Book Review: Doppelgänger

“Nothing is crucial to me, but I don’t realise that yet.”

Doppelgänger, by Daša Drndić, contains two stories that are subtlety interlinked. Each emanates an anguish exacerbated by the protagonists’ loneliness. These are not comfortable reads as they challenge the bland acceptance of society’s expectations of how the old and discarded should behave. There is a deep felt sadness that goes unanswered.

The first story, translated by S.D. Curtis, tells of a meeting between two septuagenarians. The characters are introduced with descriptions of the slow decay of their bodies. They wear adult nappies. Their skin is flaccid. They each live alone having once had families. Between sections that detail their histories are police dossiers. They are being surveilled.

In the early hours of New Year’s Day, Artur and Isabella are walking the quiet streets of their small town in Croatia. They are very different in their demeanour and habits but accept each other’s company. They engage in a sex act.

“We’re grown-ups, there’s no sense in equivocating. We should give it a try.”

While out, their flats are searched.

The second story, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, opens on a damp autumn day at a zoo in Belgrade. Printz is watching two neglected rhinos in their enclosure. It is a distressing scene to read. We learn that Printz’s mother died recently after a long illness, and that he helped care for her as her body failed. He is sleeping on a camp bed in his parents’ flat. His younger brother is waiting to inherit their many possessions.

Despite being raised by a wealthy family, Printz carries out acts of socialism. His parents valued their coveted things with which Printz is generous, perhaps attempting to bolster his self-worth. He accepts his ongoing descent in the eyes of society. He has a photographic memory, a wealth of knowledge, but lacks experience of feeling loved.

He remembers with fondness a childhood friend, Maristella, although their relationship emerges as tainted due to his behaviour. It calls into question how he was aware at five years old of the acts he performs on her.

The tale is a slow burner with a disturbing undercurrent. There is much for the reader to consider.

Both stories explore the legacy of Nazism and then Communism. Children cannot choose their parents yet are deeply affected by the inheritance of actions both before and after their birth. The writing has a haunted quality. Changing borders, geographic and familial, leave citizens unmoored.

Complex and at times elusive, the observations and actions so tautly and meticulously described can be unnerving. These are stories that ask the reader to step outside their comfort zone and confront a reality of historic dark deeds and their repercussions.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Istros Books.

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