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March of the Pigs: Daša Drndić’s Battle Songs

Of her six novels translated from Serbo-Croatian into English, Battle Songs (New Directions, 2023) is Daša Drndić’s earliest. Translator Celia Hawkesworth is no stranger to Drndić’s oeuvre, having also recomposed her Doppelgänger, Leica format, Belladonna, and EEG. If Canzone di guerra is the work of a novelist beginning to hit her stride, its English incarnation as Battle Songs is clearly the work of a distinguished translator, one who has lived thoughtfully with her subject’s prose, form, and themes. 

In Battle Songs Drndić explores the horrors of Balkan history and the ways in which those horrors shape the lives of individual refugees. Her main character, Tea, has recently relocated to Toronto from Rijeka to escape the chaos of crumbling Soviet Yugoslavia. She supports her daughter by taking on degrading gig work and struggles to assimilate not only to her new country, but also to the complex, contradictory immigrant community she finds there.

We thought Canada was a country of great possibilities. I don’t know why no one told us the truth.

Tea’s story is told via narrative, research, and found materials. In the final chapter, she pulls these threads taught to reveal the tapestry that she has been subtly weaving throughout. We finally see how all this history, political and personal, culminates in a pivotal moment for her family.

There isn’t much music in Battle Songs. The titular tunes appear parenthetically, accoutered with a peremptory “so-called.” Later, the lyrics to a “dead ballad” written by a prisoner of the Gulags lacerate with their disappointed irony. 

Live for a thousand years for us, comrade Stalin,
And however hard the days are for me here,
Statistics will show that there is now more iron,
More steel, per head of the population

Drndić sees that we treat people like pigs and pigs like people, that we despair for want of help and resent those who assist us. She emphasizes the former point with an essay on pot-bellied pig breeding, and the latter with an excerpt from Orwell. The materials she chooses to include illustrate her themes beautifully, even if her concluding comments are sometimes a little on-the-nose. Late in the book, when discussing an Australian movement to eliminate feral cats, a friend of Tea’s suggests:

They could use Zyklon B.

Ideology is a persistent presence in Battle Songs. It exerts its pressures on human and animal kingdoms alike. For Drndić, the content of these ideologies make little difference. It leaves in its wake litters of orphans. The ideas fade. The trauma renews itself perpetually, automatically, creating new hybrids as it sweeps across geography and time. 

Not thinking, not knowing, not searching, not wishing to search. The offspring of both, the victims and the executioners, fall in love, make new children, and the grandfathers of those children (victims and executioners, those who are still alive), dangle their grandchildren on their knees with a sense of profound historical and personal defeat.

Battle Songs is bleak but not hopeless, and Drndić’s inventive style carries the reader along without allowing the disillusionment of the book to become disillusionment with the experience of reading it. Those new to Drndić will find themselves impatient to dig deeper into her writing. Fans of her previously Englished books may come away with a better idea of her artistic progression. Anyone interested in Eastern European history or the continuing playfulness of the novelistic form would do well to read Battle Songs.







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