Trieste, By Dasa Drndic (trs Ellen Elias-Bursac)

Tiny details that tell an immense story

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The Independent Culture

Haya Tedeschi, a retired maths teacher, sits in her rocking chair, a red basket at her feet.

The scraps it contains – letters, photographs, cuttings – tell her story and the story of her time, eight turbulent decades in the heart of Europe, a place that shimmers with history.

Haya was born in Gorizia (also variously Görz, Gorica, Gurize), though her family also spend time in Venice, Albania, Naples, Milan and Trieste. All around, wars are fought, borders and territories contested. Her own little story never holds the focus for long, budding and sprouting into others – here a sketch of Francesco Illy, there the horrors of San Sabba and Treblinka, gas chambers and euthanasia programmes, or the life of a dissenting Italian mathematician.

Each part is fleeting. We rarely linger long enough to experience a moment or to savour it, but with this lack of depth comes the simultaneous impression of a vast, sometimes overwhelming richness.

At one point the narrative is interrupted – "Behind every name there is a story" – for a full list of the 9,000 Jews deported from Italy or killed there. All 159 Alhadeffs; 71 Anticolis: Abramo, Adelaide, Adolfo, Alberto, Alfredo. Haya's kin are here: 44 Tedeschis. I notice that among the crowd of names nestle a couple of Hahns. Behind each name lies another potential life-story, another Haya.

Drndic's fictional world is vast, but also stifling. There is the brutal solidity of the present, and there is the swirling fluid mess of memory and time, "melting in her mind like chocolate". (There are occasional moments of prose here, from writer and translator, beautiful enough to make you want to read them aloud.)

Haya's life-story flounders in the sea of other stories, voices, lives: the big picture filled out with transcripts of Nuremberg cross-examinations; photos and footnotes; long sequences of potted biographies of SS guards; maps, poems, song lyrics (rarely in English), the music for snatches of tunes. It is a jumble, frequently hard to digest and often difficult to engage with as endless fragments flit by. And yet they accumulate, these fragments; they begin to add up to something remarkable, too. In this documentary fiction, the private and public happen at once, large and small scale, imagined with just the same biographical precision. Haya sits dazzled in the cinema, lost in the unbelievable glamour on the screen; meanwhile, neighbours are disappearing.

Trieste is aching with vivid absences, losses, disappearances. By the time our focus falls on Haya's search for her long-missing son in the book's final act, and we hear "Hans" speak, this one story is freighted with all the pain and detail of its myriad predecessors. It's a worthy pay-off. The picture Trieste offers is cumulative – so is its effect. For a reader with a taste for tidy narrative, its wilfulness can be maddening, and yet the multifarious elements that comprise Haya's story and its grand context are an incredibly dense and potent mixture, too.