'As if he were convulsed, or laughing': resurrecting Danilo Kiš

'As if he were convulsed, or laughing': resurrecting Danilo Kiš
Posted 19 December 2012 by Pete Mitchell

There's a story by Danilo Kiš in which the heretic Simon Magus wanders the deserts of the Middle East years after Jesus' resurrection, preaching that the god of the Christians is a tyrant and a bully. The very fact that He'll always win, says Simon, is reason enough to defy Him. Provoked into theological debate by St. Peter, he accepts a challenge: he'll be buried alive, and after three days he'll be resurrected just like Jesus himself. When, after the three days have elapsed, his companions and the curious villagers disinter him, they're hit by a horrible stench: 'The face of Simon Magus was a mass of leprous corruption, and his eye sockets had worms peering out of them. Only his yellowish teeth remained intact, grinning as if he were convulsed or laughing'.



It's a recurrent story in Kiš's works: the heretic who defies the senselessness of power, is destroyed for it, and leaves nothing to bear witness to his rebellion but a corpse, the horrifying and pathetic fact of his physical dissolution. It's a bleak vision, but Kiš had the talent and the nerve to make it sing, and he refused to countenance the idea that the gesture of rebellion might be entirely futile. In his masterpiece A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, the titular hero is one of his few characters for whom death is not quite the final and inevitable humiliation. He dives into a crucible of molten metal in an Arctic labour camp; 'he rose', Kiš writes, 'like a wisp of smoke, deaf to their commands, defiant, free from German shepherds, from cold, from heat, from punishment, and from remorse'.



Born to an ethnically mixed Jewish family in the late thirties in Subotica, then in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Kiš survived the Holocaust even as it wiped out most of his family. Although he spent much of his life in Belgrade, his relationship with the authorities was never easy, and he spent most of his decade in Paris. He died in 1989, aged fifty-four, just as the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were toppling, and just in time to miss out on the Nobel prize that was generally thought to be coming his way. Strangely, though, despite the approval of the Swedish Academy and the universal adoration of critics, his books have never really taken off in the Anglophone world: they're too manically allusive, too unforgiving, too unwilling to tell stories about totalitarianism that don't take place in moral twilight and end in defeat. Too many grinning corpses, maybe. And too much postmodern trickery: Kis idolised Borges, and even his most conventional books - like Garden, Ashes, his heavily autobiographical portrait of a childhood spent in the shadow of an eccentric father who died in Auschwitz - have a tendency to ditch the usual machinery of linear narrative, reliable narrators and satisfying resolutions.  But if the world can fall in love posthumously with Roberto Bolaño, another wilful experimentalist who liked to rub his readers' faces in the worst that humanity has to offer and offer no ready consolations, then it can fall in love with Kis again. (In fact, Bolaño's Nazi Literature of the Americas filches much of its structure and technique from A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, and it's sold mountains of copies.)



Dalkey Archive Press could be the publishing house to make it happen. They've been bringing out a run of new translations of Kiš's works over the past few years, starting with A Tomb... and Garden, Ashes. The latest additions to the series are two early novels, The Attic and Psalm 44, and a posthumous collection, The Lute and the Scars. They're handsome, well-translated books, and Dalkey have enlisted an impressive bunch of younger writers to introduce them: Adam Thirlwell for The Lute and the Scars and Aleksandar Hemon for Psalm 44.


The Attic and Psalm 44, both written when Kiš was in his twenties, are clearly young man's books, cocky and impassioned and slightly lacking in control. The Attic is the closest one can imagine a writer as heroically awkward as Kiš ever getting to a bildingsroman: it follows its protagonist, who refers to himself as Orpheus, though a series of amatory and alcoholic adventures in the titular garret, where he lives with his bohemian associates, leaving occasionally to drink and smart-alec his way through a shabby Belgrade, drunk on words and love and strong booze. It's a familiar set-up, but Kiš's chutzpah and ambition elevate it above the usual run of such novels; it's gobsmackingly original, perverse, and encyclopaedically allusive, and - for a writer who was to build a reputation confronting atrocity in all its guises - beguilingly sweet and funny. Psalm 44, a short and ferociously sad novel about a young woman and her newborn child in Auschwitz, is also a young man's book, but in a very different way: it's deadly serious, emotionally bulldozing and occasionally overwrought, and bursts with poetry even during passages of brutality that can, as translator John K Cox says in his afterword, 'suck the oxygen from your skull'.  Kiš would never be quite so direct again.



It's The Lute and the Scars, the last book in these three, that really essential. A series of fugitive pieces collected from his papers after his death, it proves how much more he still had to give. Here death is confronted less with the furious and blazing irony of his best works but with elegiac sadness and resolution: if the pieces are quieter, they're also more condensed, as if he'd finally found a way to pack all his teeming worlds into the shortest possible stories. So here are stories about emigre writers on the run from home, from oppression and from failure; a story about a nightmarish trip to Moscow to track down a lost relative; and a stunning piece in which a dying writer, gone beyond speech or consciousness, tots up all the debts he's accrued over his lifetime.



Had he lived, Kiš would have been in his seventies by now. He'd probably be an elder statesman of letters, students and bookworms round the world dutifully trudging through his beautiful, angry, erudite books and coming away baffled and shaken, with a feeling that the carpet had just been yanked from beneath their feet and a slight whiff of mortality in their nostrils. It's not easy to look at unpleasant things directly, but if, with Kiš, you can keep your gaze level and open, the rewards can be immense. The trick is not to look away.



Brilliant assessment of a writer much needed to awaken a comatose English literary sensibility.

Cy Lester
20 March 2015

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