Tisma, Aleksandar 1924-2003
TISMA, Aleksandar 1924-2003
PERSONAL: Surname is pronounced teesh-ma; born January 16, 1924, in Horgos, Hungary; died February 16 (some sources say 17), 2003; son of Gavra (a merchant) and Olga (Muller) Tisma; married Sonia Drakulic, January 19, 1952; children: Andrej. Ethnicity: Serbian. Education: University of Belgrade, Philosophical Faculty, diploma in English and German literatures and languages, 1952.
ADDRESSES: Home—c/o Zeisler, 6 rue des Princes, 92000 Boulogne, France. Agent—Liepman AG, Maienburgweg 23, 8044 Zurich, Switzerland.
CAREER: Serbian (formerly Yugoslavian) novelist, short story writer, journalist, and poet. Journalist at Slobodna Volvodina and Borba (periodicals), Novi Sad and Belgrade, Yugoslavia; Matica Srpska (publishing house), Novi Sad, editor and director; Letopis Matice srpske, editor-in-chief, beginning 1958. Military service: Served in Tito's partisan forces, 1944–45.
MEMBER: Academy of Sciences and Arts (Vojvodina, Yugoslavia; secretary, beginning 1984).
AWARDS, HONORS: NIN Prize; Ivo Andric Prize; Austrian State Prize for European Literature, 1996; Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding, 1996; Prize for Tolerance, 1996.
Krivice (title means "Guilt"), Matica Srpska (Novi Sad, Yugoslavia), 1961.
Nasilje (title means "Violence"), Prosveta (Belgrade, Yugoslavia), 1965.
Za crnom devojkom (title means "Following the Dark Girl"), 1969.
Knjiqa o blamu (title means "The Blam Book"), Nolit (Belgrade), 1971.
Mrtvi ugao (title means "Blind Spot"), Radivoj Cirpanov (Novi Sad), 1973.
Upotreba coveka, Nolit, 1976, translation by Bernard Johnson published as The Use of Man, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1988.
Povratak miru: pripovetke (title means "Return to Peace: Stories"), Nolit, 1977.
Skola bezboznistva: pripovetke (title means "School of Godlessness: Stories"), Nolit, 1978, translation into German by Barbara Antkowiak, published as Die Schule der Gottlosigkeit, Hanser (Munich, Germany), 1993; expanded Serbo-Croatian edition, 1980.
Bez krika: pripovetke (title means "Without a Cry: Stories"), Nolit, 1980.
Vere i Zavere (title means "Faiths and Conspiracies"), Nolit, 1983.
Hiljadu i druga noc: izbrane pripovetke (title means "The Thousand and Second Night: Selected Stories"), Srpska Knjizevna Zagruda (Belgrade), 1987.
Kapo, Nolit, 1987, translation by Richard Williams published as Kapo, Harcourt Brace (New York, NY), 1993.
Siroka vrata (title means "The Wide Door"), Nolit, 1989.
Koje volimo (title means "Those We Love"), Svjetlost (Sarajevo), 1990.
Cena lazi (title means "Price of a Lie"), 1953; published in German.
Naseljeni svet (title means "Populated World"), Matica Srpska, 1956.
Krcma (title means "Tavern"), Progres (Novi Sad), 1961.
Drugde (title means "Elsewhere"), 1969.
Bequnci (title means "Fugitives"), Pobjeda (Titograd, Yugoslavia), 1981.
Pre mita (title means "Before Myth"), Glas (Banjaluka), 1989.
Dnevnik 1942–1951: postajanje (diaries), Matica Srpska, 1991.
Also translator from Hungarian and German into Serbo-Croatian.
SIDELIGHTS: A leading writer in the Serbo-Croatian language both during and after the existence of the nation of Yugoslavia, Aleksandar Tisma—a Serbian with some Jewish forebears—has written powerful fiction about the effects of war on his country. His own experiences as one of Tito's partisans from 1944 to 1945 led him to see war firsthand, as did his experiences as a civilian in a war-plagued land. In book after book, Tisma has portrayed in simple, powerful narra-tive the effect of war on the human spirit—an effect he sees as irreparable, at least in the extremes with which he is familiar.
Arguably Tisma's most emblematic short story is "Skola Bezboznistva" ("The School of Godlessness"), in which a fascist interrogates a communist prisoner and tortures him to death while the fascist's own son is seriously ill. Maria B. Malby, reviewing the German edition of the collection School of Godlessness for World Literature Today in 1993, called this tale "probably the most gruesome story in Serbian literature," and commented that Tisma's "portrayal of characters touches the reader most deeply when the truth he reveals about them is a bottomless abyss." Commenting on the same story, David A. Norris, in Contemporary World Writers, averred that "Tisma's nightmare world of the war is a godless place where there is no justice to reward good and evil in equal measure."
Tisma is perhaps best-known for his 1976 novel Upotreba coveka, which was published in English in 1988 under the title The Use of Man. This is a group portrait of a set of characters who survive World War II physically but not spiritually; the narrative is organized around the postwar discovery of a diary written by a lonely woman. One central character, Vera, is a half-Jewish woman who becomes a prostitute in order to survive, and eventually commits suicide after the war; another, Bozic, ends up as what the London Times' Stuart Evans called "a sad relic." Evans called The Use of Man "a masterly evocation of fortitude, resignation, turpitude, and sheer bloody minded self-preservation in the face of fear, violent repression, and leaden-jawed dogma." He especially admired Tisma's use of shifting time-scales. Barbara Finkelstein, the New York Times Book Review's assignee for the novel, found it "sad and extraordinary" and "a profound piece of writing." Norris observed that Tisma's characters do not grow as a result of their war experiences; instead, the war "serves to emphasize their strengths and weaknesses…. Tisma's art is to draw the reader into a circle of intimacy with survivors and victims of the war." The war's horror, Norris asserted, is underlined by the lack of authorial commentary or of any metaphysical or moralizing content.
Similar aspects of Tisma's view of life were seen once again in the 1987 novel Kapo, published in English in 1993 under the same title. A kapo was a concentration camp prisoner who was placed in charge of other prisoners and therefore enjoyed limited privileges. The kapo in this novel is Vilko Lamian, a young, assimilated Bosnian Croat Jew who was raised as a Catholic. As a kapo in the multiethnic concentration camp of Jasenovac, and later Auschwitz, he participates in mass executions and in the rapes of female prisoners. The closest he comes to a redeeming act is to reassign Helena, his sole Jewish rape victim, to a light-duty unit.
The novel begins after the war, when the elderly Lamian, living quietly as a civil servant but in constant fear of exposure, sees Helena's name in a newspaper. It ends with what Bruce Allen, in the New York Times Book Review, called "a superbly imagined and deeply moving finale" in which the protagonist "confronts his fate." In between, the moral abyss of the concentration camps is shown unsparingly. Indeed, Ken Kalfus of the Voice Literary Supplement felt that Lamian was so odious as to provide fuel for anti-Semites. Other reviewers did not make that claim, but Allen did feel that the novel bogged down in Lamian's self-hatred. Nevertheless, in the opinion of Laurie Muchnik of the Washington Post Book World, Kapo was "a chilling portrait" and "a remarkably complicated, thought-provoking novel."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Chevalier, Tracy, editor, Contemporary World Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Chicago, IL), 1993, pp. 519-521.
New York Times Book Review, October 23, 1988; November 14, 1993, p. 67.
Publishers Weekly, June 28, 1993, p. 56.
Times (London, England), March 23, 1989.
Voice Literary Supplement, September, 1993, pp. 5-6.
Washington Post Book World, November 7, 1993, p. 11.
World Literature Today, winter, 1995, pp. 186-187.