Discussed in this essay:
EEG, by Daša Drndić. Translated by Celia Hawkesworth. New Directions. 380 pages. $18.95.
The House of the Pain of Others: Chronicle of a Small Genocide, by Julián Herbert. Translated by Christina MacSweeney. Graywolf. 304 pages. $16.
Normal People, by Sally Rooney. Hogarth. 288 pages. $26.
In “Shrink,” a short piece from her 1993 book Have a Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream, the Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešic recounts, or imagines, trying to explain her problems to a New York psychotherapist. They don’t get far, because the Ugrešic character keeps getting tangled up in the history of the former Yugoslavia, which she has just left, and in the bloody wars still raging there, while the cartoonish shrink is keen to skip this “horror film” stuff and “get to the fundamental source of your frustration as quickly as possible.” When I first read this story, at age ten, it sounded like a joke about America, or about therapy. Now it seems to be more about history, and how (or if) you can live with it. “I walk down Fifth Avenue and suddenly see the buildings falling like card houses,” the patient reports.
Everything is mixed up in my head, everything exists simultaneously, nothing has just one meaning any more, nothing is firm any longer, not the earth, not frontiers, not people, not houses . . . Everything is so fragile it seems it will shatter any minute.
That’s an experience that would be all too familiar to Andreas Ban, narrator of EEG (New Directions, $18.95), the last novel by the Croatian writer Daša Drndić, who died last year. Although here Ban himself is the shrink, or, as he’s described in Drndić’s earlier novel Belladonna, which cast him as its third-person protagonist, “a psychologist who does not psychologize any more. A writer who no longer writes.” (Celia Hawkesworth translated both books, as well as the Ugrešic.) EEG begins just after Ban has attempted suicide and survived—that is, failed. As its title may suggest, the novel is structured somewhat like a scan of his brain activity, which is to say that it’s associative, looping, digressive: thrilling and deliberately infuriating in equal measure. By the same token, it’s also, like several of Drndić’s other books, an experiment in how much of the horrific twentieth century one work of fiction can swallow without breaking apart.
Here, as with the famous list of names in Drndić’s best-known novel, Trieste—some forty-four pages, each four columns wide, of Jews killed or deported in Italian territory between 1943 and 1945—are more Homeric catalogues of the slain: there are Soviet records in Russian (not even transliterated) that compile dates, secret-police charges, place and method of death; a thorough accounting of the fates of European chess players that traces a good deal of Nazi and NKVD activity along the way; and a twenty-page, small-print table logging books looted from the homes of Croatian Jews in Zagreb, in 1941. The Trieste list is headed “Behind Every Name There Is a Story.” EEG, too, is centrally concerned with the question of what needs to be recorded—and what doesn’t. We learn of Ban’s on-and-off relationship with a woman named Leila—“just an ordinary love affair, with quite a lot of wine and sex”—and then hear little about her until we skip to the point decades later when she
had reappeared old and fat and constantly drunk, and I had had my own tribulations, my own deaths, my own solitudes, my own wanderings through the world, my own illnesses.
(What’s really of interest about Leila, it turns out, is her father’s service in the Wehrmacht.) And Ban isn’t above withholding a backstory as punishment. Of his father’s widow, his stepmother, he says: “I won’t go all the way back to her childhood to find when or why that woman developed her obsessive need to control. Fuck that woman’s childhood.”
You might plausibly detect just a hint of glee in Drndić’s determination to keep the reader trapped inside the mind of this cranky old man who is overwhelmed by every affront—down to the aggressive banality of advertising and the café-goers shrieking into their cell phones. Ban is someone for whom each forest hides a mass grave and even the shortest city stroll is riddled with plaques commemorating unimaginable crimes (or else, much worse, the hypocrisy and denial signaled by the absence of such memorials). Even a writer’s retreat in Tuscany is the occasion for an excursus on the wartime conduct of the Italian aristocracy (it’s at least as bad as you’d think). Yet the force of Ban’s anger and the leaping, unexpected connections he draws are exhilarating, restoring the reality of all those cutoff lives, along with the reader’s capacity to take in the scale of complicity involved—from the CIA’s harboring of Nazi war criminals to the tawdry record of Croat nationalism—and to register history’s shocks anew.
Ban occasionally breaks the fourth wall to address the possible objections of Drndić’s readers, mocking their attachment to harmonious narrative structure or the kind of characters that count as fully realized: “Who is ever and anywhere rounded, and is it necessary to be ‘complete’ and rounded in order to exist—to live—in a complete and rounded way? Unbelievable idiocies.” These formal questions seem connected to moral ones. You can’t help but notice that many of the frills of the pre-modernist, bourgeois novel—the food and furnishings and clothing that mark out who is real and to be cared about—are precisely those trappings of civilization that were routinely looted in the past century, the “works of fine art and jewelry,” even the
pillows, frying pans, saucepans and teapots, children’s toys, from dolls and bowls to little cars and electric model railways, the theft in fact of everything that makes a life, the theft of the life of those whose physical life was also taken from them.
EEG is a monument against the common notion that political convictions soften with age, as you learn to let the world off the hook. Neither Drndić nor her books did any such thing.
Remembrance is likewise crucial to the Mexican writer Julián Herbert’s project in The House of the Pain of Others: Chronicle of a Small Genocide (Graywolf, $16, translated by Christina MacSweeney), although where Drndić is commanding, Herbert mostly opts to cajole. His book, which also offers lists of names and carefully reconstructed atrocities, centers on the killings of some three hundred Chinese residents of Torreón over a few days in May 1911, while the city was being taken by revolutionary forces. Like some of Drndić’s preoccupations, this massacre is in a more or less continuous state of being forgotten. Even when it is allowed into the official Mexican narrative, it’s most often blamed on rampaging revolutionary outsiders—the favorite is Pancho Villa, though in fact he was hundreds of miles away, taking Ciudad Juárez—or explained as an unfortunate, spontaneous outpouring of xenophobic rage by local people living in poverty. Herbert has a more complex and more damning story to tell, one that implicates a far greater swath of Mexican society—not to mention the national authorities, who studiously minimized it afterward. He takes on, as Drndić did, the dishonesties and self-deceptions that can keep the politics of an entire country rotten all the way down.
The book is both vivid and enthusiastically researched, examining each piece of available evidence to establish what must have happened at every stage and how it was obscured, then and later. Herbert re-creates the history of Torreón and its Chinese community, how they thrived and who saw them as an economic threat. (He favors all kinds of local color; the book’s title, rather brilliantly, is the nickname of the soccer team’s home stadium.) Here and there, he’ll allow his research to slip into empathic identifications, imagining, for instance, a Mexican mother of half-Chinese kids having to watch
a bunch of killers take their hatred of you out on your children, never giving you the chance to shoulder the burden of the hate the world metes out on [them] because their skin is a different color.
Or he’ll offer a passing flash of self-revelation, just enough to place himself within the society he’s describing, as when he notices on someone’s face “the dull molten-glass light common among meth smokers,” which “I’ve seen on many other faces, and also in my own mirror.” He quotes, too, a “dizzyingly Balzacian paragraph” in an earlier account that lists the items plundered from the victims in the days when they became a target—again, a life’s worth: the books and clothing and writing desks and leather notebooks and silver inkstands, the paintings and bedclothes and underwear. Herbert simply adds: “It was not yet nine in the morning.”
The House of the Pain of Others began as a short essay and ballooned from there, until at one point Herbert, a poet, musician, and writer of fiction (including the autobiographical Tomb Song) noticed that “the impulse toward the great Mexican novel had taken hold of me like a fever.” What he decided on in the end is a so-called gonzo crónica, “a stylized cross section of history that would bring together the events of the past, and the dents they have left in the present (and in me).” It’s also a “denunciation” in disguise, “an oblique reflection on violence in Mexico,” published in the wake of the infamous disappearance of forty-three teaching students from Ayotzinapa in Guerrero. When Herbert asks a Torreón cabdriver just who killed the Chinese there, the man collapses the intervening century by suggesting it must have been the Zetas, one of the most notorious drug cartels: “They’re the jerks that kill everyone.” This may say as much about everyday life in Mexico as it does about the general ignorance of the Torreón massacre, bringing to mind the grim series of false alarms that followed the disappearance of the forty-three, in which bodies kept turning up, but not the ones they were searching for. As in Drndić’s Europe, it seems the graves are everywhere.
For the Irish novelist Sally Rooney, a Marxist not yet thirty who was last year anointed the voice of her generation in the British press, any anxieties on the question of narrative form have so far been kept admirably in check. Both the word-of-mouth hit Conversations with Friends and her second book, Normal People (Hogarth, $26), are realist novels of just the nineteenth-century kind whose bounds, Andreas Ban implies, have been breached by the events of the twentieth and beyond. They’re marvels of restraint, combining deft social observation—especially of shifts of power between individuals and groups—with acute feeling. Rooney is precise and leaves a lot unsaid, though the directness of her descriptions tends to belie this—she’s a master of the kind of millennial deadpan that appears to skewer a whole life and personality in a sentence or two, leaving the knots of anguish and confusion beneath. Take Frances, the college-student narrator of Conversations with Friends, on entering the house of an older and slightly famous married couple, Melissa and Nick, for the first time, dazzled and disdainful at once: “I remember seeing a dark wooden bowl filled with bright fruit, and noticing the glass conservatory. Rich people, I thought. I was always thinking about rich people then.”
One of the more striking elements of Rooney’s debut was her ability to show how people’s politics do and don’t inflect their everyday lives—the tensions they create, how they inform jokes and arguments. The protagonists of Normal People, Marianne and Connell, are schoolmates in rural Ireland—she, the isolated, often miserable daughter of a well-off family; he, the brilliant, athletic son of a single mother, Lorraine, who cleans Marianne’s house. The novel maps their relationship in intense bursts punctuated by carefully dated gaps, usually of several months at a time (though there’s one of only a few minutes). This narrowness of focus—more extreme than that of Conversations with Friends, though this book replaces its first-person narrator with a close third following Connell and Marianne in turn—brings the snippets we see of the social environment into sharper relief. At one point, Connell wins a major scholarship and can suddenly afford a continental vacation, full of those gorgeous trappings of the realist novel:
It’s like something he assumed was just a painted backdrop all his life has revealed itself to be real: foreign cities are real, and famous artworks, and underground railway systems, and remnants of the Berlin Wall. That’s money, the substance that makes the world real. There’s something so corrupt and sexy about it.
(One other thing Rooney makes both real and sexy, incidentally, is sex—a feat more remarkable in the context of contemporary fiction than it should be.)
Rooney’s protagonists are usually as funny and intellectually agile as she is. They’re also young enough to be deeply concerned, as an Andreas Ban is not, with how to fit themselves into the required shape, and with how much to blame themselves when they can’t manage to do so. Frances notes near the beginning of Conversations with Friends that she “certainly never fantasized about a radiant future where I was paid to perform an economic role,” a quality she at times interprets as “a failure to take an interest in my own life, which depressed me,” while simultaneously feeling that “my disinterest in wealth was ideologically healthy.” Normal People, as its title makes clear, puts the issue of fitting in at its heart, a reminder of how fundamental a problem of the human condition it is, and how many ethical risks it involves. Nearly everyone in the novel suffers and makes others suffer for conformity, and for at least one character it turns out to be lethal. At school—a place Marianne experiences as inherently Kafkaesque—Connell humiliates her, refusing to acknowledge her in public. After going to such lengths to maintain his position there, he finds himself, at Trinity College, Dublin, surrounded by the type of person who “just goes around comparing how much money their parents make. Like I’m being literal with that, I’ve seen that happen.” Marianne attends Trinity, too, and dates Jamie, whose “dad was one of the people who had caused the financial crisis—not figuratively, one of the actual people involved.”
Toward the end of the book, two characters are imagined as “like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions.” It could be a romantic image—both of Rooney’s novels are at least in one sense love stories—but it’s also sad, if not sinister, a representation of the hopeless distortion and confinement involved in living with others. Rooney is on record about her ambivalence as to the value of what she does, “writing entertainment, making decorative aesthetic objects at a time of historical crisis.” And maybe there is some murmur of cognitive dissonance in being so thoroughly diverted by what’s evidently the work of someone with a comprehensive and impassioned critique of the world as it is. That begs the question: Does it undermine what a novel has to say about its times if it’s making them more bearable to live in?