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Serbia’s Holocaust Memorist

Danilo Kiš’s fiction, newly translated, mined the Shoah with a Borgesian sense of mystery

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Danilo Kiš in Paris, 1982. (Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis)
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The Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich is, like much of his fiction, filled with Nazis, the ultimate evil

Later in his career, when he began to publicly acknowledge Borges as a supreme figure in the history of the short story, Kiš claimed that A Tomb for Boris Davidovich was his response to A Short History of Infamy, Borges’ compendium of tales about criminals. What Kiš seemed to find in Borges, then, was an artist of similar temperament, whose example spurred Kiš to amplify some of his own tendencies.

Yet there are some important differences between the two. Both used the instrumentation of “false documents”—discovered texts, police reports, remarks from real historical personages—to further a sense of verisimilitude. Kiš also used these materials to state in fiction what could not be said in life. In Hourglass, Kiš includes a wartime letter from his father, complaining about problems with relatives and other petty matters. Ported to the realm of fiction, the letter takes on the haunting effect of its surrounding context; it resonates with the knowledge that last words are rarely planned.

And whereas Borges, a lifelong librarian, emphasized the mystery and magic of found texts, Kiš drew from a world in which they could be dangerous. In the marvelous story “The Poet,” a pensioner is arrested for posting a poem critical of Tito. (It’s just after the end of the war.) Rain has destroyed the poem, so the pensioner is forced to recreate the poem from memory. Except he can’t remember it, so his interrogators make him write a new poem, rewriting it again and again, continually “improving” it until they are satisfied. The story combines the absurdism of communist totalitarianism (Brodsky’s jailers also asked him who gave him the authority to write poetry) with the fascist mania for evidence and precision. It also literalizes the philosophical notion of art as a vehicle for personal liberation.

“The documents we use speak the terrible language of facts,” Kiš writes in “The Knife With the Rosewood Handle,” “and in them the word ‘soul’ has the sound of sacrilege.” Kiš came of age in a time when documents could send someone—a father, say—to his death. To make them the heart of his fiction was both a capitulation and an act of reclamation. He may have had in mind the original Psalm 44, which asks why God abandoned his people, who kept the “covenant,” that ultimate document of faith.


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irvingdog says:

I think the author means the “Babel confusion of languages”

irvingdog says:

I think the author means the “Babel confusion of languages”

Pam Green says:

There is something very cold, very aloof and clinical and unsympathetic, about this review. And I wonder why the reviewer decided to write in this dispassionate tone, about a Serbian writer clearly haunted by the Holocaust, who lost his father in Auschwitz and many friends to suicide. Jacob Silverman’s mean-spirited attitude is revealed (at least for me) when he tells us that the short story has merely a “metaphysical Jewishness” because Danilo Kis is not really a Jew, as his mother was Eastern Orthodox. To make such a distinction, here, in relation to this writer, is an obscenity! But perhaps Silverman is unaware of the history of the Serbian Jews, and the Serbian Orthodox who refused to turn them over to the Nazis, who died by the millions rather than cooperate with Nazis and their local surrogates, the Croats.

I understand his ignorance; I was ignorant too until I read the brief biography of Jared Israel on his website tenc dot net. (Click on ‘Who We Are’ to find this section.) First, he writes, “I always knew about the Serbs. When I was little, maybe five, my father gave me these old-fashioned-type shoes that sort of rolled up in the front. He said they were Serbian shoes. I used to wear them with my Robin Hood hat plus I had a magic wand. My father asked what I was doing and I said magic to help people and my father said, “Maybe you’re right. Those are the shoes of the people who stopped Hitler.”

Then Jared quotes a long portion from the book, The Serbs Chose War, by Ruth Mitchell. It’s a must read for every Jew. And finally Jared explains why he began his website, to tell the truth about the Bosnian War. He writes, “Early in the breakup of Yugoslavia, which overwhelming evidence proves was instigated by Washington and Berlin, leaders of powerful American Jewish organizations took out a full-page advertisement in the N.Y. Times. Citing false information, they condemned the Serbs out of hand, calling them fascists. It is impossible to overstate the harm this did to the Serbian people. The Serbs were being attacked by neo-fascists in Croatia and Islamist terrorists in Bosnia. These Islamist terrorists ran the so-called Bosnian government. Our media rather incredibly described the Islamist government as broad-minded and democratic. And now the leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress publicly attacked the Serbs as fascists. Imagine how the Serbs felt, unjustly demonized in the Western media and now attacked by supposed leaders of the people they had died to protect. And because everyone knows Jewish people suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis, when Jewish leaders called Serbs “the new Nazis” and called President Milosevic “the new Hitler,” these lying accusations carried weight. The sheer monstrousness of the injustice hit me. How could these leaders, speaking in the name of me and other American Jews, publish lies about these people? What did they do it for? To curry favor with leaders in Washington?”

So, Jacob Silverman, literary critic, your polished prose and clever insights seem – to borrow your own words – airy, a tad scholarly, and precocious. Please read what Jared Israel and Ruth Benedict have to say and maybe you’ll agree with me that every Serb is an honorary Jew and that the Jewish community must make up for our ignorance and repay our debt to these great, honorable and loving friends.

Thank you very much for this insightful review. I have read all the novels of Kis translated into English; I look forward to this new collection. I am sure you know, although your readers may not, that Kis is part of the trilogy of postwar Serbian Jewish writers, all of them very much worth reading: Aleksander Tisma lived not far from Kis (the former in Novi Sad; the latter in Subotica) and set a trilogy of translated novels–all revolving around the Holocaust and its aftermath, in Novi Sad. Tisma is also no longer with us. David Albahari very much is. His novel Götz and Meyer is remarkable.

Thanks for your response, Edward. I haven’t been able to get to Tisma but have heard good things, so that’s a welcome reminder. And I share your love of Albahari’s work, with “Götz and Meyer” being my favorite as well. (I didn’t care as much for “Leeches” but found some things to appreciate in it.)

Natan79 says:

Pam Green, you say Danilo Kis was not really a Jew because his mother was Christian. Yet his father was Jewish, and this certainly made him Jewish in Eastern Europe and for Hitler. Moreover, given that Danilo Kis was not Christian and maintained a strong sense of Jewishness throughout his life and novels (if you actually manage to read them), he was a Jew and he would have been eligible for being an Israeli citizen under the Law of Return.

Your comment sounds like that of a typical Ashkenazi American Jew or Western Europe Jew, forever stultified by Orthodox rabbis. Really, who are you to say who is a Jew or who is not? I am glad your view does NOT win. In Israel, people like Danilo Kis are received with open arms by the state, even though the draft-dodging religious crowd and people like yourself tell them they’re not Jews.

In the Israeli army I knew a man from Moscow whose name was Andrei Rosenfeld, with a Jewish father and a Russian mother. He grew as an atheist under Communism, as 99 % of urban Eastern European youth grew. He told me: “Eh, I was a Jew for the Russians and now I’m a Russian for the Jews.” He was referring to people like yourself and to hundreds of thousands of I’m-so-holy fellows who, you see, never quite had the time to defend Israel. Shame on you, Pam Green!

Pam Green says:

You misunderstood me entirely; I said quite the opposite of what you imply! I was upset that the reviewer did not regard Danilo Kis as Jewish. I said “I was put off” when the reviewer even brought this up! And I was put off, for the very reason you are upset with me! How could you so misinterpret my comment?

In fact, when I first read the review, I thought it was cold and clinical and too clever. I was terribly upset. But then I calmed down and thought that I had probably misjudged Jacob Silverman, so I rewrote my comment to soften it. But obviously, I was not clear, so I apologize.

Branislav says:

In my opinion Danilo Kiš was a great writer, first and foremost. It wasn’t his choice, as he was a very small child, to be baptized in a Serbian orthodox church, to become by that, as one might conclude, a Serb, but it was definitely his choice to be buried as one; the burial ritual itself was Serbian orthodox, as Danilo Kiš wished it to be. Nevertheless, his ties with the Jewish culture were very strong, as well, it’s evident, one just have to read what he wrote. First and foremost, that’s what he is: a great novelist.


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Serbia’s Holocaust Memorist

Danilo Kiš’s fiction, newly translated, mined the Shoah with a Borgesian sense of mystery

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