A Genius from Four Countries
Birth Certificate is the first biography in English of Danilo Kiš, the highly respected Serbian novelist and short-story writer who died of cancer in Paris in 1989 at the age of fifty-four, just as his books were beginning to be widely translated and admired. In our day, when foreign literature is taught less and less in colleges and universities and once-familiar names are no longer recognized by students and even by some of their professors, the determination of publishers like Dalkey Archive, Northwestern University Press, and several others in the United States to continue to publish writers from what many tend to regard as cultural backwoods is a heroic undertaking. Thanks to them, almost everything Kiš wrote has been translated and is now in print, and his work continues to elicit interest among serious readers of contemporary literature, as the publication of Mark Thompson’s book demonstrates.
Kiš called himself an “ethnographic rarity.” He was born in 1935 in Subotica, a prosperous, polyglot town on the border of Hungary, in what was then Yugoslavia and is now Serbia, in a family of mixed origin. His father, Eduard Kiš, was a Hungarian Jew who after failing in business found a job in the Yugoslav Ministry of Railways, where he eventually reached the rank of chief inspector and prepared the official Yugoslav timetable for rail, bus, ship, and plane travel, an accomplishment of which his son was immensely proud. His mother, Milica Dragićević, was a Montenegrin of Orthodox Christian faith who met her future husband while paying a visit to her sister, who was employed by the same railroad ministry. The couple had another child, a daughter three years older. That made their children Yugoslav citizens of Jewish, Hungarian, Serbian, and Montenegrin background.
“If not for the hardships of a wartime childhood,” Kiš once told an interviewer, “I’d never have become a writer.” In 1939 his family moved to Novi Sad, a larger city one hundred kilometers south, which, after the Axis occupation and partition of Yugoslavia in 1941, was occupied by Hungary and from which they had to flee a year later following the massacre of some three thousand to four thousand Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies by the Hungarian troops. Kiš’s father had no choice but to seek safety with his sister’s family in a small village in western Hungary, where for the next three years they were not bothered. All that changed in 1944 when the Hungarian leader, Admiral Horthy, was forced to resign by the Germans after his announcement that he would withdraw from the Axis and surrender to the Allies. Soon after, on the orders of Adolf Eichmann, some 430,000 Hungarian Jews were rounded up, sent to Auschwitz, and gassed. Among them were Eduard Kiš and his Hungarian relatives, while his wife and children survived.
As if this was not enough horror to go around, close to a million people died in neighboring Yugoslavia during World War II in ethnic, religious, and political settlings of scores. In view of the ongoing slaughter there, the family’s early years in Hungary were untroubled, though they lived in great poverty. Kiš’s mother knitted sweaters to make ends meet; the children went to school and worked as farmhands, though not their father, who spent his days and nights carousing in taverns. A troubled man who had already spent three months in a psychiatric hospital in 1934 and had two shorter stays there in 1939 for delirium tremens and anxiety attacks, he took an early retirement, most likely because of his ill health. In Garden, Ashes, this is how his son remembers him during the war:
He moved through the fields like a sleepwalker, lost in thought, waving his cane high in the air, following his star, which he would lose amid the sunflowers, only to find it again at the edge of the field—on his greasy black frock coat.
In other words, the star of destiny he sought all his life had turned into the yellow Star of David sewn on his coat.
It was only in 1947 that the mother and the two children were finally repatriated to Yugoslavia by the Red Cross to rejoin their relatives in Montenegro, where another misfortune struck soon after their return. Milica was diagnosed with cancer and died four years later after immense suffering. Danilo, who had grown up speaking Serbian at home and Hungarian in school, had to make the difficult transition from one culture to another and did so in a remarkably short time.
After finishing high school in 1954, he went to study at the University of Belgrade. As he already had been writing poetry and translating Hungarian, French, and Russian poets, it was predictable where these interests would take him next. He enrolled in the newly created department of comparative literature, whose formidable curriculum covered practically every Western literary work of importance from the Song of Songs to Joyce and Kafka. After graduating four years later, he spent a year in the army and on discharge continued to live in Belgrade, working at a prestigious literary magazine and writing stories and reviews.
Since Tito’s break with Stalin in 1948, a more liberal policy in the arts, free of the socialist realist dogmas, had been well underway in Yugoslavia, and unlike in Soviet bloc countries, modern literary classics like Proust, Camus, Joyce, Sartre, Hemingway, Faulkner, and many others were being translated and widely read. Kiš’s first novel, The Attic, written in 1960 and published in 1962, is the product of that extraordinary cultural moment.
Based on André Gide’s early novella Paludes (1895), Kiš’s book, subtitled “a satirical poem,” is a freewheeling spoof of a hackneyed plot. His hero, who shares with a friend a roach-infested attic in a large apartment building in Belgrade, is an aspiring writer nicknamed Orpheus who plays the lute, and is in love with a young woman he calls Eurydice. The action takes place in Belgrade, on the Dalmatian coast, and on an imaginary island in the South Seas, with the hero assuming different roles, commenting on the book he is writing, quoting other writers without attribution, and worrying about literature’s relationship to reality. An uneven little novel by a young man whose head was full of books he was reading, The Attic, though very funny in places, is a minor work.
Psalm 44, Kiš’s other early novel, written the same year and paired with The Attic upon publication, could not be more different. It takes place in a death camp, focuses on women, one of whom gives birth there, and is mostly set in the few hours before an escape attempt. Kiš based the novel on a true story reported in the newspapers at the time and he wrote it as a part of a competition held by a Jewish cultural organization in Belgrade. Given the ambition of the novel and the inexperience of the author, Psalm 44 still impresses by Kiš’s vision of literature as an ethical and aesthetic engagement with the horrors of history, as Aleksandar Hemon argues in his eloquent preface to the book. I find it odd that Mark Thompson, who devotes much space to The Attic in his study, devotes very little to Psalm 44, which prefigures much of what Kiš wrote afterward. Literature must correct history, he said in a late interview, collected in Homo Poeticus (1995), edited by Susan Sontag: “What is the meaning of ‘six million dead’ (!) if you don’t see an individual face or body—if you don’t hear an individual story?”
His next three books, the novel Garden, Ashes (1965), the collection of nineteen stories Early Sorrows (1969), and the novel Hourglass (1972), comprising what he called his “family cycle,” recount his wartime childhood in Hungary and the sad fate of his father. They are very different from one another. The stories are very short and told through the eyes of a child. That same point of view is present in Garden, Ashes too, but with the additional perspective of someone much older, while in Hourglass that narrator disappears and is replaced by an anonymous, objective narrator. Both novels are patchworks of his and other people’s memories with the rest reconstructed by the imagination of their author.
Kiš often writes like a poet. This is especially true of Garden, Ashes, which is full of startling images and figures of speech. Gogol and Babel were fond of them too, because they knew that the wildest flights of the imagination combined with the ability to see clearly can make poetry out of the ordinary:
Silence is everywhere, the dignified solemnity of a holiday morning. The postmen and salesclerks are still asleep behind the closed, dusty shutters. As we move along past the low one-story houses, we glance at each other and smile, filled with respect: the wheezings of the last sleepers are audible through the dark swaying curtains and accordion shutters. The great ships of sleep are sailing the dark Styx…. Alongside the panting sleepers stand large metal alarm clocks, propped up on their hind legs like roosters, pecking away at the fine seeds of the minutes, and then—charged to the point of an explosion, stuffed, enraged—they strain their legs against the marble surface of the night table just before beginning to crow triumphantly, to crow in swaying, bloody crests.
The book is full of such inspired descriptions. The father who appears in Garden, Ashes is a literary creation, “unencumbered,” as Kiš said in another interview, “by the solid, homogeneous mass of realities and memories.” He’s a neurasthenic with suicidal impulses, a drunk who often wakes in a village ditch covered with bruises and caked with mud, a provincial dandy with a derby hat, frock coat, stiff celluloid collar, and headwaiter’s tie with a bohemian knot, who becomes the writer, director, and protagonist of his own tragedy and farce. His literary prototype is Bruno Schulz’s mad, god-like father in The Street of Crocodiles, who is waging an all-out war against the numbing boredom of a small Polish town. While he is a comic figure, this cannot be said of Kiš’s father, who despite his buffooneries was well aware that evil was slowly closing in on him.
Hourglass is Kiš’s best book, the most richly conceived and beautifully written, and his most moving. Made up of sixty-seven numbered sections under six headings—“Prologue,” “Travel Scenes,” “Notes of a Madman,” “A Witness Interrogated,” “Criminal Investigation,” “Letter or Table of Contents”—it takes place in the space of a single night, from late evening until dawn, as it picks up the story of his father and describes, with flashbacks to recent and remote events, experiences that are revisited and revised most likely for one last time.
Kiš said that the book could not have been written without the example of Joyce’s Ulysses and a long letter his father wrote, dated April 1942, the sole authentic evidence of the world that he had written about in the two earlier books of his family cycle. The letter was addressed to Eduard’s sister Olga, who also died in Auschwitz, and is not only a description of his family’s poverty and ill-treatment by her and his nephew in Hungary, but is dense with references to people, places, and events that Kiš was barely able to recognize. The novel is a commentary on the letter and events recounted in it, and on its postscript, in which Kiš writes, “It is better to be among the persecuted than among the persecutors.”
The book won Yugoslavia’s most important prize for fiction in 1973, but was not widely read. Its painstaking, depersonalized descriptions in the manner of the nouveau roman, the absence of a readily recognized plot, the frequently unidentified voices and shifting points of view, and the scenes that come and go as in a dream, while not failing to captivate the more imaginative readers, exasperated the less patient.
Kiš’s book of related stories, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, came next. It caused him a lot of grief. Subtitled “Seven Chapters of a Shared History,” it was conceived in Bordeaux where he taught Serbo-Croatian at the university in 1973 and 1974 and where, as he said later, he was frightened by the ideological fanaticism and ignorance of his students, who would turn a deaf ear when told about Stalin’s camps and call him a fascist and an imperialist for saying such things.
The other incentive came from Jorge Luis Borges, a writer he had already read and admired, and the title of whose book A Universal History of Infamy he found disgraceful, published as it was in the days of Hitler and Stalin and dealing as it did with smalltime hoods and killers in Buenos Aires and not with the victims of these two men. A Tomb for Boris Davidovich nevertheless uses the same method Borges employed, by tinkering with actual historical documents to construct a story. “Modern history has created such authentic forms of reality,” Kiš said after his book was published,
that today’s writer has no choice but to give them artistic shape, to “invent” them if need be: that is, to use authentic data as raw material and endow them, through the imagination, with new form.
Drawing on a Croatian Communist’s memoir of the camps, Soviet encyclopedias, Roy Medvedev’s book on Stalin, and the work of other scholars, the stories, as Thompson describes them, are conveyed with the telegraphic brevity of obituaries pieced together from archives that are unreliable as well as incomplete. They deal with the common fate of many old revolutionaries, who were not only liquidated by Stalin or sent to the camps during his frequent purges, but were made to admit, either through torture or by persuasion, that a false confession that serves the Party was not only their duty, but also a supreme moral act. The title story, in which the disgraced revolutionary Novsky and his interrogator are locked in a long and intricate psychological combat, reminds me of Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev, and though one is a novel and the other a story, they are equally powerful and memorable.
When the book was published in June 1976, the reviews were positive, with even The Communist, the ruling party’s official organ, praising Kiš’s mastery, but then the rumor started that the book was derivative, with full passages lifted from other writers, culminating in an article in a Zagreb magazine detailing the accusations. The affair snowballed, with defenders arguing that using nonfictional material from other books for the purpose of “documenting” could not be called “copying.” Kiš’s main accuser, a professor of literature at the University of Belgrade, who was also the president of the Association of Writers of Serbia, set out to prove that Kiš was an uncreative, sterile impostor, a writer who took bits and pieces from other people’s creations. Kiš’s vaunted “erudition,” his accuser wrote, highlighted a lack of originality, for erudition may fan the flame of inspiration, but cannot be a substitute for talent and knowledge.
Kiš responded furiously. Written in a month, his book The Anatomy Lesson rebuts the charges by demonstrating the principles underlying the composition of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich and showing that his accuser was ill-equipped both as a writer and as a critic to pass judgment on books of any kind. At the root of the conflict were not just two visions of literature, one based on nineteenth-century realism and the other on modernist tenets, but a more fundamental clash between veneration of a single culture and language and Kiš’s insistence that he was first and foremost a writer in Europe, whose entire cultural and literary heritage is his own too. This was as good as an admission that he was a “rootless cosmopolitan,” the old Soviet designation for intellectuals, usually Jewish, that the nationalists in Serbia still love to use against those they consider unpatriotic.
The outcome of this affair, which led to a court case that Kiš eventually won, was that he went into a self-imposed exile in France, though he returned to Belgrade often and spent his summers in Dubrovnik. Once he settled in Paris he started writing stories again. The final book of nine stories he published in his lifetime, The Encyclopedia of the Dead, came out in 1983. The title story, modeled on the one Borges wrote about an infinite library, is about an encyclopedia tucked away in the Royal Library in Stockholm. It is a work, we are told, composed by an anonymous group of researchers from all over the world, which devotes itself to the lives of people who are not listed in any other reference book. The unnamed female professor who narrates this touching story spends the night in a dungeon-like room reading the entry about her father, which recounts his life in miraculous detail from birth to death.
Additional stories, written toward the end of Kiš’s life, collected posthumously in a volume called The Lute and the Scars and now translated by the always excellent John K. Cox, include a couple of little masterpieces, the title story and “Jurij Golec.” Kiš’s one weakness as a writer is that he at times trusted other people’s books more than his own immense talent. In these final stories, it seems to me, he wrote more fluently, as if he no longer believed that to be true.
My complaint about Mark Thompson’s Birth Certificate is the way the book is organized. Unless the reader has previous knowledge of the history of the region and familiarity with Kiš’s oeuvre, he’s going to have a hard time making sense of Thompson’s montage of biographical and critical fragments without a clear chronology to guide him. This is a pity because Thompson, who wrote a well-informed book about the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, has interviewed people who knew Kiš and has many valuable things to say about him and his writing. The difficulty for anyone trying to make sense of Kiš is that he was one of a kind. Like other Yugoslavs of his time who were stuck with multiple identities and at home in diverse cultures, he, nevertheless, didn’t wish to be anyone but himself. “Keep away from princes,” he wrote in his “Advice to a Young Writer.” “Do not therefore jump aboard the ‘train of history’: it is merely a foolish metaphor.”