Haya Tedeschi is old now. In July 2006, she sits waiting to be reunited with her son, whom she has not seen for more than sixty years. As she waits, she goes through the contents of the big, red basket at her feet, the documents and photographs which are her life.
Throughout this remarkable novel, Haya waits, and what is given to the reader is her past, not just hers but that of her entire family, and of her home town, Gorizia, which sits on the border between Italy, Austria and Slovenia, in one of those parts of Europe where history itself has a role to play.
Daša Drndić describes her novel as “documentary fiction”. It is a dense, sometimes overpowering layering of fictional narrative, testimony from defendants and witnesses at various war crimes trials, statements recorded by survivors of the concentration camps and Himmler’s Lebensborn policy, and photographs from gossip magazines, Nazi archives and “Haya’s personal collection”. In the centre of the book, 43 pages are devoted to listing, four columns to the page, the names of 9000 Jews deported from the Adriatsches Kustenland of the Third Reich to die in the camps.
The novel’s structure makes it a challenging read, and sometimes the author’s anger is too palpable, leading to an overuse of rhetorical repetition which undermines its power. At other times, Drndić loses her own words and falls silent. In the end, it is the poetry of Eliot which puts words in the mouths of Haya and her son to express the inhumanity of their separation and the cost of their reunion.
A flawed masterpiece, perhaps, but also a powerful and original testimony, moving and hypnotic.