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A Genius from Four Countries

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Drawing by Bruno Schulz

The book won Yugoslavia’s most important prize for fiction in 1973, but was not widely read. Its painstaking, depersonalized descriptions in the manner of the nouveau roman, the absence of a readily recognized plot, the frequently unidentified voices and shifting points of view, and the scenes that come and go as in a dream, while not failing to captivate the more imaginative readers, exasperated the less patient.

Kiš’s book of related stories, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, came next. It caused him a lot of grief. Subtitled “Seven Chapters of a Shared History,” it was conceived in Bordeaux where he taught Serbo-Croatian at the university in 1973 and 1974 and where, as he said later, he was frightened by the ideological fanaticism and ignorance of his students, who would turn a deaf ear when told about Stalin’s camps and call him a fascist and an imperialist for saying such things.

The other incentive came from Jorge Luis Borges, a writer he had already read and admired, and the title of whose book A Universal History of Infamy he found disgraceful, published as it was in the days of Hitler and Stalin and dealing as it did with smalltime hoods and killers in Buenos Aires and not with the victims of these two men. A Tomb for Boris Davidovich nevertheless uses the same method Borges employed, by tinkering with actual historical documents to construct a story. “Modern history has created such authentic forms of reality,” Kiš said after his book was published,

that today’s writer has no choice but to give them artistic shape, to “invent” them if need be: that is, to use authentic data as raw material and endow them, through the imagination, with new form.

Drawing on a Croatian Communist’s memoir of the camps, Soviet encyclopedias, Roy Medvedev’s book on Stalin, and the work of other scholars, the stories, as Thompson describes them, are conveyed with the telegraphic brevity of obituaries pieced together from archives that are unreliable as well as incomplete. They deal with the common fate of many old revolutionaries, who were not only liquidated by Stalin or sent to the camps during his frequent purges, but were made to admit, either through torture or by persuasion, that a false confession that serves the Party was not only their duty, but also a supreme moral act. The title story, in which the disgraced revolutionary Novsky and his interrogator are locked in a long and intricate psychological combat, reminds me of Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev, and though one is a novel and the other a story, they are equally powerful and memorable.

When the book was published in June 1976, the reviews were positive, with even The Communist, the ruling party’s official organ, praising Kiš’s mastery, but then the rumor started that the book was derivative, with full passages lifted from other writers, culminating in an article in a Zagreb magazine detailing the accusations. The affair snowballed, with defenders arguing that using nonfictional material from other books for the purpose of “documenting” could not be called “copying.” Kiš’s main accuser, a professor of literature at the University of Belgrade, who was also the president of the Association of Writers of Serbia, set out to prove that Kiš was an uncreative, sterile impostor, a writer who took bits and pieces from other people’s creations. Kiš’s vaunted “erudition,” his accuser wrote, highlighted a lack of originality, for erudition may fan the flame of inspiration, but cannot be a substitute for talent and knowledge.

Kiš responded furiously. Written in a month, his book The Anatomy Lesson rebuts the charges by demonstrating the principles underlying the composition of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich and showing that his accuser was ill-equipped both as a writer and as a critic to pass judgment on books of any kind. At the root of the conflict were not just two visions of literature, one based on nineteenth-century realism and the other on modernist tenets, but a more fundamental clash between veneration of a single culture and language and Kiš’s insistence that he was first and foremost a writer in Europe, whose entire cultural and literary heritage is his own too. This was as good as an admission that he was a “rootless cosmopolitan,” the old Soviet designation for intellectuals, usually Jewish, that the nationalists in Serbia still love to use against those they consider unpatriotic.

The outcome of this affair, which led to a court case that Kiš eventually won, was that he went into a self-imposed exile in France, though he returned to Belgrade often and spent his summers in Dubrovnik. Once he settled in Paris he started writing stories again. The final book of nine stories he published in his lifetime, The Encyclopedia of the Dead, came out in 1983. The title story, modeled on the one Borges wrote about an infinite library, is about an encyclopedia tucked away in the Royal Library in Stockholm. It is a work, we are told, composed by an anonymous group of researchers from all over the world, which devotes itself to the lives of people who are not listed in any other reference book. The unnamed female professor who narrates this touching story spends the night in a dungeon-like room reading the entry about her father, which recounts his life in miraculous detail from birth to death.

Additional stories, written toward the end of Kiš’s life, collected posthumously in a volume called The Lute and the Scars and now translated by the always excellent John K. Cox, include a couple of little masterpieces, the title story and “Jurij Golec.” Kiš’s one weakness as a writer is that he at times trusted other people’s books more than his own immense talent. In these final stories, it seems to me, he wrote more fluently, as if he no longer believed that to be true.

My complaint about Mark Thompson’s Birth Certificate is the way the book is organized. Unless the reader has previous knowledge of the history of the region and familiarity with Kiš’s oeuvre, he’s going to have a hard time making sense of Thompson’s montage of biographical and critical fragments without a clear chronology to guide him. This is a pity because Thompson, who wrote a well-informed book about the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, has interviewed people who knew Kiš and has many valuable things to say about him and his writing. The difficulty for anyone trying to make sense of Kiš is that he was one of a kind. Like other Yugoslavs of his time who were stuck with multiple identities and at home in diverse cultures, he, nevertheless, didn’t wish to be anyone but himself. “Keep away from princes,” he wrote in his “Advice to a Young Writer.” “Do not therefore jump aboard the ‘train of history’: it is merely a foolish metaphor.”

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