpersteine, forcing passersby to stumble in their walk as a commemoration both of the last free moments of a life, and as a reminder of the presence of the looming menace of monoculture and its shills. It isn’t always abject horror, after all, that does the best job at reminding the living they’re alive, and Drndic’s relish for revelation might work best exhibiting the parts of life where we brush up against the monster like a cartoon, sick in plain sight. Toward this, the last section of Battle Songs breaks off from its prior style and follows the narrator on a mission with her daughter to adopt a cat from the Toronto Humane Society, which quickly takes on a peculiar parallel to a fascist state. While hopping through sequential bureaucratic hoops that might dissuade them, aware of the bizarre state of captivity from which they hope to wrest their future pet, the narrator recalls the work of protestors in Italy in 1923 conspiring to kill the power in the courthouse where prisoners were being held in cages, forcing spectators to light matches, a historical symbol of resistance. She digs her heels in after that, at once refusing to share her personal reasons for adoption—as if she should have to in order to prove she’s not sadistic—and refusing to take no for an answer, as if her desire for independence is a right, not a luxury, and that any animal’s health is more important than the rules. A little taste of triumph, then, when they’re allowed to bring their pet home, expanding their little mother-daughter family from two to three, counterbalanced only with a recitation of the death of her sister, the fate of her niece that, much like the novel’s opening chapter, maintains a shifty sense of having glimpsed a life without the crutch of mise en scene. NOT THE END, the novel demarcates where its words stop after the last graf’s hanging cliff, providing the feeling of a cut scene bridging fiction to whatever else the reader sees, or fails to see, beyond the page.
As thinking people, as artists, and as beings, we are often held at the behest of those who control the hierarchy of an industry for whom how it is must be extrapolated into business as usual until we’ve finally passed the point of no return. Too often we forget that in living and dying by the market, they remain at the behest of art and life to uphold the intangible qualities of being that would transform it from blunt force trauma toward miraculousness, both in the body and the mind, neither yours nor mine, nor theirs or ours. Without the world yet to be found there is no world.
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