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Daša Drndić: Doppelgänger

I was talking to a friend the other day who told me that his widowed mother, aged 78, had a boyfriend. He was somewhat embarrassed (though his wife was not) when she made it clear that the couple were not just holding hands. As Time Magazine says When It Comes to Sex, Our Seventies Are Our New Twenties. This is relevant to the book at hand, as you will see. By the way, Drndić was fifty-six when she wrote this work.

This book consists of two novellas. The first one – Doppelgänger – is about sex when you are in your seventies. It ws originally published as a samizdat. It is New Year’s Eve 1999. We meet Isabella, aged seventy-seven, and Artur, aged seventy-nine. (Pedantic note: the date of birth for both of them, given in the text, indicates that they are in fact not quite seventy-seven and seventy-nine.) Both are incontinent and have to wear adult nappies. Drndić spares us few details of the technical, biological problems of old age.

It is 4 a.m. and therefore New Year’s Eve, when they meet. Both are widowed and both are lonely. We gradually learn about their backgrounds. Isabella was German, from Chemnitz (later Karl-Marx-Stadt and then Chemnitz again). She was Jewish. She managed to flee to what was then Yugoslavia with false papers. Her family did not and thirty-six of them including her parents and siblings, were murdered in concentration camps. We get a horrific tale of ordinary, non-Jewish Germans being punished for purchasing shoes from Isabella’s father’s shoe shop. She had applied for Croatian citizenship after the fall of Yugoslavia and only obtained it after the third application. She had worked as a photographer and is still very much interested in photography and art.

Artur was Croatian but his father was Italian (Drndić’s grandfather was Italian). Artur had been in the Yugoslav navy. Interestingly enough, we learn much of this information about the couple from a police dossier on them. It seems that while they are out on New Year’s Eve, both of their apartments were searched. We do not know why.

Artur accosts Isabella on the street and his attentions are not unwelcome. I am rich but lonely, says Artur. This town is full of boredom comments Isabella. Despite the nappies, they are soon sexually fumbling with one another with positive results.

The book is called Doppelgänger and Artur comments that the couple complement one another. He has lots of books (on hats, epilepsy and Italy). He is a keen collector of hats (he has 374, arranged on display like a museum, with description written out). He is bald and always wears hats. He is also epileptic.

In good post-modern fashion, we get not only a count of his hats but of her gnomes and boxes of chocolate. She only has a flat, with no garden, but she had thirty-six garden gnomes. We must assume, though this is not stated, that they represent the thirty-six members of her family murdered by the Nazis. Her weakness is chocolate, particularly chocolate balls, but she does have seventy-seven opened boxes of chocolate in her flat. Her late husband co-owned a chocolate factory. She is something of a reader, currently reading Tadeusz Borowski‘s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, about concentration camps.

Apart from graphic descriptions of ageing and elderly sex, the story covers several themes. The Holocaust, a standard theme in Drndić’s work, is mentioned on several occasions. We also get the police reports showing that both Yugoslavia and Croatia spy on their citizens. Loneliness, particularly, the loneliness of old age is also a theme. The doppelgänger theme is there, without being emphasized. Clearly, the two are different in their backgrounds and interests but need each other’s company and, briefly, sadly all too briefly, enjoy it. He eats her chocolate. She listens to him talking about hats. But in the end, they are old and lonely.

The second novella, Pupi, was originally a radio drama. Pupi is the nickname of the protagonist, Printz. We get more graphic descriptions of the elderly as he has to help clean up his elderly mother, Ernestina, a former opera singer, who is dying, though, by the beginning of the book, she has died. Like Artur and Isabella, he is in Belgrade and he is lonely. He observes some rhinos in the zoo and comments that they are an endangered species and are disappearing. He is disappearing too and I feel alone, though he still has a father (who is going senile) and a brother, Herzog, with whom he does not get on.

He wanders around the park. I’m not looking for anything. I am remembering. He watches the rhinos who are trapped in their cage and butt the doors with their heads and horns till they bleed, trying to escape.

We learn about his past. His father, Rikard, had been a chemist and a secret agent. His father made him become a chemist. He has twice been married, neither time successfully. In particular, he remembers Maristella from his childhood. The four- and five-year old had fumbling sex, which mirrors that of Artur and Isabella. He will continue to think of Maristella throughout he book. It seems that she is now a successful artist. He was pensioned off, with a meagre pension, at age fifty. Life abandoned him silently, his life slunk secretly away, without warning.

Printz drifts through life. He goes away for a few days with his father, after his mother’s death. When they return, they find that Herzog and his wife, Matilda, who have a small flat next to Rikard’s and Printz’s, have taken over part of their flat and built new walls and even cut Rikard’s marital bed in half. Neither Rikard and Printz object too much. Indeed, they seem to be people to whom things happen, rather than people who cause things to happen. Printz get involved in secret agent activities and, in both cases, things do not turn out, more a shambles than a disaster.

Printz clearly has mental health issues. He self-harms. Small animals move into Printz’s head. He has temporal blotches. Things get worse after his father dies and Herzog and Matilda drive him out and he has to spend time in an asylum, after ranting and screaming about structuralism in an art gallery.

We have our post-modern lists, as well. Printz was born in 1946, as was Drndić, and we get a list of famous people born that year. In the asylum the doctor tries to console him, telling him that his life is not terrible and then the pair go through famous people from the arts who also had their problems. Indeed, Printz himself is obsessed with facts, owning a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

There is a link with Doppelgänger and, not surprisingly it is with Isabella and the treatment of Jews, who seem to have been badly treated by Yugoslavia. The doppelgänger theme is not really relevant here, though there is a contrast between the two brothers and Matilda is likened to her mother-in-law, not least because both women were large. We might also say that the fate of the rhinos parallels that of Printz to some degree.

This is a longer and, in my view, a better story than Doppelgänger. It touches on similar themes – treatment of Jews, old age and its problems, sex, loneliness and isolation – but is more absurdist. We follow Printz, a man who clearly does not fit in with the world, and once he loses his limited connection to the world – his flat and his family – rapidly sinks down. Both stories end badly – Drndić is not one for happy stories – but she tells the stories so well. They may be grim at times, but here is a bitter humour in them, post-modernist touches, strange absurdities and a general idea that life is hard and that, sadly, people sometimes quite simply cannot cope.

Publishing history

Doppelgänger
First published by Samizdat B92 in 2002
First English publication by Istros in 2018

Pupi
First published by 90 stupnjeva in 2005
First English publication by Istros in 2018
Note that it was initially a radio drama, first performed in 2003