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16 July 2015

The global wonder of Danilo Kiš

Kiš abhorred nationalism and prized literature as a global language. 

By Chris Power

The Encyclopaedia of the Dead
Danilo Kiš. Translated by Michael Henry Heim
Penguin Modern Classics, 167pp, £9.99

Ideally you are someone who has never read a book by Danilo Kiš but will want to by the time I’m finished. This superb Yugoslavian modernist was considered for the Nobel Prize in the 1980s but since his death in 1989 at the age of 54, just before the disintegration of the Balkans put his homeland at the forefront of global attention, he has almost vanished from the anglophone literary consciousness. This new edition of his 1983 short story collection, The Encyclopaedia of the Dead, the last book he published in his lifetime, is a vital resurrection.

One of the problems with Kiš (pronounced “quiche”, more or less) and his reputation is a matter of crucial importance to all encyclopaedists: categorisation. The US publisher Dalkey Archive includes some of his books in its “Serbian Literature” series but that doesn’t quite fit. Kiš wrote in Serbo-Croatian but his heritage was Orthodox Montenegrin on his mother’s side and Jewish Hungarian on his father’s. He was baptised into the Orthodox faith, which probably saved him when his father and many of his relatives were rounded up and murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. His early years – fragmented by war, occupation and the metamorphosing borders of central Europe – were divided between northern Yugoslavia, south-western Hungary and Montenegro. No wonder he called himself an “ethnographic rarity”.

Kiš abhorred nationalism and prized literature as a global language. The Yugoslavian writers Ivo Andric (a Bosnian Croat) and Miroslav Krleža (a Croat) were important to him but no more so than the Irishman James Joyce, the Pole Bruno Schulz and the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges. Of these, it is the last whose influence is greatest on this collection: throughout, Kiš references fictional texts alongside real ones and adopts the tone of an exegete (“We shall now try to investigate the origins of this text . . .”) rather than a storyteller. He continually notes insufficient sources, or tells variants of a single story (“According to another version . . .”), yet retains a keen eye for the detail that snaps a scene into focus, such as a man at a café counter “leafing through the filo pastry of a baklava with slender nicotine-stained fingers as if it were a book”.

Borges presides most notably over the collection’s title story, which describes an academic’s trip to Stockholm. One night, in the Swedish Royal Library, she discovers The Encyclopaedia of the Dead, a record of everyone who has died since “shortly after 1789” who is unmentioned in any other encyclopaedia. The story consists of the notes that the woman takes during her limited time with the book, reading the vastly detailed entry on her recently deceased father.

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Kiš achieves several things with this story, which alongside the novel Hourglass (1972) and the story cycle A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (1976) represents his best work. His portrait of the narrator’s father’s life captures the texture of a 20th-century Yugoslavian existence and gives readers a memorable apprehension of the inescapability of death. But it also identifies the unique elements that lie at the core of even the most universal experiences:

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 endlessly and unrepeatably.

Some dislike the revelation that the encyclopaedia is a dream: “Alas, a moviemaker’s ending”, William H Gass wrote, while the New Yorker requested a change when it published the story in 1982. Kiš refused, stating, “I don’t write so-called fantastic tales. I am a realistic writer.” This is worth remembering when reading a collection in which miracles, second sight and legends feature not for us to wonder at but as tools with which to analyse political and historical realities. Anyway, what does it matter if the encounter with the encyclopaedia is a dream (as perhaps all such idealist notions must be)? The moving account of the narrator’s father’s life is more moving still when reappraised as a daughter’s act of remembrance.

For this new edition, Mark Thompson, Kiš’s biographer, has revised Michael Henry Heim’s 1989 translation. His changes are small and many. Thompson explained to me that although Heim’s work was “basically sound”, there are numerous instances when he “smooths out” Kiš’s prose and is sometimes “ponderous – and Kiš isn’t ponderous”. Ponderous, no, but witty, inventive and intellectually thrilling? Yes. These stories move sure-footedly from Samaria just after the death of Christ to the forests of 19th-century Hungary and to third-rate hotels populated by White Russian émigrés.

Albeit not obscure enough for inclusion in his story’s encyclopaedia, Kiš is woefully undervalued. He belongs at the centre of European literature, not on its fringes.
In 1991, John Bayley wrote that Hourglass was “in a class of its own. It will probably be read when the politics of our age are forgotten, at least by the novel.” It certainly should be but it has been out of print in the UK for about 20 years. It is past time for Kiš’s rediscovery.