Monday, January 16, 2017

Croatia: Leica Format, by Daša Drndić

This was the second challenging book in a row on my round the world reading tour. It took me quite a while to get into it, due to the collage style format. The book is introduced with three definitions of the word "fugue" - musical, psychological and architectural. This is followed by a brief account of a woman who believes herself to be one person, and obtains a job under that name, but turns out to be someone else. How this story relates to what follows is not entirely clear. The narrator of the book (most of it) is a woman living in a harbour town in Northern Croatia that is in decline - Fiume in Italian, Riveka in Croatian. It was once an important departure point for European emigration to the United States. Long descriptions of the life and landscapes of the town seem to require the sort of concentrated attention that one gives to poetry.

Gradually a picture is built up of the past of the woman, her family, the town. The book encompasses the horrors of the Holocaust, and of medical research on human guinea pigs, both by the Germans during World War II and other nations including the United States. It makes use of multiple fragments of text from various sources, such as poetry, medical textbooks, and other documents. Some of these have their sources acknowledged at the back, others do not and were perhaps constructed by the author.

I did, after the first fifty to hundred pages, get immersed in the book, more so than in the previous one ("Census" by Panos Ioannides). It was intriguing to see how all the fragments linked up, and to ponder whether or not Ludwig Jacob Fritz was or was not Uncle Luigi, among other puzzles. By the end of the book, I was still quite unclear on some components, and how they fitted in, for instance was Lea Moser/Tessa Koller who appears at the end of the book the same person as the narrator or not? And if not, where does she fit in the story? The atmosphere of the declining port town seemed to be evoked quite successfully, and the lingering effects of the break up of the former Yugoslavia cast a long shadow over the lives of the narrator and other people around her.

Leica Format was translated from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth and published by Maclehose Press in 2015. It was first published in Croatia in 2003.

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