by Danilo Ki, translated by Ralph Manheim
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 274 pp., $22.95
Mendelssohn Is On The Roof
by Jirí Weil, translated by Marie Winn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,, 228 pp., $23.95
The Miracle Game
by Josef Skvorecky, translated by Paul Wilson
Knopf, 436 pp., $22.95
The novelist in central Europe today has a more than usually difficult task, surrounded as he is not only by a social scene in which national and ideological elements are changing places, but by a confusion of possible styles and modes of writing, many of them newly imported from the West. And behind all this looms the most disturbing of all questions for such a writer: Who, in this new age of change, dissolution, and uncertainty, is going to read him?
A disciplined socialist regime gave a reassuring answer to that question. Books—good solid fat conventional books—were valued on two counts: first, because they were there, and in a static society there was nothing much to do except read them; second, because any deviation in them of a crafty kind, from the Party line, meant a tremendous upsurge in interest on the part of a big, hungry, always attentive audience. No reader was bored by the latest publication, or indifferent to it. The orthodox had their privileges, their Writers’ Union clubs and guaranteed sales. The daring spirits had their chances of emigration; their possible fans at home in samizdat; and above all their reputation as freedom-bringers, heralds of new exciting truths, which naturally went with new ways of writing.
All that seems to be over for the moment. After the first intoxication of new books in new modernist or post-modernist styles, Soviet and East European writers seem to have quickly lost confidence in their techniques, while their audiences soon showed signs of becoming as bored with new novels as many of us are. In the midst of these “new developments,” however, certain writers who don’t fit into any particular category, old or new, continue to stand out. One such is the remarkable Danilo Ki, who adds to the other ways in which he cannot be categorized his origins on the borders of Hungary and Yugoslavia, a place where systems, nationalities, and languages meet on what has to be called a permanently temporary basis.
As a Jewish writer Ki was a natural for the region: the way his talent and imagination work had a close sympathy and parallel with the touching and comic fantasies of Bruno Schulz, who twenty years or so earlier was writing in Polish across the border up north, and who, like the hero of Hourglass, disappeared during the war, murdered by the Gestapo. Ki himself died in Paris in 1989, and in the same year was posthumously awarded the PEN/Bruno Schulz Prize, which honors “foreign writers underrecognized in the United States.” The name of the prize records in Ki’s case more than an affiliation, for the pair stand out as two of the most unusual and the most subtly and uniquely talented novelists to appear in their generation in Central Europe.
Ki lived at one time or another in Montenegro, Hungary, Belgrade, and France, and was a lecturer in the Serbo-Croatian language and literature at several French universities. His father died during …