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 War II in ethnic, religious, and political settlings of scores. In view of the ongoing slaughter there, the family’s early years in Hungary were untroubled, though they lived in great poverty. Kiš’s mother knitted sweaters to make ends meet; the children went to school and worked as farmhands, though not their father, who spent his days and nights carousing in taverns. A troubled man who had already spent three months in a psychiatric hospital in 1934 and had two shorter stays there in 1939 for delirium tremens and anxiety attacks, he took an early retirement, most likely because of his ill health. In Garden, Ashes, this is how his son remembers him during the war:
He moved through the fields like a sleepwalker, lost in thought, waving his cane high in the air, following his star, which he would lose amid the sunflowers, only to find it again at the edge of the field—on his greasy black frock coat.
In other words, the star of destiny he sought all his life had turned into the yellow Star of David sewn on his coat.
It was only in 1947 that the mother and the two children were finally repatriated to Yugoslavia by the Red Cross to rejoin their relatives in Montenegro, where another misfortune struck soon after their return. Milica was diagnosed with cancer and died four years later after immense suffering. Danilo, who had grown up speaking Serbian at home and Hungarian in school, had to make the difficult transition from one culture to another and did so in a remarkably short time.
After finishing high school in 1954, he went to study at the University of Belgrade. As he already had been writing poetry and translating Hungarian, French, and Russian poets, it was predictable where these interests would take him next. He enrolled in the newly created department of comparative literature, whose formidable curriculum covered practically every Western literary work of importance from the Song of Songs to Joyce and Kafka. After graduating four years later, he spent a year in the army and on discharge continued to live in Belgrade, working at a prestigious literary magazine and writing stories and reviews.
Since Tito’s break with Stalin in 1948, a more liberal policy in the arts, free of the socialist realist dogmas, had been well underway in Yugoslavia, and unlike in Soviet bloc countries, modern literary classics like Proust, Camus, Joyce, Sartre, Hemingway, Faulkner, and many others were being translated and widely read. Kiš’s first novel, The Attic, written in 1960 and published in 1962, is the product of that extraordinary cultural moment.
Based on André Gide’s early novella Paludes (1895), Kiš’s book, subtitled “a satirical poem,” is a freewheeling spoof of a hackneyed plot. His hero, who shares with a friend a roach-infested attic in a large apartment building in Belgrade, is an aspiring writer nicknamed Orpheus who plays the lute, and is in love with a young woman he calls Eurydice. The action takes place in Belgrade, on the Dalmatian coast, and on an imaginary island in the South Seas, with the hero assuming different roles, commenting on the book he is writing, quoting other writers without attribution, and worrying about literature’s relationship to reality. An uneven little novel by a young man whose head was full of books he was reading, The Attic, though very funny in places, is a minor work.
Psalm 44, Kiš’s other early novel, written the same year and paired with The Attic upon publication, could not be more different. It takes place in a death camp, focuses on women, one of whom gives birth there, and is mostly set in the few hours before an escape attempt. Kiš based the novel on a true story reported in the newspapers at the time and he wrote it as a part of a competition held by a Jewish cultural organization in Belgrade. Given the ambition of the novel and the inexperience of the author, Psalm 44 still impresses by Kiš’s vision of literature as an ethical and aesthetic engagement with the horrors of history, as Aleksandar Hemon argues in his eloquent preface to the book. I find it odd that Mark Thompson, who devotes much space to The Attic in his study, devotes very little to Psalm 44, which prefigures much of what Kiš wrote afterward. Literature must correct history, he said in a late interview, collected in Homo Poeticus (1995), edited by Susan Sontag: “What is the meaning of ‘six million dead’ (!) if you don’t see an individual face or body—if you don’t hear an individual story?”
His next three books, the novel Garden, Ashes (1965), the collection of nineteen stories Early Sorrows (1969), and the novel Hourglass (1972), comprising what he called his “family cycle,” recount his wartime childhood in Hungary and the sad fate of his father. They are very different from one another. The stories are very short and told through the eyes of a child. That same point of view is present in Garden, Ashes too, but with the additional perspective of someone much older, while in Hourglass that narrator disappears and is replaced by an anonymous, objective narrator. Both novels are patchworks of his and other people’s memories with the rest reconstructed by the imagination of their author.
Kiš often writes like a poet. This is especially true of Garden, Ashes, which is full of startling images and figures of speech. Gogol and Babel were fond of them too, because they knew that the wildest flights of the imagination combined with the ability to see clearly can make poetry out of the ordinary:
Silence is everywhere, the dignified solemnity of a holiday morning. The postmen and salesclerks are still asleep behind the closed, dusty shutters. As we move along past the low one-story houses, we glance at each other and smile, filled with respect: the wheezings of the last sleepers are audible through the dark swaying curtains and accordion shutters. The great ships of sleep are sailing the dark Styx…. Alongside the panting sleepers stand large metal alarm clocks, propped up on their hind legs like roosters, pecking away at the fine seeds of the minutes, and then—charged to the point of an explosion, stuffed, enraged—they strain their legs against the marble surface of the night table just before beginning to crow triumphantly, to crow in swaying, bloody crests.
The book is full of such inspired descriptions. The father who appears in Garden, Ashes is a literary creation, “unencumbered,” as Kiš said in another interview, “by the solid, homogeneous mass of realities and memories.” He’s a neurasthenic with suicidal impulses, a drunk who often wakes in a village ditch covered with bruises and caked with mud, a provincial dandy with a derby hat, frock coat, stiff celluloid collar, and headwaiter’s tie with a bohemian knot, who becomes the writer, director, and protagonist of his own tragedy and farce. His literary prototype is Bruno Schulz’s mad, god-like father in The Street of Crocodiles, who is waging an all-out war against the numbing boredom of a small Polish town. While he is a comic figure, this cannot be said of Kiš’s father, who despite his buffooneries was well aware that evil was slowly closing in on him.
Hourglass is Kiš’s best book, the most richly conceived and beautifully written, and his most moving. Made up of sixty-seven numbered sections under six headings—“Prologue,” “Travel Scenes,” “Notes of a Madman,” “A Witness Interrogated,” “Criminal Investigation,” “Letter or Table of Contents”—it takes place in the space of a single night, from late evening until dawn, as it picks up the story of his father and describes, with flashbacks to recent and remote events, experiences that are revisited and revised most likely for one last time.
Kiš said that the book could not have been written without the example of Joyce’s Ulysses and a long letter his father wrote, dated April 1942, the sole authentic evidence of the world that he had written about in the two earlier books of his family cycle. The letter was addressed to Eduard’s sister Olga, who also died in Auschwitz, and is not only a description of his family’s poverty and ill-treatment by her and his nephew in Hungary, but is dense with references to people, places, and events that Kiš was barely able to recognize. The novel is a commentary on the letter and events recounted in it, and on its postscript, in which Kiš writes, “It is better to be among the persecuted than among the persecutors.”