CROATIA (***)

Sonnenschein / Trieste — Dasa Drindic (2007)

Setting: Gorizia/Goritz/Görz/Gorica/Gurize, a town on the border between Slovenia and Italy that passes between several countries and regimes in the 20th century.

The English title of the book is Trieste, where some of the plot takes place, which is far less appropriate than Sonnenschein (sunshine), the original title in Croatian and the name of a castle turned into a “euthanasia centre” by the Nazis.

Through Gorizia flows the beautiful river Soča, along which vicious battles were fought in WW1:

“A river of a vivid turquoise hue. In its riverbed it holds a history which eludes historians. Quiet one moment, raging the next. When it rages, it is mighty. When it is quiet, it sings.”

What it’s about: History. The Holocaust. It’s about the many stories behind the many names. About shifting borders and memories (personal and collective), and people dealing with the past. Following the thread of one women it weaves in many lives, many tragedies. It starts gently but before long drags you deep into the darkest depths of history. It is hard to read and hard to talk about. It is precise, compelling, terrifying. I’m not even going to try to get into the plot: all you need to know is that it brims with anger and it very skilfully weaves together personal and narrative history.

From an old woman’s rocking chair, fleeting memories and moments, trial transcripts and biographies, flit by, characters like Francesco Illy of Illy coffee, members of the S.S., the people who suffered and died, the people who carried out despicable atrocities, and the people who kept quiet and survived. The people who lived “while trains rumbled past”:

“In war and skirting war, these blind observers look away with indifference and actively refuse to feel compassion; their self-deception is a hard shield, a shell in which, larvae-like, they wallow cheerfully.”

Why you should read it: If the only survivor of the Shoah you can name is Anne Frank. The power of the book can be summed up by the list of 9,000 murdered Italian Jews (which a former student posts the old woman when he like so many others discover the terrible history of WW2) — Alhadeffs, Ottolenghis, Sonninos. It spares no scorn for the hypocrisy of a world that continued life after the war as if nothing had changed while also challenging us not to understand the ambiguous individual decisions made in wartime.

A painful, but necessary read, a little like the protagonist feels sifting through her memories and documents:

“Haya senses that a little cemetery is sprouting in her breast with a jumble of tilting tombstones…knocking against her ribs.”

The best book from Croatia? It is set in Slovenia, but this is a book about much more than any one country.

Similar to: There really is no book like this one. The pace and tone has a slight similarity to Peter Carey (Such as Parrot and Olivier in America), but is far darker, and deeper.

Rating: *** Judge this book by the blurb on its cover that says: “A masterpiece”.

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