EEG by Daša Drndić
Daša Drndić’s final novel EEG is a hypnotic and challenging treatise about trauma and history and the importance of painful remembrance. Originally published in 2016 (two years before her death) and translated from the Croatian, EEG is an unconventional narrative: told from the perspective of Andreas Ban, a fictionalized author, the story spastically skips between memories of the author’s life and family to itemized lists of World War II statistics, charts, and archival photos. “Autobiographical books don’t exist,” Ban explains, and declares that “every novel is a novel about salvation… there is no novel without confession.” Instead, there is “the whole mélange of life through which we dig, which we clear out, from which we select fragments, remnants, little pieces that we stuff into our pockets, little mouthfuls that we swallow as though they were our own.” What this amounts to is a hazy book about memory and space, which Ban explains are “in permanent clinch.” “When space collapses, it drags memory into its underground…”
Named after an electrical test used to detect abnormalities in brain activity, EEG explores “kaleidoscopic lives. Like the drawings of schizoid patients.” Without a firm narrative arc, it’s difficult to follow the book’s progression without experiencing Drndić’s immersive prose first-hand. To say here that EEG goes from a discussion of suicidal chess masters to World War II and the author’s wartime ancestors to the psychology patients Ban treated in his younger years would appear disjointed, but the book is so mesmerizing and unnerving that it flows and bubbles onward without incident. “Everything around us, including ourselves, it’s all in patches, in spasms….” Ban explains, and Drndić’s novel mirrors this sentiment. In a passage addressing the author’s critics, Ban complains about the public’s desire for “a form with continuity.” But EEG declares “the past is riddled with holes” and exposes the impossibility of writing about memories without gaps and uncertainties.
What Drndić, via Ban, is getting at is that memories frequently gloss over the realities of past traumas. The mass graves of World War II, for example, are now little more than statistics in history books; how does a writer accurately portray an incident that ended the lives of so many? Drndić/Ban’s frequent lists may be an attempt to honor the specifics of history, but, Ban later explains his frequent trepidation: “If I start listing it, someone might think that I am obsessed, ask why I have got so stuck, and say that that does not belong in literature…” And further, how does one work against the progression of time and the seemingly inexplicable desire that many have to forget entirely that something atrocious once happened? In a section about Ban’s lost relatives, he writes:
“For me Latvia became a riddle only some ten years later, when a half-truth, long unspoken in my family, acquired outlines, when, like wormholes, those penetrations into space and time, into new spaces and a new time, it began to create shortcuts toward a journey….then we collected the shards of that past, all those splinters, we buried all that debris and moved on.”
“Photographs smear over memory,” Ban explains later. “Memory sinks into a chasm of healed pain.” EEG attempts to reconcile with the forgotten and resurrect the repressed, all with hopes that one might find salvation in recognizing all that’s missing.
A recurring metafictional motif appears throughout EEG, in which the author reflects on the book’s challenging form (or lack thereof). In one of many scenes about facing the past and all the lives that go into a historical statistic, Ban writes, “the Jewish cemetery in Sarajevo has a long and rich history, but I won’t go into that now. Not to destroy the flow of the narrative, not to stray too far from the theme. What is the flow of my narrative? What is its theme?” Elsewhere, a discussion about the painter Zora Matić disintegrates into more referential pondering about the nature of EEG: “Zora’s story is long and this is not the place for it, or perhaps it is, if this is a story, if this is going to be a story of people who fall outside frames.” Later, Ban surprisingly takes potshots at Karl Ove Knausgaard and his “idiocies,” namely the “absolutely intolerable” My Struggle “in which everything happens in real time, slowly and pallidly, because real time is no kind of time as it doesn’t exist.” And buried at the center of EEG, Drndić hides both key and keyhole: “perhaps I am not Andreas Ban, perhaps I am a woman from my previous or future or existing life, or perhaps I am a man whom I have not yet met. Perhaps various people squat inside me…” Setting aside the author’s playfulness about narrative veracity, this passage ripples through the entirety of the novel: a person is the accumulation of their ancestors and stories, their pasts and futures, kaleidoscopically arranged. EEG is a memoir of multitudes.