Serbia’s Holocaust Memorist
Danilo Kiš’s fiction, newly translated, mined the Shoah with a Borgesian sense of mystery
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.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Jacques Berlinerblau’s book How To be Secular makes a historical case for a strong church-state division