MacLehose Press, £20, 320pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Trieste, By Dasa Drndic, trans. Ellen Elias-Bursac

 

This extraordinary work of fiction concludes with the narrator, Haya Tedeschi, reflecting on all she has compiled in eight long years of research and remembering. "I have arranged a multitude of lives, a pile of the past, into an inscrutable, incoherent series of occurrences... I have dug up all the graves of imagination and longing... I have rummaged through a stored series of certainties without finding a trace of logic." It is the inscrutable incoherence of this phenomenal trajectory of events, hurtling through the recapitulation of three generations of one family from the Second World War to the present, that endows the story with a unique drive and veracity.

War is like that, perhaps. Nothing makes sense in the heat of battle and it takes another few generations to begin to steer the senselessness into some kind of narrative. Yet nothing, from the outset, stacked up in Nazi ideology. That is what makes coming to terms with it so enduring and perplexing. When I recently visited Auschwitz, one of the most striking features was how the Nazis emulated their caricature of the Jews. Everything had a price tag, every hair or tooth from a victim's head, each pair of shoes or piece of clothing, however ragged. Only what had value – human life and potential – was systematically repressed.

The story of the death camps is here retold alongside that of the perpetrators, whose homes were decorated with lampshades of skin, rugs plaited with hair. We see how close perpetrators and their victims sometimes became. Nowhere more so that in the Nazi ideology of the Lebensborn ("source of life"), whereby human stud farms were established in Germany and Scandinavia to breed the super-race of the Third Reich. In a heavily assimilated Central Europe, where many Jews were also baptised (and buried as) Catholics, Aryan soldiers not infrequently fathered ethnically Jewish offspring.

The SS officer who fathered Haya's son, Antonio, died young. Her life becomes a quest to recover the child stolen from her and assigned to a "racially pure" family. The obsession leads her to contemporary writers – Ian Buruma, TS Eliot and Claudio Magris among them – as well as to apologetic descendants of Nazis. Gudrun Himmler still chooses to defend her father as does Arnold Schwarzengger. Others live on crippled by the shame of an ancestry they cannot redeem, or claim Germans too as "social victims".

Two aspects of this torrential work remain spectacularly shocking. There is the sheer accumulation of statistics, whether pertaining to the thousands of Lebensborn children or the strange geography of a country – Croatia –whose borders and population are (like the master race) in continuous process of redefinition. The torrent of facts is countered by the case histories. Nazism not only fabricated institutional, but gave full rein to individual, psychopathy. Male stormtroopers may have compartmentalised more, proud of their kindliness to infants and animals, while women whip-wielders here double as dominatrices at home. The excesses of either retain a horror only underlined by this minutely documented retelling.

Most impressive of all is the sheer force of the narrative and the language in which it is relayed. While the management of a vast panorama of complex characters is the author's own, the English version has to be that of the translator, Ellen Elias-Bursac. Rarely in such a literary tour-de-force should praise be so doubly shared.

Amanda Hopkinson is professor of literary translation at City University. She will be talking to Dasa Drndic at Jewish Book Week on Sunday 26 February

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