Sept/Oct/Nov 2012

The Savage Detective

Danilo Kiš fictionalized the fantastic realities of Eastern Europe

Eric Banks


Many readers will recall their first encounter with Danilo Kis; as a high spot of the long ’80s. I know I do. The slender book of seven linked stories that decisively established his reputation here, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, was passed among friends like the faux-samizdat literature it coyly conjured. First published in English translation in 1978 but repurposed in the sleek early-’80s series of Penguin paperbacks edited by Philip Roth, Writers from the Other Europe, Boris Davidovich and its factitious tales of ill-fated revolutionaries established Kis as a master fabulist, his realer-than-real fiction thriving just a millimeter removed from the archives of Stalinist show trials and the testimony of their victims. (Anyone who cares about world literature owes a word of thanks to Roth, whose series championed not just Kis but a host of Eastern and Central European worthies, from Bruno Schulz and Witold Gombrowicz to the devastating pair of Tadeuszes, Konwicki and Borowski.) A hyperliterate expatriate and polemicist with a biography as complex as his soon-to-implode native Yugoslavia, Kis; was born in 1935 in what is now Serbia to a Jewish father murdered at Auschwitz and an Eastern Orthodox mother, relocated as a child to Novi Sad on the verge of the city’s 1942 anti-Semitic massacre, and was later educated in Tito-era Belgrade. He himself was the victim of a summary trial in the Yugoslav press over Boris Davidovich—ironically, he faced the charge that his close-to-life fictions amounted to plagiarism—which was one factor in his electing for self-exile in Paris, where he died in 1989 at age fifty-four.

So why was A Tomb for Boris Davidovich a coup de foudre three decades ago? The author’s arch tone and black humor, his fetish for obscure details, digressive footnotes, score-settling postscripts, and his overall air of scholarly precision, erudition, and dogged concision—all these seemed exactly of the moment yet somehow beyond it. As fiction masquerading as documentary, it was echt-postmodern. Yet it was utterly free of the monstrously vapid high jinks of much of the official pomo canon, all the pandering philosophical puzzles and end-of-history nostrums. “The reality of the [Soviet] camps,” Kis once said, “especially before Solzhenitsyn, struck Western readers as unreal, not to say fantastic. In my case the process had to be reversed; that is, I had to find a fantastic way of writing realistically.” And it was foremost literature. Through the pursed tone of Kis’s clipped chapters came marvelously tweaked details. Consider this description (in Duska Mikić-Mitchell’s translation) of the natal landscape of a certain Gould Verschoyle, an Irishman whose fantastic journey culminates in a Kazakh gulag, where he would be hung naked in front of the camp as a “warning to all those who dream of the impossible”:

Dublin is a city that breeds a menagerie of eccentrics, the most notorious in the whole Western world: nobly disappointed, aggressive bohemians, professors in redingotes, superfluous prostitutes, infamous drunkards, tattered prophets, fanatical revolutionaries, sick nationalists, flaming anarchists, widows decked out in combs and jewelry, hooded priests. All day long this carnivalesque cohort parades along the Liffey. In the absence of more reliable sources, Bourniquel’s picture of Dublin enables us to get a sense of the experience Gould Verschoyle would inevitably take with him from the island, an experience that is drawn into the soul just as the terrible stench of fish meal from the cannery near the harbor is drawn into the lungs.

Kis’s subsequent story cycle, The Encylopedia of the Dead, built on the same signature arch style, a mix of cold-blooded detachment and icy precision, inherited from Borges and purified through an urbane sensibility, part Parisian, part Belgradian. But however instantly recognizable that voice seemed, Kis was not just the staunch ironist signaled in these works. As more of his writing became available in translation—particularly the three-book “family cycle” he published in Yugoslavia between 1965 and 1972, Garden, Ashes, Early Sorrows, and Hourglass—a more promiscuous stylist came into view, one who drew on a range of literary influences, plaiting them to produce a dynamic series of titles dealing with his childhood and the disappearance of his father. An encounter with his most complex and most ambitious novel, 1972’s Hourglass (translated in 1990 by Ralph Manheim), and its shifting perspectives and appropriated genres (most notably a catechistic interrogation process of its father-figure protagonist), showed how formative the author’s own immersion in literature—particularly that of Bruno Schulz, to whom he tips his hat in his title—had been.

Kis was not a prolific writer of fiction, his motivation coming only in spurts. “I sit down to write at that rare moment (now rarer and rarer),” he noted in 1978, “when my cup has overflowed, when an intellectual, moral, or lyrical dilemma or doubt has grown to such dimensions within me that I feel the need to communicate it to someone. That is what accounts for the modest size of my bibliography.” For American readers, any addition to that meager number is surely welcome, and Dalkey Archive Press has accommodated now by publishing three works not previously available in English, all in John K. Cox’s translation: Kis’s first two novels, The Attic and Psalm 44, originally published together in Yugoslavia in 1962, and a collection of late stories, The Lute and the Scars, written between 1980 and 1986 and transcribed from the manuscripts left by Kis at his death. Taken as a whole, this set, though uneven, offers intriguing clues into Kis’s development as a writer.

It’s astounding to learn from Cox’s notes that The Attic and Psalm 44 were once published as a unit, because they couldn’t be further apart in theme or spirit. The former is a self-consciously experimental, often slapdash pastiche of the travails of a young bohemian writer, identified as Orpheus, as he navigates a landscape of love and squalor; the latter is a melodramatic Holocaust novella about the escape of a young mother and her infant child from what is apparently Auschwitz in the waning days of the war. Neither garnered more than a passing recollection in Kis’s later reflections on his career, and though he never disowned the books, he recognized them as juvenilia (and according to a note in his collection of interviews and essays, Homo Poeticus, he decided prior to his death against permitting new, separate editions or translations of Psalm 44). The Attic and Psalm 44 are the works of a very green author, and reading them as an introduction to Kis’s work is a bit like reading Soldiers’ Pay as a gateway to The Sound and the Fury. But both do have the one advantage of showing the young Kis as a writer who was already struggling with sophisticated questions about the relation of fiction to the hard facts of documentary evidence even if he had yet to figure out satisfactory solutions.

“I’m incapable of writing a book out of thin air,” Kis told an interviewer in 1988. “Even as a reader, I have trouble with purely imaginative fiction: I see through its artifices and am left with a mist or void.” The Attic and Psalm 44 are rival efforts to spin fiction out of found sources, whether documentary or literary. Psalm 44, which Kis wrote hastily for a competition sponsored by a Jewish organization in Belgrade, was based on a newspaper article he found, about a family of Holocaust survivors who return after the war to visit Auschwitz with their child, who had been born in the camp. Though it’s difficult to tell how much the novella depended on Kis’s research, several of its characters are thinly veiled (if also thinly drawn) versions of real-life actors in the story, including a Nazi doctor based on Josef Mengele. The Attic is more flagrant in leaning on its “sources,” incorporating long, undigested passages of found text, most notably chunks of The Magic Mountain, which show up in the narrative without any authorial setup and echo the otherworldly heights of the nascent writer’s garret.

The Attic revels in its allusiveness. Orpheus imaginatively transports himself to a South Seas locale (“the Bay of Dolphins”) where he undertakes translations of texts from a Polynesian dialect; later, a diary represents the time he has spent in exilic seclusion on an island with his dog Argus. Wordplay and lists proliferate throughout this book-about-books, which culminates in­­—voilŕ!—Orpheus composing the volume The Attic. Fantasizing about operating a seaside restaurant with his foil Billy Wiseass, he devises a menu and wine list of comical names (“dragonfly in mayonnaise,” “Chinese warrior with mint,” “Braˇc shipwreck in white wine”) that stretches on for four pages. In a text where fantasy and reality are often hard to distinguish, and where almost arbitrary jumps in the narrative are interspersed with long descriptive passages of Orphean settings, Kis is already concerned with the disjuncture of the fictional and the real. “We wanted to become wealthy, powerful,” Orpheus thinks, to justify the restaurant scheme. “In order to buy ourselves a yacht (it had already been named Eurydice, what else?) and sail the seven seas, visit all the continents. Of course our first mission would have been to visit the Bay of Dolphins. To verify its existence.

Unlike the free-for-all The Attic, there was little need for italics in Psalm 44 to signal the underlying reality. Uncharacteristically for a writer who made indirection a technical imperative, Kis approaches the Holocaust head-on, and in flashbacks his young mother Marija recalls the rise of anti-Semitic violence in various settings—first a rural village where she has been sent for her safety, later Novi Sad, where she witnesses the atrocities of 1942. Her perspective is of a young person who only dimly understands what it means to be persecuted, much less the growing war against the Jews, and Kis tries to capture the murk of her diminished consciousness in vaguely foggy prose. But the attempts to give Marija’s thoughts the weight of fiction feel at once overdetermined and undernourished.

For Kis, Psalm 44 marked a significant point of departure. “The weakness of that piece of juvenilia,” he said in 1986, “is not so much the plot—though it is too charged, overwrought—as the fatal absence of ironic detachment, an element that later became an integral part of my literary approach.” He would thereafter sound his great themes more obliquely and identify lyricism as a threat to be avoided at all costs, a point he made again and again in the numerous interviews he gave throughout the ’70s and ’80s. “Lyricism is dangerous in prose,” he claimed, “and if I constantly purge my texts, cut them, if I’m sarcastic, it’s to keep lyricism from gaining the upper hand.” The Lute and the Scars presents the payoff for this resistance—Kis’s career-long struggle to confront and supersede Adorno’s well-known dictum on lyric poetry after Auschwitz.

• • •

The seven stories in The Lute and the Scars are gems of compressed Kis, and despite the sense that a few remained unfinished at the writer’s death, they rarely feel like the abandoned scraps or undeveloped ideas rescued from the files of a departed author. Their themes are varied, though several center on the fate of writers obscure or otherwise—a quality he shares with another writer, Roberto Bolańo, whose oeuvre (particularly the Boris Davidovich–esque Nazi Literature in the Americas), short life, and flamboyant reception in the States mirror those of Kis. “The Stateless One” describes the peripatetic end of a real literary figure, one Ödön von Horváth, and his appointment with death in 1938 in Paris, where he had been dispatched by a fortune-teller in Amsterdam. (Comically, the last thing to pass through the writer’s mind as he steps out into the street, where he will be decapitated by a flying tree branch in a freak storm, is Paul Valéry’s despised line “The marquise went out at precisely five o’clock.” Apparently lyricism is as fatal in life as in prose!) “The Debt” imagines the final thoughts of his Bosnian writer Ivo Andri´c as he lies unconscious on his deathbed in a Yugoslav hospital and recounts, one by one, all those he owes payment for acts of kindness large and small, from the waiter who served him “herbal tea the way I like it” to the “unknown guard at the prison in Maribor, who pushed a scrap of paper and a tiny pencil under my door when writing meant survival for me.” It’s at once a touching homage to Andri´c and a thumbnail biography of the imagined life of an imagined novelist. “The Poet” tells the story of the ultimate poet manqué, an apparently dim-witted scribbler arrested as the author of a ditty slandering Tito who is sent to a bare cell until he can produce a poem that “sounds like something Mayakovsky wrote.” As he turns out an apparently quite profound piece of patriotic poetry, his guards return him again and again to confinement until the masterpiece is perfected. Most of the pieces here have the allegorical tint of “The Poet,” but in the title story, “The Lute and the Scars,” Kis draws generously from his autobiography, summoning the Belgrade of his student days to tell of a trip with a theater company to Moscow, where he will fulfill his promise to his elderly Yugoslav landlord to try to track down the remnants of her family in the Soviet city.

The most accomplished story in the collection is “Jurij Golec,” a moving tale of the melancholy ambiguities of the expat experience in Paris. “I live in the 10th arrondissement and I do not suffer from homesickness,” the story begins. “On sunny days, I am woken up by the birds, like in Voˇzdovac. Through the open door on my balcony I hear the Serbs shouting and cursing at each other; in the early light of dawn, as they are letting their engines warm up, accordion notes come tumbling out of their tape recorders. For a moment I don’t remember where I am.” Here, Kis narrates the attempts of the eponymous Golec (whose name, Kis notes, is taken from one of those “that my unfortunate friend Piotr Rawicz assigned the narrator in his one novel, Blood from the Sky”) to acquire the gun he will use to kill himself after his wife’s sudden death. “Jurij Golec” departs only fleetingly from the real details of Rawicz’s life, his suicide, and the circle of Eastern Europeans whom he brought together. In his postscript, Kis ticks off an exhaustive inventory of the costly collection of furs that Golec’s wife has left behind in her closet (“mink, silver fox, arctic fox, lynx, Canadian wolf, astrakhan,” etc.) and recalls, with a bravura twist, the great variety of worlds these objects open up: “métiers, market forces, money, adventure, hunting, weapons, knives, traps, blood, animal anatomy, zoology, far-off exotic regions, nocturnal animal noises, Lafontaine’s fables; great are the temptations of a tale.” And then, in a final turn of his literary pretzel logic, Kis coolly reminds us that this is not just a story but an homage of sorts to a real dead friend: “In contrast to a novel, however, one may not, in a tale, open the doors of the cabinets with impunity.”

Eric Banks is the former editor in chief of Bookforum and the president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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