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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.1

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 to possess an identity, and, just as Empedocles did into Etna, leaps into a vat of hot metal, disappearing without a trace like a repatriated god.

Boris Davidovich is born in 1891 or 1893 or 1896. The vagueness is precise. A few coins will falsify a record. Bureaucracies survive on the quality of their corruption. Born of a brief encounter, the name, Boris Davidovich, is never firmly in place. He is shortly also known as Bezrabotny, as Jacob Mauzer, and as M.V. Zemlyanikov, although B.D. Novsky is his predominate alias. One of his pseudonyms—that of B.N. Dolsky—is mistakenly understood to be that of a certain Podolsky. He employs numerous noms de plume, particularly Parabellum, Victor Tverdohlebov, Proletarsky, and N.L. Davidovich.

If his name (son of David) will not fix him, neither will his occupation, for during his brief life (much of it spent in prison) he will be a smuggler, a butcher’s apprentice, a dishwasher, a legal clerk, and then, in a military arsenal, a cataloguer of artillery shells. He’s a dock worker too, the employee of a box and cardboard factory, as well as another which makes wallpaper. In France, he is arrested while harvesting grapes. He is also a fireman’s helper on a steam engine, a practicing engineer, a barge boat dispatcher, a journalist, agitator, terrorist, sharpshooter, soldier, student, political commissar and diplomat—each for a period brief as a blink. The otherwise complete and thorough Granat Encyclopedia of the Revolution does not mention even one of his names—omissions that Kiš’s “story” intends to remedy—and even though his death can be exactly dated (4 PM, November 21, 1937, when he was transmogrified into a wisp of smoke above the hissing vat), he was reported to be alive by the Western press as late as June of 1956—in Moscow, where he was seen leaning like a shadow against the Kremlin Wall.

Davidovich—Dolsky, Novsky (whoever he really is)—passes a sizable portion of his life in flight, in prison or in jail, in sanatoriums and hospitals recovering his wits or his nerves, in the editorial offices of fly-by-night revolutionary papers where he pens exposures and denunciations. An unspecified ideology seeps through the spaces of his existence like an unacknowledged pollutant, since every political faith is ultimately fatal. His actions are equally indeterminate in the sense that their aims are obscure, especially when violent, and seem bent on preserving some wholly imaginary purity. The language that most adequately depicts this life is interchangeably political and religious. There are heresies and their persecution; there are denunciations, inquisitions, confessions, tortures, confrontations, crimes, criminals, and their investigators; there are betrayals, murders, assassinations, hoaxes, plots, cover-ups, smears, suggestions, allegations, fear, suspicion, mistrust.

We find him—Bezrabotny, Zemlyanikov (whoever he is)—living in the streets. In tenements and public baths, with a distant relative, a momentary friend: without a certifiable name, a fixed address, a permanent position, and, although supposedly subversive, without an identifiable belief. How many truths may we imagine he has denied to survive? How many lies has he been forced to affirm? How often can he have known which was which—lie or truth, affirmation or denial?

Yet this life, elusive as a vapor, can be constructed from the very gaps in its chronology, its lacunae and erasures, from documents no longer available, from possible forgeries and illegible letters, from the depositions of traitors and fanatics, the footnotes of plodding scholars, and the suspicious testimony of a conveniently invented sister.

This brilliant story is characteristic Kiš, not only because of its subject matter: in this case, Jews who are destroyed by their very passion for justice; or because of its ironic yet factually deadpan tone, or on account of its apparently misplaced lyricism, so much like a songbird singing in a storm; but also because of his tale’s intense involvement with history, with its total reliance on, and lack of belief in, texts.2

Behind these Borgesian concerns lurk two dismaying realizations. The first is that the force of individual events, even cataclysmic ones like the Lisbon earthquake of November 1, 1775 (which shook a poem from Voltaire like a pippin from the tree, and then continued to trouble him during the composition of Candide), is but a cough in a clinic compared to the trauma of its descriptions which conveyed the earthquake’s horror to more distant climes than the trembling earth was able, and tumbled it into Candide itself. Egregious errors of translation (“a virgin shall conceive” for “a maiden [or young woman] shall conceive,” to cite a notorious instance) alter history more powerfully than the simple, explicable truth; that falsified documents, qualifying emendations, misleading interpolations, clever deletions, can reshape events, not in their own region of reality, but in the characteristic way they reach men’s minds. In sum: texts, because they duplicitously repeat themselves each time they are read, and because they are subject to interpretation and commentary, belong to a more powerful realm of Being than the world of unrecurring events, aging people, and transitory things.

The second, saddening, realization is that unless, consequently, you can insert yourself into some account, unless your history has a History, you might as well not exist, so paltry are the normal powers of the present; and yet, if you manage to make your way into a text, or become defined by a set of documents, you will become a different being altogether, your proofs will rest in a file folder that will resemble your grave. Bureaucrats will burnish one medal, tarnish another, or strip you of both. Tortured, you will tattle on yourself, and that tale, too, will be attached to your dossier, and become your identity, your passport to history. Yet what is history but other eyes in other ages, arranging the data to suit their own policies, salting their grievances with your tears, advancing another false cause? If your text generates others, if your text fathers fans, if your text serves the interests of some institution, of those who would be stronger, then your folder will fatten, will be frequently consulted, will be protected, imitated, polished like a rifle. Fame is, under these circumstances, your frequency of citation.

The title story of the present collection is based on such melancholy considerations. It imagines that there is a Book of the Dead for nobodies compiled by a religious organization (resembling the archival activities of the Mormons, as the author’s notes observe). Since the French Revolution proclaimed the equality of Man (true enough for corpses), subversive scriveners have shelved these “This Was Your Life” biographies in alphabetically laid-out lower rooms of the Swedish Royal Library: a textual catacomb and historical Hades. As George Eliot argued, history is really made by the myriads of little people who led hidden lives and rest now in unvisited tombs. (I suspect that these bookish spaces mimic and invert those occupied by the Nobel Prize committee, whose collection is, of course, largely of also-rans.) The activities of the Society are as secret and multifarious as those of Borges’s now famous encyclopediasts whose volumes create the countries of Tlön and Uqbar, and whose facts are so persuasively imagined they begin to supplant the complacent realities of our own dessicated compendia. (Indeed, much of Danilo Kiš’s “essays” and fictionalized memoirs seem as if they might occupy shrewdly placed parentheses within the Argentine master’s work.) (In the Swedish Academy’s peevish eyes, Borges is himself an also-ran.)

The narrator, finding herself locked in this dusty chilly necrofamilial place, looks for the life of her recently deceased father there, and finding it—complete as a warehouse inventory—takes highly condensed and hurried notes, notes that allow her to compose the present tale, a recollection of her journey to the Underworld. The entire trip turns out to have been a dream—alas, a moviemaker’s ending—which the body of the text suggests through montage and other visual devices, but whose alleged nonverbal origin leaves me unconvinced.

  1. 1

    Danilo Kiš published his first novel, The Attic/Psalm 44 in 1962. Garden, Ashes dates from 1965 but was translated for us by William J. Hannaher in 1975, while Sand-Glass, which has not been translated, appeared in 1972. His initial collection of short stories, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, came out in Zagreb in 1976, receiving its translation here, by Duska Miki-Mitchell, in 1978. Although it won a major literary prize, this work, which deals with the period of the Stalinist terror of the late Thirties, was attacked as heavily indebted to other writers, a host of whom were invoked: Joyce, Borges, Mandelstam, Solzhenitsyn, and the Medvedev brothers in particular. Another translation of the title story of this collection (incorrectly called A Grave for Boris Davidovich in the version of Karolina Udoviki) was included in an anthology, The Serbian Short Story 1950–1982, issued by Relations magazine in Belgrade, and edited by Radivoje Mikic. Anyone interested in Danilo Kiš’s immediate literary environment will find this work a fruitful source. Kiš has been generally fortunate in his translators. The Encyclopedia of the Dead has been beautifully Englished.

  2. 2

    Several paragraphs back I wrote that Novsky, although definitely dead, had been seen in Moscow “leaning like a shadow against the Kremlin Wall.” However, all the London Times reported (according to Kiš’s possibly prejudiced account) was that he had been observed “near” the wall. Nor did the newspaper capitalize the word “wall”—clearly an anti-Communist slur. Nor do shadows lean: they are cast; they fall. The misleading elaboration should have read: “seen like a shadow leaning against the Kremlin wall.” It is the noxious accumulation of such slightly skewed details which undermines the veracities of history more certainly than even its invented facts, its poisonous biases, its outrageous omissions, its hypocritical objectivity, its illusion of causal connections, its pretentious claim to have explanatory power.

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