Danilo Kiš: Mittel Man

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Over 20 years ago, on October 15, 1989, Yugoslav writer Danilo Kiš succumbed to lung cancer in Paris, France. He was only 54 when he died.

Among the works Kiš left behind included a form-bending prose triptych — Garden, Ashes (1965), Early Sorrows (1970) and Hourglass (1972) — two masterworks of short fiction — A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (1976) and Encyclopedia of the Dead (1983) — and a string of dazzling polemical essays and interviews about his own work (some of which were translated into English and published in 1995 as Homo Poeticus).

Danilo KišThe early death of one of Europe’s humane and powerful literary voices was a tragedy for literature. But history suggests that the timing of the Kiš’ passing was – at least in one aspect – merciful. Kiš did not witness the engulfment of Yugoslavia in the blood-soaked tide of competing nationalisms that he so thoroughly despised and belittled.

After all, witness was at the center of Kiš’ literary works, which grappled with the worst of Europe’s mid-20th Century horrors: Nazism and Stalinism. The author experienced the first of those horrors in his childhood. Kiš was the son of a Hungarian Jewish father and a Montenegrin mother, and his father and other relatives died in Auschwitz. It was a trauma that fueled the keenly-felt and minutely-observed explorations of memory mingled with looming tragedy in his first three books.

In a 1988 interview included in Homo Poeticus, Kiš observed that his later exploration of Stalinism in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich arose in part from a prick of conscience:

Yes, there’s a break in my work between the family cycle (the first three books) and what followed. I went on with my investigations, but substituting the experience of the century for my own personal experience. I felt it was wrong to take on fascism while ignoring Stalinism, especially as they have traits in common: the predominance if Jews in both the Nazi and Soviet camps (pace Solzhenitsyn, who tends to bring in Jews only if they are camp guards.)

The brutality of Stalinism in Kiš’ work is sharpened not only by Stalinism’s perversion and betrayal of revolutionary idealism (the classic trope), but also in the author’s painfully comic vision of human beings careening through a universe of injustice and accident. In Boris Davidovich, the grand forces of history are whittled to the sharp and savage portraits of victims and victimizers. Modern pogroms and purges are shrouded in illusion and infiltrated by chance and caprice.

One of the great ironies of Kiš’ career is that Boris Davidovich set off a lengthy war within Yugoslavia’s — and mainly Serbia’s — literary establishment that turned not upon interpretations of Stalinism (the vexed question that forced both author Mihajlo Mihajlov and director Dušan Makavejev into dissidence and exile) but on questions of nationalism and literary cabalism.

An initial and unfounded attack upon Kiš’ use of source materials as “plagiarism” a few months after the book was published burst into a conflagration that raged through magazines and newspapers. By the end of the polemics around the book, Kiš and his colleague Predrag Matvejevic – a professor at Zagreb University who joined in the defense of Boris Davidovich – had laid bare the provincial prejudices and machinations of Belgrade’s literary establishment arrayed against Kiš and his book. (You can find an excellent summary here.)

The key text in the controversy was The Anatomy Lesson (1978), Kiš’ book-length defense of Boris Davidovich. (Portions of the book are included in Homo Poeticus.) Though much of The Anatomy Lesson is a dissection of his own working methods, and a refutation of any whiff of “plagiarism,” the most famous passages of the book grapple with the larger stakes of the battle: literary cosmopolitanism versus narrow nationalism.

The battle over Boris Davidovich presaged the violent breakup of Yugoslavia set in motion a decade later, and Kiš clearly articulated the vicious mentality that would later sweep through the nation as rooted in paranoia, banality, kitsch and ignorance:

The nationalist is by definition an ignoramus. Thus, nationalism is the path of least resistance, the easy way out. The nationalist has no problems; he knows – or thinks he knows – his own basic values, his own and therefore his people’s, the ethical and political values of the nation to which he belongs. He is interested in no others. Nothing “other” holds any interest for him. Hell is others (other nations, other tribes), people not worth knowing or studying. All the nationalist sees is his own image: the image of a nationalist. A comfortable position, as we have said. Fear and envy. A choice, a commitment requiring no effort. The nationalist feels not only that hell is other nations but also that everything not his (Serb, Croat, French…) is alien to him.

Though Kiš won the battle over Boris Davidovich, the nationalists in Serbia and elsewhere in former Yugoslavia eventually won the larger culture war. The conflicts that tore Yugoslavia apart were rooted in the paranoia and ignorance belittled by Kiš, and the cultural artifacts of that era trafficked in the banality and kitsch that he so savagely ridiculed.

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This is an abridged version of the article originally published on Balkans via Bohemia blog of Richard Byrne. You can read the full version here. Thanks to Richard for allowing us to republish this homage to the great writer Danilo Kiš.

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