Thursday, April 3, 2014

Trieste | Jumbled thoughts

It's been well over a month since I finished Trieste (Daša Drndić, tr. Ellen Elias-Bursac). Well over two months since I started it. My opinion of it hasn't changed much since I began this strange book; I appreciated some of the many things it tried to say, but I didn't like the book and overall felt like it was a form of torture to keep reading it.

Splendid, right?

The problem with books like Trieste is that it's very hard to separate between what I feel and what I know. I know that I should find Trieste to be a powerful statement on war, and love, and all politics, and the Holocaust, and literature as a whole (because goodness, it takes some audacity to spend a good chunk of a novel with a straight-up list of the names of Italy's Holocaust victims). My logical, "literary" mind sees that Trieste is probably a Great Work of Literature. It's Important, and Powerful, and is making a Statement.

That doesn't mean it's doing any of that particularly well, though. And that doesn't mean I have to like it. Because I didn't like it. I understand it, and I accept it, and I even appreciate it to a minor degree. But I didn't like or enjoy the reading experience at any single point.

Trieste is another in a long line of novels that bothered me with its completely disjointed writing style. This is a style I've seen more and more frequently in literature in translation, often with all sorts of boasts about the writing's "subtlety" or "intelligence" or a number of other code words for LITERARY. The truth is that most of these books are actually more concept that content, and the trend towards this type of writing has pissed me off on more than one occasion. Trieste can't escape the pitfalls that frustrate me: vagueness does not equal subtlety. Lack of context does not mean complex. And blurring the liens between fact and fiction to the point of including photographs with absolutely no references and without bothering to explain yourself does not make the book clever, it just makes it confusing.

So here we have a book that wears its confusion like a badge of honor, and writing that alternates between two major styles that essentially follow two major stories: one, a completely loose, meandering writing that follows the life of Haya Tedeschi, and two, tightly constructed dialogues about the Holocaust. Suffice to say I found the dialogues to be much more successful than Haya's story, in large part because there's little I hate more than a book that only reaches the blurb-promised story in its last fifty pages. And because following Haya's story was a bit like trying to keep your eyes on a mosquito late at night after it's bitten you four times - impossible.

The dialogues succeed in a way that Haya's story doesn't for a simple reason: their task and goal is clearly defined, with little room for variation or getting off track. The dialogues have their breadth, certainly, ranging from discussions about actual war crimes, to "interviews" with dead victims, to interviews with SS officers. Here, Drndić also blurs the line between fact and fiction, but the result is a powerful Holocaust narrative that succeeds in breathing new literary life into a genre typically bogged down by its predecessors. These snippets alone could have formed a very different, but altogether more successful book, in my opinion.

Alas, now we need to turn to Haya's story. Which is altogether a messy, disappointing setup to a surprisingly poignant, thought-provoking final quarter. I won't pretend that I didn't find the last portion of the book to be significantly more interesting than the first three, but there's a saying: too little too late. After an epic struggle to even reach the novel's end (despite being consistently interesting and thought-provoking), I certainly found myself thoughtful by novel's end, but also extremely unhappy and fairly disappointed.

The disappointment stems from a fundamental approach to literature - characters need to have something that draws a reader to them. Sometimes that's a powerful voice, sometimes it's a strong personality, and oftentimes it's just a rollicking good story. Haya's story in and of itself is fairly tame in the context of Holocaust literature - until the final portion of the book, her story mostly revolves around her family's history of moving around, her later years as a math teacher (a detail I quite enjoyed, I'll admit), and connectors to the broader Holocaust story. But on a personal level, it was definitely lacking.

I think to a large extent another reason I was unhappy was because of how many topics Trieste attempted to tackle. Stories about each of these individual elements - the Italian/Baltic Holocaust, the Catholic Church's policy regarding Jewish children who'd been placed in Christian homes and their abhorrent policy of keeping them from their parents post-war, a Jewish woman having a child with an SS officer, German racial policies, etc. - would have been powerful and interesting. A story that tackles each and every one of these is, for lack of a better term, too much. It's all over the place. It's exhausting. And it loses from its impact.

I don't think I can say I actively disliked Trieste, though I certainly didn't like it. I didn't want to keep reading it, and though I did ultimately feel as though I gained something from this book (can I really call it a novel?), it was the sort of wiped out feeling you get when you climbing to the top of a steep mountain and instead of the promised view, see only a cloud of fog around you. Trieste is not a book I can ever see myself handing off to other readers, nor can I possibly imagine myself rereading it. So while I can appreciate what it was trying to do, alas, I don't think it's a particularly good book. I'd be curious to see what Drndić does with a slightly less overly-ambitious setup, but let's be clear: if someone ever tries to recommend a book to me based on similarities to Trieste, you can bet your finest hat that I won't be reading it.


  1. Didn't really like this one, another example of a book being praised for its themes rather than its achievements or its writing. Just because a book is about the Holocaust, it doesn't mean that it's important, or worth reading. Sadly, this is a concept which certain prize panels seem to be unaware of...

  2. What a thought provoking and intriguing review! It makes me want both quote an recommend your review (sometimes this can be problem with translated literature: that only the INTELLECTUALS from native English speakers are supposed to be interested in it, so nothing save the Important Literary Experiments are getting translated ... with the result that the English readers only learn that the translated literature is bound to be boring and confusing and so keep away from it even more!) and it tempts me to try "Trieste" just to see would my background make it different experience for me.


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