Shine Bright, Fierce Star: On the Loss of Daša Drndić (1946-2018)

on Thursday, June 7, 2018
My dearest, dearest Daša.

For two days now, I have been crying. You are gone and I have only this: memories of a friend. So indulge me.

I'll start at our first meeting; an entirely unremarkable one, the same as any between reader and writer. Back in July 2012, I was in London, perusing the new releases in Hatchards. For some reason, I was drawn to one book in particular. Its dust jacket was a simple tan, the colour of unbleached pulp. The author's name was unfamiliar to me, though I must confess a soft spot for part of it. My grandmother's name was also Daša. And those red lines, stark bolts bleeding from the letters of the title: TRIESTE. Train tracks, perhaps, bent briefly out of shape to form the symbol that still strikes fear into any Jew who might happen upon it. SS. I flicked through the pages, saw the photographs, the documents, the transcripts, the lists. I read the first page right there in store, Haya Tedeschi sitting with her box of memories, and I was transfixed. I went to the counter, bought it, and spent the rest of the day under your spell. I knew right away that I had stumbled across an outright classic, a revelation.

Had I only read your magnificent book, it would have been enough.

I reviewed it a couple of weeks later on this blog. You must have set up a google alert, because within a few days I received an email. Polite, but unimpressed. "Dasa Drndic calling," it began. "Thank you for understanding my book." You then took issue with one aspect of what I'd said. I had been sucked in to a controversy surrounding Trieste, that you thought unfounded. We discussed it at length, emails flying back and forth, and I was swayed by what you had to say. For the first (and last) time ever, I printed what amounted to a retraction. Trieste went on to become my Book of the Year. At which point, it should have ended. Who has the chutzpah to write to a blogger to complain, anyway? Isn't that the cardinal rule: "Ignore your reviewers"? Do not engage. It can only end badly. But somehow, in those furious few days, we had proven the adage wrong. We had forged a bond. You, the literary titan of Croatia. Me, a struggling writer here in Australia, who spent most of his time procrastinating, reading books by the dozen and pontificating about them on the internet, when he should have been writing. We were, dare I say it, becoming friends.

I have spent the last two days reading over our six years of correspondence. In it I found entire lives - ours, our families', our books'. We spoke of everything: literature, criticism, politics, the mundane and the ridiculous, often punctuated by you with cat emojis. I was reminded of that first while, when everything about you struck me as intense, fierce. Your extraordinary intellect intimidated me no end, and I was always waiting for the moment you would cut me off. You were cynical and sarcastic, unforgiving and unrelenting. Holy shit, you were impressive. But here's the kicker, the thing that made it all the more delightful to speak with you. You were funny. Like, fuck off, fall-on-the-floor-laughing funny. Yes, behind that uncompromising wall was one of the funniest people I've known. You made me laugh through some pretty dark times. Both mine and yours. And you were generous. You knew me only as some guy across the world who once said something infuriating about a book he loved and who you set straight. Yet, when I told you about my friends Mieke and Will, editors at the literary journal Higher Arc, who wanted us to have a conversation "on the page", you jumped at the opportunity. I've read over it today, cringing at my contributions. But you, you answered so beautifully, every word a deadly weapon. You doubled down on your ferocious railing against the shitness of the world. It was, like much of what you wrote, a massive middle finger to convention, to complacency, to human failing. Yes, a warning to us all: Do better.

The years passed, and the books kept coming. Leica Format, which you were disappointed to hear I didn't like as much. And then Belladonna. You sent me the uncorrected proof, made me promise I wouldn't tell your publisher that I had it. What a magnificent achievement it was; arguably an equal to Trieste, and one for which you are still garnering great praise. Also, Doppelgänger and EEG, which have yet to be translated. In the background, I was finishing The Book of Dirt. You hadn't read a word but you were unwavering in your support. When at last it was done, I spent weeks building the courage to ask you to read it. "Yes," you said without pause. "Send it over." Did you know that impressing you was the single most important thing for me at the time? Did you see in what you read, a letter of devotion and admiration? Did you realise, at that point, that you had taught me how to write, had shown me the potential of unconventional literary form? In your work, I discovered the key to my own voice. I waited the next however long, nervously checking my inbox each day, wondering if you'd read it. Then: an interrogation. We spent a couple of hours on Messenger while you subjected me and the book to critical vivisection. I got defensive, upset. We argued. And then, at the point of greatest despair, you laughed and told me I'd passed the test. Of course you liked it. You would provide a quote. If you could only have seen me then, a shaking mess on the floor of my study, giggling like a maniac.

When the diagnosis came, you slipped it casually into conversation. "And now some bad news..." you said. It became a constant cloud over our chats. We spoke as we always did, but there was the odd comment about a bad test, some pain, a setback. You didn't let it dampen your vigour, though. You were always rushing off to this book fair, that literary festival. There were book launches and celebrations. You sent me photos, always smiling. Yes, there were flashes of anger, of despair. But they were soon washed away by another excitement: a new book, a different edition, some achievement by your daughter. Mostly, you deflected the conversations back to me, to my book. You took pride in its success like a godmother might. And, above all, you wanted to know about my little girl. That always made you happy. Knowing you, in part, inspired her name. "I miss it, having little children," you wrote. "She makes me smile."

A few months ago, I asked you to send me a signed book. I wanted something inscribed from you, a token of our friendship. Neither of us said it, but we both knew why. Things were not good. You were in bed, with back pain. The cancer was spreading. You said you'd try. "When I'm feeling a little better." I didn't say anything. We had tried once before. A friend of mine was on a panel with you in Edinburgh. You gave him a book for me, but he was unable to take it. So you had your publisher mail it to me instead. It got lost along the way. I like to think it is in some Kafkaesque postal nightmare, maybe even an existential Escher painting. Anyway, I waited and didn't push the point. Then you told me you just received the Italian edition of Doppelgänger. "It's ugly," you said. "But I will send it anyway." A few days later, this: "I went last night to send you the little ugly book, it was cold and pouring, and i forgot to write anything inside, i haven't even signed it. I feel like punching my nose. So sorry... the post office is less than a kilometre from my home. It took me almost an hour to limp there and back." This time it arrived, much cuter that you made out. The inscription, of course, is what's on the envelope. My name in your handwriting. And the knowledge of your effort to send it. That I possess a clean copy of a book I've never read in a language I can't understand is the kind of absurdity you loved. We laughed about it together. You said you'd send something else when you had the chance.

Our last exchange was from our respective sickbeds. Your health was rapidly deteriorating. The cancer had reached your brain. I, meanwhile, had just had a minor stroke. We talked about brains and memory and language. "I just said parmesan instead of marzipan," you said. "It's ok," I replied. "I prefer parmesan anyway." And you left me with a somewhat reassuring thought as I waited for the results of my MRI: "Don't worry. If your brain is broken there's nothing to find out. Relax." Followed by five emojis of cartoon sheep blowing kisses. It was the last I'd hear from you.

Last month I sent you the link to an article in an Australian paper in which, as always, I raved about Trieste. You didn't write back, though you shared it on your Facebook page. I wrote to you again a week later but you didn't see it. I tried not to think what that might mean. And again last week. But you didn't see that either. I didn't have the guts to say goodbye. I hoped that you would pull through and write something back. I didn't want to have to explain that I might have given up on you. You would have ripped me to shreds. Also, like now, I was not ready for our friendship to end. You fundamentally changed me as a person and as a writer. I still can't imagine not having you to turn to when things get too hard in this shitty writing caper.

You are already being spoken of as one of the greats, as one of the most important emerging voices from Europe. A successor to Ferrante, The Guardian said only two weeks ago. Yes, your star is still very much on the ascent. And I will be at the frontline, screaming your name to anyone who might listen. We will continue to talk. That is, I suppose the magic of what we do. Our voices live on even when we are gone. Knowing there are books of yours that have yet to be translated, that are in the process of being translated, means that I can look forward to new conversations, new arguments. Yes, we will continue to speak for many years to come. Because yours is a voice I refuse to stop hearing.

My dearest, dearest Daša. Thank you for everything. I will miss you forever. And I will hold you close for just as long.