Danilo Kiš
Danilo Kiš; drawing by David Levine

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.

Inside this retold dream is a freeze-dried life—a list, really, of one man’s coming and going—and like ordinary existence everywhere, its singular events are made of summarizing facts. It is a life composed of kinds, in which a characteristic catastrophe is surrounded by typical trivialities—incidents of outstanding ordinariness—while every region of reality is ransacked for examples of this and that which will be locally convincing yet symbolically vast: one more day of labor, one more wedding night, the tools, the flowers, the hot sun, the sheets, the weariness of love and work, all the same. Yet different, too, in the degree of dust, in the number of the noises of passion, the quality of surprise in the bride, the length of a chewy lunch; each variable, of which life at any moment is comprised, as common as a word right out of the dictionary, repeatable as corn flakes, and many sentences the same, too (good morning, hi ya, how are you?), but none, in the context where they rub one another (the cold cream and the skin, the torn shirt, the slipped disk), creating the same stridulation, the same significance, precisely the same result (an allergic rash, an embarrassed blush, a cry of pain like one of pleasure, or a rush of blood to the head when desire is put under puritanical pressure).

After all—and this is what I consider the compilers’ central message—nothing in the history of mankind is ever repeated, things that at first glance seem the same are scarcely even similar; each individual is a star unto himself, everything happens always and never, all things repeat themselves ad infinitum yet are unique. (That is why the authors of the majestic monument to diversity that is The Encyclopedia of the Dead stress the particular; that is why every human being is sacred to them.)

Uniqueness in such a vast ocean of similar otherness loses its value, however, for what is the worth of so many hen’s teeth, though they furnish dentists with the identities of deceased for the police? Unique combinations of the most common words can, during even the run of a few lines, be discovered: (1) the plumber has lost my latchkey; (2) twins were born to the Tollivers in a speeding Tip Top taxi; (3) Dollars will defeat Doughnuts by the length of a cold nose in the one-legged sack race. The list of facts and features, people and occasions, that constitute the narrator’s father’s life is a carefully selected one, with much more omitted than included. For if nothing were excluded, and no decision made about what mattered and what did not (since, if every person weighs on the scale of history—each unique as a droplet in a sneeze—so does every ant at the picnic and every loon on the lake and every coasting cloud and every breeze), then even a short life would receive an endless recital, and have a heaviness which would break the pan of every balance. Uniqueness needs numbers, and is no idle pursuit.

Moreover, although a mouthful of chilled wine on the tavern’s cuff3 may be one of a kind in terms of its specific color, taste, and nose—thus peculiar to the occasion of its swallow—no listing will lend that fact any further interest unless the interest were to lie in the quality of such a mouthful’s description, in the choice of its moment to appear in the larger narration, and in the meaning, then, the wine’s roseate nature can receive from the chronicle as a whole, as well as whatever feeling the music of the language or the pace of its disclosures can generate, or gain from an imagery that may revive its taste.

In short, only the style of the description will be capable of imbuing the event with a value that extends beyond the one of merely existing; since existing, after all, is easy to do (anything that is has done it). It is as easy to be as not to be (for not being is also only a mild form of exercise). Nevertheless, few of these examples of the world’s bric-a-brac have their existence realized in language; fewer still in language that lasts, language that lives through the dying it describes; that outlasts the endings it observes and celebrates; language like that which Danilo Kiš has contrived for the list that is this biography, and the death, too, which the story suggests grows like a noxious flower from the soil of life itself, even as that life is led.

The fact that, while working at the Milišić Refinery as a day laborer my father brought home molasses under his coat, a great risk, has the same significance for The Encyclopedia of the Dead as the raid on the eye clinic in our immediate vicinity or the exploits of my Uncle Cveja Karakašević, a native of Ruma, who would filch what he could from the German Officers’ Club at 7 French Street, where he was employed as a “purveyor.”…By the same token, and in keeping with the logic of their program (that there is nothing insignificant in a human life, no hierarchy of events), they entered all our childhood illnesses—mumps, tonsilitis, whooping cough, rashes—as well as a bout of lice and my father’s lung trouble (their diagnosis tallies with Dr. Djurović’s: emphysema, due to heavy smoking). But you will also find a bulletin on the Bajlonova Marketplace notice board with a list of executed hostages that includes close friends and acquaintances of my father’s; the names of patriots whose bodies swung from telegraph poles on Terazije, in the very center of Belgrade; the words of a German officer demanding to see his Ausweis at the station restaurant in Niš; the description of a Cetnik wedding in Vlasotinci, with rifles going off all through the night.

However, the life whose tale is told in this story has had to rise from the world in which we presume it was first enacted through the language of these secret encyclopedic chroniclers until it reaches the daughter’s astonished notes. There, every layer is transformed by being dreamed (for these assiduously compiled volumes are not “real”); whereupon, on waking, the dream is remembered, with all its texts, and finally, for the reader, is recomposed and recited.

The allegory, now, is obvious, because the passions attributed to the society of chroniclers are, in fact, traditionally associated with the development of the novel: the novel with its endless appetite for facts, for the most paltry details, and with its egalitarian resolves, its awakened concern for simple ordinary people, and, very soon, for their simply ordinary daily lives, their family histories, their love affairs and marriages, their business successes, their parish politics, their bedroom wars, as well as their dismal domestic tranquilities.

So the sun fails to flash from the slowly turning leather toes of those who were hung like rustlers from the leaning poles. This allows us to infer that their shoes must have been unpolished, perhaps abraded, possibly suede. Still, Belgrade is gray by custom and habit: grimy skies and grimy gray walls, wet gray streets, faces worn as the stones, and so forth, hence an absence of flash; gutters gray with slow gray water, and the rain light, almost not there, light as fog, and so forth, hence a glitterless atmosphere; gray caps and collars coming down the damp street, gray coats, damp too, soot becoming a moist gray paste, bomb dust still in the wet air, too wet to drift, soon a drizzle of dust, and so forth; that is the novel capturing the world in words, as if that were enough, as if that were all there was to it.

Then the reader arrives, the note taker, the critic, reading because of an idiosyncratic interest, because it is all, somehow, autobiographical—Madame Bovary or Moby-Dick, c’est moi, c’est moi—and matching what each reader knows of the text with what each knows of the world, and watching the two sets scratch, like cats, their facts out. But what the reader reads is fiction (or what Danilo Kiš says has been dreamed in his story), and what the reader knows of the world is most likely incoherent, ideologized, incomplete, self-serving bunk.

Perhaps the most impressive piece in this collection is a Borgesian pseudostory, what Kiš calls a “faction”—a monster with an essay for a body and a fiction for a head (occasionally vice versa). Called “The Book of Kings and Fools” (not, I think, a happy title), it concerns the history of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document that purports to reveal the plans of the Jews for world domination. Under Kiš’s skillful hands this text becomes a character in a tale of intrigue and triple-dealing not unlike the history of Boris Davidovich himself, with his many odd jobs, his aliases, his incessant shifts of venue; because a lie that so many desire to believe comes to exist like any deity or yeti or pernicious social myth, propped up as it is by passion, poor character, and a grinding poverty of mind—one might say like the promised utopian fruits of the Russian Revolution, fruits that already lay rotting on the ground before the tree was fully leafed, and were later served up as if they were made of precious metal—to admire but not to eat.

It is not unimportant to notice that when one speaks of the traditional novel, it is so often by referring to the psychology of its characters, the pattern of its plot, the accuracy of its environments; but when one is speaking of a fiction by Borges, Calvino, or Kiš, ideas come to dominate the discussion. Often a single notion controls the course of events, determines the fate of their imaginary agents, settles on the form of the whole. It is the sole sun of its system. Such fictions become meditations, not by a Hazlitt or an Emerson, who might write to display the nature of their sensibilities and their intelligence as tourists in the region of some topic. The concept searches for itself through its exemplifications, and finds itself realized somewhat in this facet and that, as though it were the light that could not glisten from the slowly turning toe, and found no reflection in the puddles of the streets either, so gloomy was the so-called day, where the souls of the strung-up could not cast a shadow, and thus, in this negative way, sought to define itself. We can imagine, however, that the light did find at last the mirror of a woman powdering her nose in a narrow entryway, and about to mount the narrow dark stairs. She might be going to her lover; however, that is an implication interesting only in the old days. We—postmodernist trained—know she opened her compact to receive and illustrate and sustain the almost lost light.

Every one of the nine stories constituting The Encyclopedia of the Dead concerns the character, corruption, and consequent fate of texts, and the resulting endangerment of mind, bewilderment of heart, and debasement of the state, which stems from such corruptions, as well as the advantages which accrue to politicians and their police.

But ideas aren’t literature, any more than remarks are, or plots, or people, or noble truths, or lively lies, or Belgrade’s morose gray streets; and I would not recommend the reading of Danilo Kiš on their account, or the reading of Jane Austen either. In Kiš’s case, where the concepts are inconsequentially derivative anyway, it is the consistent quality of the local prose that counts. It is how, sentence by sentence, the song is built, and immeasurable meanings meant. It is the rich regalia of his rhetoric that leads us to acknowledge his authority. On his page, trappings are not trappings but sovereignty itself. Hence it is not the plan, devious of design as it is, but its nearly faultless execution that takes away the breath, and produces admiration.

This Issue

October 26, 1989