Being and Dying

The Encyclopedia of the Dead

by Danilo Kiš, translated by Michael Henry Heim
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 199 pp., $17.95

Danilo Kiš was born in Subotica. To my Western ears, the name seems that of an imaginary city. It is located in Yugoslavia, a country put together out of bits and pieces like Dr. Frankenstein’s notorious experiment: impressive that it can walk at all, but making any move with difficulty. The city is near enough the Hungarian and Romanian borders that I can easily conceive it drifting into either one like a cloud: a dozen languages intermingling, languages rearranging their vowels to resemble one another the way the politicians do. “The story I am about to tell,” the narrator of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich begins,

a story born in doubt and perplexity, has only the misfortune (some call it the fortune) of being true: it was recorded by the hands of honorable people and reliable witnesses. But to be true in the way its author dreams about, it would have to be told in Roumanian, Hungarian, Ukrainian, or Yiddish; or, rather, in a mixture of all these languages. Then by the logic of chance and of murky, deep, unconscious happenings, through the consciousness of the narrator, there would flash also a Russian word or two, now a tender one like telyatina, now a hard one like kinjal. If the narrator, therefore, could reach the unattainable, terrifying moment of Babel, the humble pleadings and awful beseechings of Hanna Krzyzewska would resound in Roumanian, in Polish, in Ukrainian (as if her death were only the consequence of some great and fatal misunderstanding), and then just before the death rattle and final calm her incoherence would turn into the prayer for the dead, spoken in Hebrew, the language of being and dying.

Back and forth over this land, during Danilo Kiš’s childhood, armies and ideologies washed with the brutal regularity of surf. As a small boy and a Jew, in such circumstances, he was naturally surrounded by death and lies. There were the lies of hope and the lies of fear, the lies of love and the lies of hate, the lies of cynicism, the lies of faith. Lies were like the leaves the bombs blew from the trees. Any language, even the death rattle, can express them. What would save anyone in such a forest of deceit? Perhaps only an innocence which lent the eyes wonder without soiling the soul with belief. And Danilo Kiš’s novel Garden, Ashes (and his first to appear in English) describes the early life of such a boy, who, to escape small horrors as well as huge ones, crosses the borders between dream, day-dream, and reality, like a fugitive from each.

The second of his books to appear here, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, although described as a novel, is a collection of short stories each of which concerns a Jewish revolutionary enmeshed in fatal ontological as well as political difficulties. The tomb of the title story is a cenotaph, a grave without an occupant, because Boris Davidovich has too many personas …

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