Serbia’s Holocaust Memorist
Danilo Kiš’s fiction, newly translated, mined the Shoah with a Borgesian sense of mystery
Psalm 44 takes place mostly during one anguished night as Marija, a camp prisoner who has secretly given birth to a boy, plans an escape with her friend Zana. The prose unspools in long, feverish sentences as Marija watches another prisoner, Polja, dying in a nearby bed and wonders whether they are betraying her by fleeing. Waiting for a signal from a generous kapo, Marija tends to her baby in the barracks, where “the rhythmic beaming of the floodlights that entered through a crack in the wall tore again and again, clawlike, at the darkness.” She fixates on physical cues, such as Polja’s “quiet gurgling, which was no longer communication in any earthly language but simply a slight whisper in the tongue of death itself.”
Thankfully, there is no cheap moralizing here about the child as a miracle out of the darkness. He is merely an accident (and, when he cries, a liability), one born out of a clandestine affair between Marija and Jakob, a Jewish doctor who has been pressed into the service of Dr. Nietzsche, the novel’s Mengele doppelganger. The translator’s afterword tells us that Kiš regretted calling his evil doctor Nietszsche; he considered it heavy-handed. Indeed, it is a mistake, but one that doesn’t leave the novel hamstrung. (Other small missteps appear, such as when Dr. Nietzsche uses the term “genocide,” which wasn’t formally defined until 1944 and likely would have been unknown to him. The fault may be the translator’s.)
But Dr. Nietzsche is genuinely menacing and illustrative of the perverse philosophy of Nazi eugenics. One night, he enters Jakob’s room—Marija, post-coital, ducks into the wardrobe—where he resembles a vulture circling his prey. Beginning in a roundabout, oracular manner, he eventually comes out with it: Should the Nazis lose (the Russian guns can be heard in the distance), Dr. Nietzsche wants Jakob to preserve a “collection of skulls” of Jews. Continuing, he instructs Jakob to “endeavor to prevent the destruction of these valuable collections that could wind up being the only remaining evidence of your extinct race.” It’s an apt reflection of the almost science-fictional messianism underlying Nazism: Their barbarisms must be preserved for posterity.
After the war, Marija and Jakob, having survived and reunited, visit Auschwitz. Here is where Kiš shows particular prescience, anticipating the insufficiency of historical remembrance, the way that these manicured sites and their guided tours can appear unintentionally banal. They witness a boy snatch a pair of rusted glasses from a pile, put them on, and yell, “Ich bin Jude!” to the delight of his friends, before chucking the glasses back onto the pile. Later, some tourists approach the morbid curiosities that have become part of the Nazi doctors’ legacy: “a group being led by a docent stopped in front of the cases with the little malformed creatures and listened to the monotone explanation, as professional and as indifferent as could be.”
Secure with his Christian mother in Hungary, Kiš escaped the camps, but he dealt with survivors all his life. In The Lute and the Scars, the story “Jurij Golec” concerns a survivor living in Paris who, after his wife dies, asks the narrator to find him a gun so that he can commit suicide. Golec is unable to reason himself out of this decision: “I started searching for books that would give me strength to keep on living. And I arrived at the tragic conclusion that all the books I had devoured over the decades were of no use to me in that decisive hour.” As with the well-ordered Auschwitz museum, the trappings of civilization provide comfort for those who didn’t have to face the war rather than those who suffered through it.
“Jurij Golec” doubles as a requiem for the author’s friend. The story’s postscript tells us that Golec is “merely one of the names that my unfortunate friend Piotr Rawicz assigned the narrator in his one novel, Blood From the Sky.” A pitiful sadness hangs over this brief note—the use of “merely” and “unfortunate,” even the detail that it was his “one novel.” Like Golec, Rawicz was an Auschwitz survivor who committed suicide after his wife died.
“Jurij Golec” reflects the twin strands of influence and remembrance that run through Kiš’s work. Few writers have dealt so directly with their forebears as Kiš, who often made them his stories’ protagonists. He titled one of his novels Hourglass, which Aleksandar Hemon, in his introduction to a 2003 edition of Garden, Ashes, argues is an homage to Bruno Schulz’s Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. He’s likely partly correct, as a letter from his father that Kiš used in Hourglass also mentions that he’s considering writing “a bourgeois horror novel,” which he might title Hourglass.
Each of the stories in The Tomb of Boris Davidovich is dedicated to a different writer. The title story from The Lute and the Scars contains a postscript offering that it was written “under the influence of Truman Capote.” (Upon his death, Kiš left behind extensive notes about his work, including proposed tables of contents for future story collections.) “The Debt” is about a dying Ivo Andric, attempting to settle last accounts. The story is told mostly in the form of a list of brief statements that form an ersatz will—e.g., “To Ana Matkovsek, who taught me the language of flowers and herbs: two crowns.”
Kiš’s reverence isn’t mere name-checking. It’s rather a more obvious manifestation of his intimate relationship with the culture and history (as well as the familial legacy) on which he continually drew. And yet, the question of influence becomes thornier when considering Borges, the writer whom Kiš may most resemble. In his introduction to The Lute and the Scars, Adam Thirlwell quotes from some of Kiš’s writings on Borges, in which he praises the Argentine’s use of “documents” as “the surest way to make a story seem both convincing and true.” Poems, newspapers, books, and the like are always cropping up in Kiš’s work. But Thirlwell also mentions that Borges wasn’t translated into Serbo-Croatian until the 1970s, by which time Kiš had been publishing for a dozen or more years. And even early in his career Kiš displayed some Borgesian tics. In The Attic, for example, the author includes a chunk of dialogue, in French, from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain—the sort of technique that calls to mind Borges’ repurposing of Don Quixote.
Jacques Berlinerblau’s book How To be Secular makes a historical case for a strong church-state division