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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Q&A with Istros Books

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses rewards brilliant and brave literary fiction published in the UK and Ireland by publishers with fewer than 5 full-time employees. Now in its third year, the 2019 longlist was announced last month.

I invited a number of the small presses who made the cut to contribute a guest post as part of my coverage of the prize this year. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play amongst the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

Today I welcome Susan from Istros Books whose longlisted book, Doppelgänger by Daša Drndić (translated by S.D Curtis and Celia Hawkesworth), I will be reviewing tomorrow.

1.Why did you decide to set up Istros Books?

After having spent some years working and living in South East Europe, and always being interested in the literary scene, I decided to move back to London and wanted to change my career from teaching. It was obvious to me that writers from that region very rarely made it into English, and that the ignorance of many British people about that region partly came from the very one-sided ‘cultural exchange’ which consisted – and still consists – of pushing our TV, film and literary culture on other countries (‘the other’) but not returning the favour. Cultural imperialism if you like. This was nowhere more evident that in the Bosnian war, where a lack of cultural and historical knowledge led to the most blatantly ignorant explanations for the carnage.

And so, after a brief period of contemplating being an agent for writers from the region, I decided to go the whole way and actually publish them. The whole thing started on a grant from the EU, and the goodwill of one particular translator, Will Firth, who has translated ten of Istros’ total production of 40 titles.

2. On your website you explain that Istros is the old Greek and Thracian name for the lower Danube River, which flows through the countries whose literature you focus on, and that you wish to evoke the image of the river flowing carelessly across the borders of Europe and encapsulating the ideal of the free-flow of knowledge and the cultural exchange that books promote. How do you go about finding and signing authors from this region whose writing reflects your ethos?

I maintain strong links with the Serbo-Croatian speaking countries due to ties of family and friendship, as well as with Romania. Over the past seven years, I have also attended a number of publishing fellowship programmes, book fairs and literary festivals. So I have an eye on the writers who are making an impression, winning prizes and getting noticed. My taste in narrative and author orientation is always one of inclusion rather than exclusion, and therefore it reflects the ethos of free cultural exchange and tolerance.

3. Do you work directly with your authors and translators?

Yes, I sign all the authors myself and very rarely go through an agent. I have very good contacts in the region, which makes this possible. I also work closely with translators once they have produced the first draft. I edit thoroughly and ask questions and comments when something is not clear. This annotated script then goes back to the translator and we may have a final phone conversation or Skype call to go through any remaining issues.

4. You set up Istros in 2011. Has your experience of publishing and marketing books in translation been as you expected when you started out?

Well, the biggest change for me is the ever decreasing amount of review space in mainstream media, coupled with ever few reviewers who are interested in indy books or books in translation. With Nick Lezard no longer reviewing for the Guardian and the recent tragic death of Eileen Battersby, there are so few places for us to go. And this directly results in fewer sales.

5. There are a good number of small, independent publishers in the UK and Ireland publishing some fine literature. Do you consider yourself different and, if so, how?

The only real difference is that Istros has a very specific geographical remit and publishes exclusively translations. This can be an advantage in the fact that specialsization leads to expertise, but can also appear too narrow to potential readers.

6. Latest trend or totally original – what sells?

I’m sure that latest trend is what sells. A lot of people want ‘more of the same’ and this is why larger publishers follow bestsellers with copycat novels. But what really sells, as we know, is having the financial and industry clout to secure front window displays in bookshops, posters on underground stations and in the press, and using economies of scale to print many books for a lower price per unit.

7. Ebook or hard copy – what do your customers want?

eBooks only account for about 10% of our sales, so our readers still want real paperbacks, although our print-runs are very modest.

8. Do you consider Istros to be niche or mainstream?

Publishing literature in translation from the Balkan region can really only ever be a niche activity. The odd book from the region will occasionally break through into the mainstream if its published by a bigger publisher than us, but even then we are not looking at anything like the sales to be had from Scandie crime.

9. You have impressive experience of prize listings. What are the costs and benefits, monetary or otherwise?

We have had many books on all the longlists of all the prizes that accept translations except the Man Booker International (and this means just the Oxford-Wiedenfeld Prize, the International Dublin Literary Prize and now the EBRD Literature Prize). I proposed the new translation prize back to the EBRD in spring 2015 and acted as chief consultant on its development up until its launch in 2017.

I was inspired to do this because I know that prizes, after reviews, are an excellent way to get publicity for your books and, by extension, your publishing house. Since Eastern European literatures don’t fall under the large language groupings, the EBRD prize helps to balance this a little. In the future, it would be wonderful to have some eastern European languages in the Society of Authors Translation Prizes: Polish has close to 40 million speakers, and Romanian roughly 26, quite apart from Russian!

The Republic of Consciousness prize is a wonderful support because it is the only prize that rewards the publishers. We were proud to have a Bosnian title – Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Sehic – on the very first longlist, and now again with Drndic’s Doppelganger.

10. What plans have you for the future?

Apart from trying to facilitate the above, I strive for what every small publisher must be striving for: more publicity, more sales. Surviving in this market, with huge wholesale discounts, limited review space and a decreasing reading public is tough.

I’d also love to get a book on a shortlist or even win a prize soon – that would be a real encouragement.

Find out more about Istros Books on their website

You may also wish to follow them on Twitter: @Istros_books