Kiš, Danilo

views updated

KIŠ, Danilo

Nationality: Yugoslav. Born: Subotica, 22 February 1935. Education: Belgrade University, degree in comparative literature 1958. Career: Editor, Vidici; spent several years in France as lecturer in Serbo-Croat at various universities. Awards: NIN prize, 1973; Goran prize, 1977. Died: October 1989.


Short Stories

Rani jadi [Early Miseries]. 1970.

Grobnica za Borisa Davidoviča. 1976; as A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, 1978.

Enciklopedija mrtvih. 1983; as The Encyclopedia of the Dead, 1989.


Mansarda; Psalam 44 [The Garret, Psalm 44]. 1962.

Bašta, pepeo. 1965; as Garden, Ashes, 1976.

Peščanik. 1972; as Hourglass, 1990.


Elektra (produced 1969).

Noć i magla [Night and Mist] (includes Papagaj [The Parrot],Drveni sanduk Tomasa Vulfa [The Wooden Coffin of Thomas Wolfe], Mehanički lavovi [The Mechanical Lions]). 1983.


Po-etika [Poetics] (essays). 2 vols., 1972-74.

Čaš anatomije [The Anatomy Lesson] (essays). 1978.

Homo poeticus. 1983.

Sabrana dela [Collected Works]. 10 vols., 1983.

Homo Poeticus: Essays and Interviews. 1995.

Editor, with Mirjana Miočinović, Sabrana dela [Collected Works], by Lautréamont. 1964.



in The Encyclopedia of the Dead, 1989.

Critical Studies:

"Imaginary-Real Lives: On Kiš" by Norbert Czarny, in Cross Currents, 1984; "Kiš: From 'Enchantment' to 'Documentation"' by Branko Gorjup, in Canadian Slavic Papers, December 1987; "Kiš: Encyclopedia of the Dead " by Predrag Matvejevic, in Cross Currents, 1988; "The Awakening of the Sleepers in Kiš's Encyclopedia of the Dead " by Jelena S. Bankovic-Rosul, in Serbian Studies, Spring 1990; "Kiš, 1935-1989" by Gyorgy Spiro, in The New Hungarian Quarterly, Autumn 1990; "Silk, Scissors, Gardens, Ashes: The Autobiographical Writing of Irena Vrkljan and Danilo Kiš" by Celia Hawkesworth, in Literature and Politics in Eastern Europe edited by Celia Hawkesworth, 1992; The Review of Contemporary Fiction: Paul Auster/Danilo Kiŝ, 1994.

* * *

Danilo Kiš was the son of a Hungarian Jew railroad official and a Greek-Orthodox mother from Montenegro. He spent his childhood in Novi Sad until the family fled persecution to Western Hungary in 1942. His father was deported to Auschwitz in 1944. After the war Kiš studied at Belgrade, where he received the first degree granted in comparative literature in 1958. He published translations from French (Baudelaire, Lautrémont, Queneau) and Russian (Mandel'shtam, Zwetajewa), and his literary debut was the novel Mansarda in 1962. Kiš taught Serbo-Croatian language and literature at Strassburg, Bordeaux, and Lille, then lived in Paris until his death from cancer in 1989 at age 54. In France his work is compared with that of Nabokov and Borges, as well as to the nouveau roman, especially the novel Peščanik (Hourglass); in the central European context one thinks of Bruno Schulz and Isaak Babel as kindred artists. The critic Predrag Matvejevic writes: "In the areas of policy and history he would, I believe, be a supporter of Orwell or Koestler's views."

Rane jadi (Early Miseries) was Kiš's first cycle of stories, which he wrote for "children and sensitive people." Not translated into English, it was the prototype for Kiš's thematic book of stories. The collection of short fiction Grobnica za Borisa Davidoviča was published in Yugoslavia in 1976 and in the United States under the title A Tomb for Boris Davidovich two years later. It consists of seven stories depicting the lives and the terrible deaths of seven men, ranging from the Inquisition in France to Stalin's Russia, where most of the stories take place. All of the men who die are Jewish, all are radicals, revolutionaries, or postrevolutionary communist officials. None of the characters are Yugoslavian; they are Russians, Poles, Rumanians, even beyond Eastern Europe, from Ireland and medieval France. The book was published in Yugoslavia only against great opposition, because it could be understood as an anti-communist manifesto and also because of still prevalent if latent anti-Semitic attitudes. The true grounds were masked by charges of plagiarism, as recounted by Joseph Brodsky and Ernst Pawel. Irving Howe called this book "absolutely first-rate … one of the best things I've ever seen on the whole experience of communism in Eastern Europe."

The collection is identified as a novel, despite the fact that all characters appear in but a single story and despite the wide range of the stories through space and time. Its subtitle, "Sedam poglavlja jedne zajednicke povesti" (Seven Chapters of a Single Story), is omitted in the English translation. Kiš's thematic groupings of stories, which he called novels, were justified by him with reference to Babel's Red Cavalry, Sartre's The Wall, and Camus's Exile and Kingdom. Despite the gruesome subject matter, the tone is ironic, full of understatement; Kiš is often pedantic in his reference to authentic or imaginary source materials, with what critic Zimmermann called a "fusion of explicit editorial commentary with poetic narration." In "The Mechanical Lions," an imaginary account of a visit by the French socialist leader Édouard Herriot to postrevolutionary Russia, Kiš admits his sources are often fabrications, allowing the author "the deceptive idea that he is creating the world and thereby, as they say, changing it." In "The Mechanical Lions" only the Frenchman is an authentic historical personage; the story is devoted to an elaborate private staging of a religious service in the Cathedral of Saint Sofia to pander to the religious sensibilities of the Frenchman, perceived as a contradiction to his professed socialism. The later execution of the Russian planner of this deception is almost an afterthought, although it links the story with the others of horrible torture and death in the gulags of the Stalinist period: "After nine months of solitary confinement and dreadful torture, during which almost all his teeth were knocked out and his collarbone broken, Miksha finally asked to see the interrogator" (from "The Knife with the Rosewood Handle"). In the title story the tortured Novsky, in an epic struggle with his interrogator, refuses to confess to imaginary crimes until his will is broken by having to witness a series of innocent young men being executed in his presence because of his resistance. Novsky dies much later in flight from a Siberian prison camp, at a foundry when he dives into a vat of molten steel to avoid being taken alive. In "The Short Biography of A. A. Darmalatov" a Russian Jewish author dies a natural death, after selling out his personal integrity, publishing obsequious party-line works in order to survive. Naturally this exception to the pattern of torture and executions has a particular relevance to Kiš himself and his options as a writer in a socialist country that sought adherence to doctrines and dogmas. In "The Sow that Eats Her Farrow" Gould Verschoyle, an Irish leftist fighting in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, is abducted to Russia and a prison camp where he dies trying to escape in 1945. His crime had been to assert that the Russians were trying to control the Republican side in the conflict (that is, he had been telling the truth). The story "Psi i knjige" ("Dogs and Books") describes the slaughter of Jews who refused to convert to Christianity in Toulouse in 1330. The chief character, Baruch David Neumann, is related to the Russian character Boris Davidovich Novsky in Stalin's time by name and dates of arrest. In a note the story is presented not as an original fictional work of Kiš but as a found document, a chapter of a contemporary book on the Inquisition by the future pope Benedict XII. "Dogs and Books" is clearly meant to extend the topic of persecution (of Jews) on a religious or ideological basis back into history, as a general principle of Western behavior. But Kiš also remarked: "Jewishness here, as in my earlier books, is only an effect of defamiliarization. Whoever fails to understand this understands nothing of the mechanism of literary transposition."

The only other collection of short fiction by Kiš to be translated into English is Enciklopedija mrtvih, published in Zagreb in 1983. It appeared as The Encyclopedia of the Dead in New York in 1989. Here the title indicates the genre, but the random alphabetical order of an encyclopedia is belied by the single theme of death: "All the stories in this book to a greater or lesser degree reflect a theme to which I would refer as metaphysical; from the Gilgamesh epic, the question of death has been one of the obsessive themes of literature" (from "Postscript"). The Encyclopedia of the Dead comprises nine stories, and the "Post Scriptum" provides a tenth fictional text. A Tomb for Boris Davidovich also addressed the topic of death, but from the specific limited aspect of death as punishment meted out by the state in controlling the people; the novel Hourglass portrayed the persecution and death in the Holocaust of Kiš's own father, called Eduard Sam in Kiš's novel trilogy. Here Kiš undertakes an encyclopedic approach to death in its widest historical, mystical, and metaphysical dimensions. The time of the stories ranges from shortly after the death of Christ in Palestine through ancient settings in Syria, Anatolia, and Epheseus to modern Europe. In the title story the female narrator gains access to the Royal Library in Sweden after hours, where she discovers a library dedicated to recording the death and the total previous lives of all those human beings left uncommemorated by history. The encyclopedia records begin shortly after 1789. She rushes to the room with the records of her father, who recently died, and she experiences the events of his life in a vivid panorama of their family history, which literally springs from the page. The most minute details and facts not only from the life of the deceased but of those close to him are recorded in books chained to iron rings on the shelves. Leafing through one of the thousands of books under the letter M, the family name, she realizes that all famous persons are absent, although those famous persons she checks for are laughably obscure. Magically, the complete lives of countless millions of obscure humans have been preserved; they have not been lost forever in the forward march of time. About some executions at the end of World War II, she writes: "For The Encyclopedia of the Dead, history is the sum of human destinies, the totality of ephemeral happenings. That it is why it records every action, every thought, every creative breath, every spot height in the survey, every shovelful of mud, every motion that cleared a brick from the ruins." Characteristically, Kiš has his female character seek the records of her deceased father, a project to which he himself devoted much of his creative energy, including a whole trilogy of novels. In the concluding postscript, along with many pseudo-references and bibliographical notes, Kiš claims that he later discovered that such an immense library actually exists: a project by the Mormon Church in Utah to record the names—they have reached 18 billion—of all human beings living and dead, on microfilm.

The story "The Legend of Sleepers" is an account, based on Christian, Talmudic, and Moslem sources, of a group of young men who flee from persecution, sleep in a cave for 300 years, awake for a time, only to die again. Resurrection of the dead in Kiš's version is made possible by love: in one of the sleepers there has remained the memory of a princess. After a dreamy visit to the living the men are buried again in their cave. Another fantastic story is "Simon Magnus," a religious mystic and magician competing against the early Christians in Palestine. Challenged by Peter, Simon is able to ascend into the heavens physically, enabled by a great vision of the horror of the human condition, the suffering of all living things, only to fall dead to the earth. Seeking a further miracle, the people dig him up again after three days, only to find a putrefying corpse. According to his follower, the prostitute Sophia, this is a final proof of the correctness of his teachings: "Man's life is decay and perdition, and the world is in the hands of tyrants." Other stories treat premonitions of the death of loved ones, such as "The Mirror of the Unknown" and "The Story of the Master and the Disciple," a fictitious account of the genealogy of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion ("The Book of Kings and Fools"). There is even a parody of scholarly research, petty and pedantic, in "Red Stamps with Lenin's Picture," in which the brief love of a deceased famous man, Mendel Osipovich, a Stalinist victim, claims her place in the footnotes of literary history. Thus the Encyclopedia collection ends in a comic vein.

—Russell E. Brown

About this article

Kiš, Danilo

Updated About content Print Article Share Article