Why should two novelists, both born in the 1950s, choose to explore the shattered world of wartime Europe? "Ania Malina" is the first novel of a young English writer; "Dara" (winner of the Academic Francaise's 1985 Grand Prix du Roman) is the ninth novel of a prolific French writer. Each is intent on understanding the relationship between the past and the present and on finding ways to express the contradictory, but equally "real" realities of war and peace, love and hate, dislocation and restoration. Each novel focuses on a woman with a mysterious past who seems to symbolize or embody the unknown. Ania Malina is a Polish teen-ager, unofficially "adopted" by a young British soldier who is her lover and protector. Dara is a Yugoslavian refugee who works as a seamstress in Paris but whose past no one seems to comprehend completely.
In both novels, as feminist critics may note, we find the standard "male" practice of writing about women as objects--not just sex objects, but objects of knowledge, to be investigated, explored, and understood. Yet much can be learned from such explorations, even if what is finally learned is the impossibility of truly "mastering" any body of knowledge.
"Ania Malina" is a hypnotic, beautifully written, painterly book that broods on themes from Nabokov (obsession with a "nymphet") and Thomas Mann (the links between eros and thanatos; the aesthetic appeal of illness). The story begins in a French field hospital in 1944, when Jamie Lovecraft, a sensitive young British soldier recovering from an injury, becomes fascinated by a fellow patient, a blond girl who reminds him of his younger sister. When the mysterious Dr. Kessler considers them well enough to be discharged, Jamie and Ania begin the nomadic odyssey that takes them from ever-cheaper Paris hotels to the Italian lakes and finally to a Polish sanatorium.
For most of the book, we see Ania through Jamie's eyes: She seems passive, unfathomable, like a painting or puzzle that he tries to unravel. She is first seen as the victim of an air raid, then as the victim of a lingering malady--and, in some sense, a victim of Jamie and the doctor, who "define" her as an invalid--later as the all but immobilized, bandaged victim of the doctor's medical/erotic interest, and finally, as the victim of something she knows. And yet, her knowledge of a horrifying wartime experience proves she is not merely the passive creature she appears to be. Ania is not merely a pretty girl, poring over the glossy magazines Jamie brings her, trying to emulate models and movie stars. Beneath the surface are depths that Jamie suspects but never really sees, depths of memory and imagination that doom this frail girl, whose nickname "Ania Malina" means pineapple raspberry, to a knowledge that is more than she can bear. All is revealed at the novel's conclusion, a tour de force in which horror is transformed into art, and art enables us to better comprehend horror.
If "Ania Malina" is a novel about universals--war and peace, love and death--"Dara" is filled with a zest for the particular, with the flavor and tang of the specific circumstance. If Lawrence Osborne aims (and largely succeeds) to be spellbinding, Patrick Besson has set out to surprise, charm and slightly shock.
Spanning the years from wartime to the 1950s and 1960s, "Dara" is the story of a survivor, a brisk, earthy, frequently humorous book rich with irony and keen observation. Six narrators tell the story, each taking us back to an earlier phase of Dara's life: her French husband; a girlfriend who shared her room and bed before her marriage; an impetuous Serb refugee from the circle Dara frequented; an Italian girl who befriended her after she first fled Yugoslavia; a childhood friend from Zagreb--later one of Tito's officers--who recalls a pivotal event in Dara's life, and a cousin who evokes the little girl that lived on in all the successive stages of Dara's life.
The irony is not just that different people remember Dara differently, but also that everyone remembers her as a charming bundle of paradoxes: playful yet hard-working, athletic yet clumsy, impulsive yet stubborn, puritanical yet passionate. These seeming contradictions become more understandable as we learn more and more of Dara's personal history, but the basic paradoxes remain.
The difficulties of knowing Dara, as the reader discovers, involve both the difficulty of knowing any individual and the difficulty of understanding the broader movements of politics and history, which, after all, are based on the complexities of the human personality, among other things. In many respects, "Dara" is a novel about nationalities. Dara comes from a family of Croatian collaborators, becomes involved with a circle of anti-collaborationist Serbian royalists, seems uninterested in politics but nourishes a peculiarly personal hatred for Tito and his Communists. The poignancy and comedy of this tangle fuel our interest and make each individual, like Dara, unique. Apart from one small obstacle to belief--that the people who knew Dara would recount the details of her sex life to her inquiring daughter!--this is an absorbing, suspenseful novel.