Thursday, January 11, 2024

Doppelgänger by Daša Drndić


I’m not opposed to “depressing” books. When people complain that a book is depressing, I usually like to say that one of the key things about literature is that it can explore the full range of human experience, and some human experiences are very sad.

That said: wow, Doppelgänger is a depressing book. It combines two novellas focusing on several central characters struggling with age, bodily collapse, and suicidal impulses. They’ve been mistreated by others, including often enough their families. They’ve been abused by the Nazis or post-WWII Eastern European communists or (lucky people) both. They live in cold places and in various degrees poor and sometimes disgusting environments among broken things that don’t work. They’re not even good people really, although they do helpful things a few times maybe among many other unhelpful things. There are going to be some moments of hopes and dreams and glimmers of possibility in each tale, but not many. 

What made it possible for me to read this book was the humor (no kidding; it’s frequently hilarious), the tight, high energy sentences, and many of the genuinely brilliant and compassionate (if often enough unbearable) insights into human behavior and the failing of the human body. What made it full of surprises were the clearly experimental, avant context-jumping and formal oddities. There’s an amazing long section that comes from who knows where (but belongs perfectly) about Foucault and Althusser, and a long list-like conversation about artists and suicide. There’s not a huge amount of narrative tension to take anybody’s mind off the relentless trouble of the characters, not much dramatic conflict (though there’s plenty of conflict as such) to take readers away from the cold facts. You can put up with it or put it down. When reading it I often couldn’t stop, it was that compelling. But when I would stop, I often wasn’t sure I wanted to start again.

The author Daša Drndić, a Croatian who died in 2018, called it her “ugly little book.” It is truly almost unremittingly ugly. But not entirely ugly somehow, as trying to tell the truth can never be an entirely ugly desire, and because laughing at or with the worst things possible makes them more possible to bear. I can’t say I would recommend Doppelgänger to anybody who isn’t prepared for what they’re going to read. But I can’t say I’m going to forget it, either. There are a lot of books that are more easily enjoyable that I barely remember at all.