Daša Drndić


(an excerpt)

A novel by Daša Drndić
Translated from the Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth and Susan Curtis
Published by Istros Books

It is drizzling but he cannot move.

I can’t move.

Small, fateful, pasts grow in his head. They get mixed up with the drizzle, which is the present.

Most of the rhinos in the world are black. There are grey ones and white ones as well, the white ones are rare. There are fewer and fewer rhinos. They are an endangered species, there are more and more endangered species, that is why there are ever fewer of them. They are disappearing.

He is disappearing too.

I’m disappearing, says Printz. His name is Printz.

Rhinos take on the colour of their surroundings. They blend. In
cities, their surroundings are grey.

I’m blending, says Printz. I’m in the city and I’m blending. I’m standing in the zoo watching the rhinos. Everyone can see that. There’s no one here. I’m alone. My name is Printz.

He is in the city, Printz is.

He is in the zoo, watching the rhinos. They are big animals, fat and rough-skinned.

People think they are dangerous animals, ugly animals, but they aren’t. Rhinos are no danger to people. I’m no danger to people. Rhinos can be a danger to each other, not to people. They can be a danger to themselves because they destroy each other, destroy themselves. Rhinos are tame and self­-destructive. Rhinos aren’t bloodthirsty. They’re wild beasts, heavy beasts. I’m no longer heavy, I’ve shrunk. I was handsome, oh, how handsome I was. And big.

Rhinos run at a slow trot, when they run. When they run, they wobble. Their great bodies sway from side to side in slow motion, they sway. Look at them swaying!

Rhinos are like big waves so that scares you, I’m not frightened. The rhinos down there below me are very big. That’s all.

Printz stands on a ridge, looking at the two rhinos down below, in their enclosure. It is late autumn. The colours are autumnal, dreary.

I’m watching the rhinos. They’re big.

Printz would like to tell someone something, there is no one.

I would like to tell someone, anyone, I’d like to tell someone: I buried Mother today. Mother is called Ernestina, we called her Tina, there’s no one around.

Shout. Shout to the rhinos down below, they are down there, in the hollow.

Zoos are not a good place for outings when it’s late autumn and cold and you’re burying your mother. I feel alone.

He is not alone. He has a father.

My father is old and sad. I’ll take him on a trip.

And he has a brother.

My brother’s no good now. I’ll take my father a long way away.

But no, Printz is not yet alone. Printz’s dense solitude is just coming into being. Behind it there is darkness.

My solitude is budding, says Printz. I feel my solitude budding, I can see my solitude budding, that’s why I take deep breaths.

Printz takes deep breaths on the ridge, watching the rhinos while his solitude swells.

This is like an enormous tomb, where the rhinos live, mother doesn’t have a tomb.

The funeral was enough to freeze your feet.

The crematorium is behind muddy fields because it is new and unfinished. But the furnaces are all right, they work. The furnaces work perfectly. The cemetery is behind the crematory. It is an old cemetery, orderly. It is the third crematorium in the city. It is a big city.

The hall is like a mausoleum, a church, the ceilings are high and painted, it is cold inside. When the music stops playing the coffin disappears and the people look up at the painted ceiling because they feel uncomfortable. Down below are the ovens. Here they do not let the fire lick a glass cabinet in front of everyone, as there are no glass cabinets here. Where the fire burns, in the glass cabinets, the corpses lie in open coffins like jewels in expensive boxes.

In America, they light a fire that fizzles. It’s a gas fire, that’s why it fizzles. I’ve seen it.

Printz had been in America, working. The flame blazes, blazes, blazes, soft music is played (by request), the deceased person bends at the waist, slowly rises, rises, rises and sits, nicely made-up. Deceased American people have nice hairdos and cardboard shoes. So, the American deceased people sit in their nice new coffin until it twists like a burned-out match. They sit in a fine interior of white, pink or red satin. If it is a man, he sits in satin as blue as the sea or sky. That is the way it is from birth. Recently yellow has been introduced, for the sake of equality. Now deceased people glow gold, as though bathed in sunshine. That looks dazzling. Biblical.

What about the eyes of American deceased people? Do the eyes of American deceased people watch? Do they see the beauty of their own departure?

There are no data about the eyes.

Here there is no transparency. There is no watching. Mother is nailed up. The coffin is cheap. There is music, someone makes a speech, Mother disappears, Mother burns but no one sees. Mother is ash.

The urn stays in the depot for five years.

That comes later. Father is still alive.

The depot is large like a warehouse, with white tiles for the sake of hygiene. A store of urns, a store of the dead. Here, within reach.

That comes later. In this city there are two rhinos.

This city used to be handsome, it is not now. It has grown old. It has let itself go. It has been let go, allowed to fall to rack and ruin.

I was handsome once as well. I’ve let myself go, I’m ruined.

Printz was handsome, he still is, he has let himself go a little. He has not yet been ruined. He will be ruined later on. He will be allowed to be ruined. He will let himself go. Fall to rack and ruin.

The city is now a city with a lot of unfamiliar people in it, earlier it was a city with a lot of familiar people. For the last five years unfamil- iar people have been coming in from small towns and they wander about. The familiar people have on the whole died out, some have gone to bigger, more important cities, far away. There is rubbish in this city. The streets have potholes. The trees in the parks have shrunk. Shrivelled.

It’s got knobbly, like Maristella’s knee when she was little.

There used to be a lot of parks, now they are botched, messed-up. Short. Like parks in picture books – they fit into a small space. There used to be huge parks, they stretched in length and breadth all the way to the river, to the confluence of two big rivers there, beneath the fortress. The fortress is old, its name, Kalemegdan, means ‘great battle’, it is a monument to the history of this city. In the park with the fortress there are gates, there are fountains, there are towers, all from the distant past, and from the more recent past, there are busts of folk heroes, a military museum and a small museum with stuffed animals, in front of which a large bear stands, also made by a taxidermist. Near the museum with the stuffed animals, in precisely that park, precisely under the walls of the fortress, there is a zoo with abandoned animals, for such are the times. The biggest monument in the park is called the Monument to the Victor, which, after the recent wars in the former Yugoslavia sounds terrifying and wrong. Printz used to stand on the ramparts of the fortress watching the rivers merge.

The confluence is murky and muddy now.

From the park you used to see sandy islands in the distance, white islands, now dark with the excrement of pigeons and river gulls.

Gulls eat trash and their shit is black.

In some parks there were trees with hanging branches, so that those parks looked like hanging gardens. There were hiding places. There was soft grass for couples in love. That was in his youth.

That was when Printz was young. I’m Printz.

Printz leaves the rise in the zoo. He goes in search of a hiding place.

The grass is wet and dirty, the grass in the park, the park is big and empty. It is still drizzling. Printz has expensive shoes.

Floresheim shoes, black, with perforations.

In those hiding places dead rats lie, stray dogs whelp, and stray cats have their young there too, there are a lot of strays in this city. In those hiding places animals and people store their inner waste, their intestinal waste, so those hiding places are messy and smelly.

I know, I tour them.

Printz comes to a hiding place behind the northern wall of the fortress. He bends down, peers in, scatters the rubbish with his foot, there are heaps of rubbish: condoms, plastic bags, bloody pads, shit- smeared pieces of toilet paper, sooty candles, crumpled matchboxes, small coins, old coins from his childhood.

I see the coins that fall out of lovers’ pockets (mine too, mine too, long ago), lovers rock up and down on the soft grass, the grass used to be soft, they rock on the clean grass, now it’s neglected.

Printz is not looking for anything.

I’m not looking for anything. I’m remembering.

He shifts stuff with his foot and listens. Printz feels that soft grass on his back and moves his shoulders as though his Macintosh was heavy.

It’s not a Macintosh. It’s a Burberry. It’s drizzling.

Printz raises and drops his shoulders, up and down. Bent over the entrance, examining the hiding place.

This is where I fucked.

Printz raises and drops his shoulders, as though he was saying I don’t know. Raises and drops his shoulders, one-two, he feels the grass,

the grass climbs up my back, right up to my throat, up to my throat.

Cry, Printz.

No. The Burberry is heavy, it shouldn’t be heavy.

Printz goes back to the zoo.

I’m going back to the zoo. I hear a loud noise.

Printz is standing above the hollow again, above the arena, above the enclosure with the two rhinos in the empty zoo. Printz has wide-open eyes, he looks, he is alone.

It is getting dark.

The city is dark too. A stony half-darkness engulfs it. Indelible. That half-darkness penetrates, ominously. The rhinos are okay.

They’re not OK. Something horrible is happening.

In zoos, rhinos are placed in a kind of arena. The arenas are down below, while the visitors are high above them, so that the visitors look at the rhinos from above and do not see details. On one side of the enclosure down below there is an iron door.

A big iron door for rhinos, rhinos are big.

The keepers open that door at night and let the rhinos in, into their little den, their cramped den, their home. The iron door is closed. Bolted.

There are no keepers. The rhinos want to go inside.

The rhinos are restless. They want to go inside.

The rhinos charge. First one, then the other. First the female, then the male. They charge and then, at top speed, their trot becom- ing a gallop, at a fast gallop, with great force they crash into the iron door, frontally, with their foreheads. They crash into it once, then again. Then they move away, slowly.

It’s exhausting.

They reach the other side of the arena and then again, at a gallop – crash frontally into the iron door. There is no one about. Only Printz is watching.

Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Harder. Even harder. Ever harder. The rhinos beat their heads against the iron door while the rain keeps spattering. The earth in the arena is liquid, muddy. The female’s horn is dangling, hanging. The male’s forehead is bloody.

Under their thick hide there is blood, thick blood, rhino blood.

A new charge. Their horns have burst into bloom like that magician’s trick when roses burst open. It gushes from their horns, the redness pours into the rhinos’ eyes. Pours. The rhinos are blinded. Maddened.

I don’t know much about rhinos, maybe that’s a good thing.

The rhinos are dancing. They dance, but their eyes are closed. Blinded with thick blood. They have a curtain, a small red curtain over their eyes and they dance as though listening to music. As though there was music playing all around them. A big dance, like a horses’ dance, like a circus dance, but heavy, rhinos are heavy animals.


DAŠA DRNDIĆ was a distinguished Croatian novelist, playwright and literary critic, author of radio plays and documentaries. She studied English language and literature at the University of Belgrade, and later obtained a Masters degree in Theatre and Communications from Southern Illinois University in the United States, which she attended with the aid of a Fulbright scholarship. Drndić worked as an editor, a professor of English, and as a TV programme editor in Belgrade. She obtained her doctorate at the University of Rijeka in Croatia, where she later taught. She is the author of thirteen novels including Leica Format, Trieste and Belladonna – all published in the UK by MacLehose Press. For the latter two, she was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2013 and the EBRD Literature Prize 2018.
Daša Drndić died in Rijeka on 5 June 2018.


About the Translator:

CELIA HAWKESWORTH worked for many years as Senior Lecturer in Serbian and Croatian at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College, London. She has published numerous articles and several books on Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/ Serbian culture and literature, including the studies Ivo Andrić: Bridge between East and West, Voices in the Shadows: Women and Verbal Art in Serbia and Bosnia and Zagreb: A Cultural and Literary History. Among her many translations are two works by Dubravka Ugrešić; The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, which was short-listed for the Oxford Weidenfeld Prize for Literary Translation, and The Culture of Lies, winner of the Heldt Prize for Translation in 1999. Hawkesworth was again shortlisted for the Oxford Weidenfeld Prize in 2018, for her translation of Belladonna by Daša Drndić, which was also a runner-up for the new EBRD fiction in translation prize in 2018.


Read more work by Daša Drndić:

Excerpt from Leica Format in Critical Mass (Kritična masa)
Interview in the Paris Review
Review of Belladonna in Music & Literature