Birth Certificate is the first biography in English of Danilo Kiš, the highly respected Serbian novelist and short-story writer who died of cancer in Paris in 1989 at the age of fifty-four, just as his books were beginning to be widely translated and admired. In our day, when foreign literature is taught less and less in colleges and universities and once-familiar names are no longer recognized by students and even by some of their professors, the determination of publishers like Dalkey Archive, Northwestern University Press, and several others in the United States to continue to publish writers from what many tend to regard as cultural backwoods is a heroic undertaking. Thanks to them, almost everything Kiš wrote has been translated and is now in print, and his work continues to elicit interest among serious readers of contemporary literature, as the publication of Mark Thompson’s book demonstrates.
Kiš called himself an “ethnographic rarity.” He was born in 1935 in Subotica, a prosperous, polyglot town on the border of Hungary, in what was then Yugoslavia and is now Serbia, in a family of mixed origin. His father, Eduard Kiš, was a Hungarian Jew who after failing in business found a job in the Yugoslav Ministry of Railways, where he eventually reached the rank of chief inspector and prepared the official Yugoslav timetable for rail, bus, ship, and plane travel, an accomplishment of which his son was immensely proud. His mother, Milica Dragićević, was a Montenegrin of Orthodox Christian faith who met her future husband while paying a visit to her sister, who was employed by the same railroad ministry. The couple had another child, a daughter three years older. That made their children Yugoslav citizens of Jewish, Hungarian, Serbian, and Montenegrin background.
“If not for the hardships of a wartime childhood,” Kiš once told an interviewer, “I’d never have become a writer.” In 1939 his family moved to Novi Sad, a larger city one hundred kilometers south, which, after the Axis occupation and partition of Yugoslavia in 1941, was occupied by Hungary and from which they had to flee a year later following the massacre of some three thousand to four thousand Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies by the Hungarian troops. Kiš’s father had no choice but to seek safety with his sister’s family in a small village in western Hungary, where for the next three years they were not bothered. All that changed in 1944 when the Hungarian leader, Admiral Horthy, was forced to resign by the Germans after his announcement that he would withdraw from the Axis and surrender to the Allies. Soon after, on the orders of Adolf Eichmann, some 430,000 Hungarian Jews were rounded up, sent to Auschwitz, and gassed. Among them were Eduard Kiš and his Hungarian relatives, while his wife and children survived.
As if this was not enough horror to go around, close to a million people died in neighboring Yugoslavia during World …