Sunday, 3 February 2019


Doppelgänger by Daša Drndić  {Reviewed by THOMAS}
“We may speak of the body as an ever-advancing boundary between the future and the past, as the pointed end, which our past is continually driving forward into our future. ... My body is always situated at the very point where my past expires in a deed,” wrote Henri Bergson. For the characters in Doppelganger, two novellas hinged to each other by a barbed contingency, no deed can be satisfactorily discharged due to historical traumas pressing with too great a force upon that boundary. If wars, according to Drndić, are “orgies of forgetting”, memory is the means of undoing, or at least resisting, some of the harm done to personal by collective histories. Her novels are full of archival lists of persons, objects, prices, actions, meticulously researched particulars set as pegs against the process of generalisation that is the first symptom of erasure. Remembering is necessary to existence as an autonomous and continual individual, but what happens to that individual when the the burden of memory overwhelms their ability to withstand the past that presses upon them? Does one’s refusal to become an agent for the perpetuation of a trauma make one instead a victim of that trauma? It is upon the body that the collective presses upon the personal, the external world upon the internal - and vice-versa - but when the pressures cannot be balanced, when one world traumatises the other, when the two cannot mutually converse in deeds, it is with the body that the symptoms of this imbalance are made known. In ‘Artur and Isabella’, the first part of Doppelganger, two elderly people’s lives briefly intersect physically, despite the abjection of their bodies, the centrifugal forces of their respective histories making continued companionship in the present impossible. The story is told in a mixture of verbalisations from one or the other of the characters - though it is not certain whether these verbalisations are actually spoken - and apparently straightforward reportage with the precision and flatness of a detective’s notes, interspersed with police reports and other documents. Isabella’s history of loss, of avoiding the Nazi death camps that claimed the rest of her family, of her marriage to a Jewish shoe-manufacturer in Croatia, and of subsequently fleeing the Axis invasion, intersects with ‘Pupi’, the second part of Doppelganger, the protagonist of which is Printz, the elder son of a Yugoslav chemist and spy who was awarded Isabella’s property in the newly established Socialist Yugoslavia. Printz’s is also a story of loss - of both circumstances and sanity - a story of erasure and of resistance to that erasure. The text proceeds as a sort of double narrative: objective and a subjective, outer and inner, observation and assertion. Both voices belong to Printz - he is his own double. Sometimes the objective and subjective voices are in accord, sometimes they are opposed, bringing suspicion onto both from the reader. Printz is unable to align the collective and personal histories that press upon him, and, as his circumstances diminish and following the deaths first of his mother and then of his father (in whose company he “watches a world disappear, their world, after which comes nothing”), even the most straightforward of observations trigger fugues of memory and association which further alienate Printz from others and from the mores which both enable and police social interaction. “I have temporal blotches in my brain,” states Printz as his hold upon the present becomes more tenuous and he begins to rant more frequently and publicly. “He will talk as long as his thoughts keep coming,” thoughts alternating between Bernhardian invective, actual historical fact, and delicately surreal fantasy. “Maybe none of us has his own life. Is your life unconditionally yours?” he is asked, and it is the weight of trauma in history that distorts the present, even for the beneficiaries of that trauma. Burdened with guilt, Printz attempts to return confiscated silver to Isabella (from the first story), only to find that she has died. When trauma cannot be addressed it is taken upon the body. When the past cannot be expended in a deed it overwhelms the future. Printz’s life becomes precarious. He asks himself, “Where is your strength to refrain from the compulsion to breathe? How can you continue to put up with the dense air that blocks your lungs and oppresses your body?”


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