Serbia’s Holocaust Memorist
Danilo Kiš’s fiction, newly translated, mined the Shoah with a Borgesian sense of mystery
In Danilo Kiš’s short story “The Knife With the Rosewood Handle,” the narrator claims that his tale “has only the misfortune … of being true,” but “to be true in the way its author dreams about, it would have to be told in Romanian, Hungarian, Ukrainian, or Yiddish; or, rather, in a mixture of all these languages,” along with some Russian. The instruction sounds airy, a tad scholarly. But, as we soon find out, this is a murder story: The languages come out of a woman as she is being stabbed to death. She speaks “in Romanian, in Polish, in Ukrainian, in Yiddish, as if her death were only the consequence of some great and fatal misunderstanding rooted in the Babylonian confusion of languages.” They ultimately give way to “Hebrew, the language of being and dying.”
This slyly gruesome scene is a good place to get a sense of the writing of Danilo Kiš, a Serbian born to an Eastern Orthodox mother and a Jewish father who, despite being baptized, identified as Jewish. The light but menacing ironic touch; the Babel (and babble) of tongues; a sudden, violent death somehow made strange; and a metaphysical Jewishness—these were key elements for Kiš, who emerged from the ruins of postwar Yugoslavia to become a major figure in Central European fiction. Mixing a modernist sense of history with Borgesian invention (though, like Leibniz and Newton coming to calculus, Kiš may have arrived at his style independently), Kiš fashioned a distinct polyglot literature, one that presented original responses to the dual terrors of Soviet communism and Nazi fascism.
Kiš remains far too unknown in the United States, despite being championed by the likes of Aleksandar Hemon, William Gass, and Philip Roth, who helped to introduce him to the English-speaking world by including him in his influential Writers From the Other Europe series. In 1980, under Roth’s editorship, Penguin published Kiš’s story collection A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, which included “The Knife With the Rosewood Handle.” Since then, amidst a period when major publishers have shown fitful interest in foreign fiction, Kiš’s work has been shepherded by university and independent presses. Several of his books remain untranslated, but this month, Dalkey Archive will publish new translations of two short novels and a story collection—The Attic, Psalm 44, and The Lute and the Scars—that offer an important chance to reassess his work and return him to the front ranks of world literature. What emerges most poignantly is the theme of inheritance, both literary and historical, and of how Kiš hacked through the thicket of memory to find, if not solace, then a tenuous accommodation with the past. In his writings on the Holocaust, Kiš also produced some precocious insights about the nature of remembrance and its potentially malign influence on art.
Kiš was born in 1935 in Subotica, a formerly Austro-Hungarian city that had recently become a Yugoslav border town and that featured one of Europe’s grandest synagogues. In 1944, Kiš suffered an early loss when his father died in Auschwitz. He and his remaining family rode out the rest of the war in Hungary (the homeland of his father, whose surname was originally Kon), before resettling in Montenegro. Kiš later graduated from the University of Belgrade and spent many years in Serbia, but he also taught in Hungary and France, where he mixed with a host of survivors and émigré intellectuals. He spent his last decade in Paris and died there of cancer in 1989.
In Yugoslavia, Kiš suffered abuse from the local writers union, whose hardline Stalinist members accused him of plagiarism, a charge that stemmed both from his Jewishness and from his being out of step with the dogmatic school of socialist realism. (He also tended to trumpet his non-Yugoslav influences, providing some ammunition for his nationalist critics.) In his introduction to A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, Joseph Brodsky says that this treatment was enough to send Kiš into a “nervous shock.”
Among the newly translated works published by Dalkey is Kiš’s first novel, The Attic. Written in 1960 and subtitled “A Satirical Poem,” the book is the story of a young writer living a bohemian life in Belgrade, where he courts a woman he calls Eurydice and lives in an insect-infested apartment. The novel has some witty moments, but it’s a scattershot collage, its varied parts less coherent and appealing than his later work.
The Attic is most interesting for what it reveals about how Kiš evolved as a writer. Like many first novels by young men, the author sings of himself, in the form of his fictional alter ego. But his first-person protagonist does so with a deprecating self-consciousness: “I was completely caught up in myself—that is, caught up in the vital issues of existence.” He then unleashes a long list of these concerns, ranging from “the issue of nourishment” to “the difference between culture and civilization.”
The novel also features some strange (and potentially illusory) journeys to Africa—in which Africans are a little too exoticized for comfort—and ends with the narrator, who sometimes calls himself Orpheus, running a seedy bar with his roommate. This is Kiš in the lab, messing around. Lists, pastiche, cosmic concerns set alongside the trivial—many of the tropes that would later serve Kiš so well are here, though noticeably absent are the death and historical trauma that would become the dark stars at the heart of his oeuvre.
“Haven’t I told you a hundred times that I am writing in order to emancipate myself from my egoism?” asks the novel’s Orpheus. It’s a canny remark—at once bombastic, self-flagellating, and sincere. But the other two newly translated Kiš works—the story collection The Lute and the Scars and the Holocaust novel Psalm 44—show that, if anything, his emancipation led to a new imprisonment, this time in the shadow of totalitarianism and genocide.
Written in 1960, Psalm 44 is not Danilo Kiš’s only Holocaust novel. (Garden, Ashes is about a boy whose father, a deluded genius, former railway worker, and failed businessman, is carted off to a camp. Hourglass is about an assimilated Jewish railroad inspector in wartime Yugoslavia. In both cases, Kiš makes heavy use of railroads—among the most loaded symbols of the war.) But it is his only one about Auschwitz, which claimed the lives of not just his father but also several other family members. And for its time (a generation removed from the Shoah, when the author was still in his twenties), Psalm 44 is a startlingly mature work. Based on a newspaper article about a child allegedly born in Auschwitz, the novel seizes on its maudlin premise without becoming mired in it.
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