Literature as an Ark

Psalm 44 – Danilo Kiš, translated by Danuta Cirlić-Straszyńska, Książkowe Klimaty (Wroclaw, 2016)

Literary scandals are rare. Especially those which actually involve literature – or at least mainly literature. But in 1976 in Yugoslavia, a scandal of rare beauty and intensity broke out. It was caused by Danilo Kiš’s book A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, a collection of loosely connected short stories with a subtitle “Seven chapters of the same story.” Apart from the last two stories, they recounted the fate of second and third rank communist activists, crushed and annihilated by the machinery of Stalinist terror in the 1930s.

A Literary Star of the First Order

In a series of press articles, a group of writers and journalists firmly grounded in the Yugoslav system of power aggressively charged Kiš, who was 41 then, that he was a plagiarist cleverly compiling texts of other authors and ineptly copying the style of the masters, and that he was a cynic making profit from worthless global literary fashions, staining the “purity of national culture.”

Of course, the context is important here: Yugoslavia was an authoritarian socialist state, but it was independent from the Soviet sphere of in-fluence. Censorship formally did not exist and the constitution guaranteed the freedom of expression. However, that did not mean that you could speak with complete openness: in this system the writer himself, instinctively sensing the limits of what was allowed, was to be an unofficial censor of his own work. Kiš acted as if he did not know that, although The Tomb… was a carefully thought-out provocation. And importantly, Kiš was regarded as a literary star of the first order, the greatest fiction writer of his generation.

What was it that so much upset his fellow writers, professional jealousy aside? Accusations of plagiarism brought to mind 19th-century disputes between the classicists and romanticists about the number of syllables in a verse and the use of colloquial language – and they resulted from simple ignorance; Kiš never made a secret of the fact that he used all kinds of docu-ments, that he employed intertextual techniques of compilation, quotation, pastiche, that he was interested exclusively in fiction which bore all the hallmarks of established truth (which, by the way, has very little to do with traditional realism). He neither invented nor patented these methods—it is difficult to invent or patent something as obvious as that—but used them only to make his narrative more dense and credible.

Since the charges meant to discredit Kiš proved factually absurd (as the major part of the Serb and Croat literary community acknowledged in the coming months, offering him their support), there had to be something else.

Kiš Equated the Crimes of Stalinism and of the Nazis

That something else was the fact that Kiš had broken a taboo. In the country which three decades after the war was still cultivating the propagandist myth of the victory of communist guerrillas over fascism, Kiš equated the crimes of Stalinism with the crimes of Nazi totalitarianism. He mocked the ideological commitment of left-wing intellectuals to supporting a bloody utopia, he brutally derided the opportunism of artists loyal to the dictatorship, and finally, he endowed his message with a universal dimension (in one of the short stories he invoked a testimony of the Inquisition about converting Jews to Christianity through terror).

In short, he was fouling his own nest. Doing all that, he gave his book a form of a stylish dispute with Universal History of Infamy by Jorge Luis Borges: “On the thematic plane it is not a ‘universal history of infamy’ but […] little stories for young children, unimportant from the social point of view, about New York gangsters, about Chinese pirates, about provincial robbers, etc.,” wrote Kiš about the sources of his irritation with Borges’s work – whom, by the way, he very highly valued as a kindred literary soul. “So I was above all disputing Borges’s title, inadequate beyond measure. […]

Yugoslavia was an authoritarian socialist state, but it was independent from the Soviet sphere of influence. Censorship formally did not exist and the constitution guaranteed the freedom of expression.

For I claim that the universal history of infamy is the 20th century with its camps, above all Soviet ones. Because it is infamy when in the name of the idea of a better world, for which generations died, when in the name of such a humanistic idea you create camps and conceal their existence, killing not only people, but also their most intimate dreams about a better world.”

Returning to the scandal, it took quite long to expire. Kiš defended himself with what seemed a premeditated fury, he even published a book The Time of Anatomy (1978), which was a systematic exposition of his writ-ing philosophy combined with an interpretation of graphomanic achievements of his opponents. He even sued one of his disputants for libel and won. Still, at this stage the scandal was a stinking matter.

At a deeper level the problem perhaps was what Kiš used to say about nationalism: “Nationalism is above all paranoia. Individual and collective. As a collective paranoia it results from fear and resentment, and above all the loss of individual awareness. […] A nationalist is social creature and as an individual he is a mediocrity. Apart from what he stands for, he is noth-ing. […] A nationalist is by definition an ignorant. And nationalism is the line of least resistance, a zone of comfort. A nationalist does not bother to reflect, he knows or thinks he knows his values – his own, that is national ones. […] Nationalism is the ideology of banality.”

It cannot also be ruled out that the controversy lingered on for so long because Kiš was an alien, a stray dog, a man who emerged from the fog of oblivion, someone who actually had no right to exist.

Jewish and Montenegrian Roots

Danilo Kiš (1935-1989) once said about himself: “An ethnographic singu-larity I represent will die with me.” He was born in Subotica on the Serbi-an-Hungarian border (on the Yugoslavian territory known as Vojvodina or Vajdaság) as a son of a Hungarian Jew and a woman from Montenegro.

In 1937, the Kiš family moved to Novi Sad on the Danube. His father, Edu-ard Kiš, a former railway inspector, could not know that in the future—and post-mortem—he will join the elitist group of Jewish fathers immortalized on the pages of world literature, alongside with the fathers of Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Ota Pavel, Patrick Modiano, or Philip Roth.

So for the time being Eduard Kiš did what he was best at: he was drinking, whoring, bor-rowing money to be repaid by future generations, fighting with his loved ones, entertaining grand plans, disappearing for months on end, visiting jails and closed wards of mental hospitals, and also working on “a timetable for bus lines, shipping lines, railways, and airlines,” an open work meant to contain the entire world. To sum up: Eduard Kiš was a little crazy.

Kiš had broken a taboo. In the country which three decades after the war was still cultivating the propagandist myth of the victory of communist guerrillas over fascism, Kiš equated the crimes of Stalinism with the crimes of Nazi totalitarianism.

And then a lot of unpleasant things happened in a jiffy. In 1941, the war reached Novi Sad in the shape of German and Hungarian occupation troops. As if predicting trouble, Mr. and Mrs. Kiš two years earlier hastily christened their children (Danilo and his older sister Danica) in the Orthodox rite. In the early 1942, the overexcited Hungarian police with the support of German soldiers organized a pogrom against Jews and Serbs – well over 1000 people were killed, their bodies quartered and thrown under the ice on the river.

The terrified Kiš family escaped to a Hungarian village near Zalaegerszeg where Eduard’s family lived, hoping that laziness and apathy of provincial functionaries will save them. In 1944, Eduard landed in a ghetto (Danilo and Danica were probably saved by their baptism certificates) and from there he was taken to Auschwitz. He vanished into thin air, he disappeared. In 1947, his wife took the family back to Montenegro.

Danilo Kiš devoted all his works to answering the question of how it was possible that one man—his father—dematerialized without a trace, drawing the whole world behind him. Such an elementary question generates many detailed ones – for example about the differences between history and History; about the planned destruction of human souls (that is, an attempt at their comprehensive erasing from the collective memory); about the uniqueness of every human’s existence and the impossibility of the existence of God; about good and evil; about the nature of death. About the necessity of finding such a perspective, such a point of view, which would allow the author to describe it all – and at the same time prevent him from taking his own life, at least until the completion of his work.

Carefully Described Objects and Persons

The answers given by Kiš are probably more interesting than these striking questions. A metaphor often recurring in his books is the landscape outside the window, seen as the bottom of the sea, which, by the way, the Pannonian Plain, flat as a pancake, was millions years ago – it is an archeological or perhaps even paleontological perspective. What happened before the Holocaust could have taken place quite recently – or centuries, millennia ago.

Another characteristic gesture of Kiš’s are obsessive lists – unending catalogues of carefully described objects, bibliographical entries, lost persons, various Freuds, Zieglers, Sternbergs, Gutmanns, Fischers, Sichermanns, Singers, Kertels, Steiners, Uhlmanns. The attitude of the narrator to that storehouse of equipment, titles, and biographies is roughly the same – a somehow tired look of a warehouseman at the mountain of noninventoried, dusty junk, combined with a worried look of Noah at the passengers crowded aboard the Ark.

His father, Eduard Kiš, a former railway inspector, could not know that in the future he will join the elitist group of Jewish fathers immortalized on the pages of world literature, alongside with the fathers of Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Ota Pavel, Patrick Modiano, or Philip Roth.

The third dominant theme is a virtual absence of Shoah itself, which assumes the form of a distant whirlwind, an oceanic vortex, a cosmic black hole sucking in successive elements of reality. The activity of this phenomenon is only hinted at, fractional, impenetrable. Emanations of the Holocaust are observed by a child (Andreas Sam, the author’s alter ego), an unbalanced adult constantly projecting absurd scenarios of his own death (father), and sometimes no one alive is looking (the withdrawn, dehumanized narrator of Hourglass, Kiš’s best novel – not so much a human but rather something like a camera into which no tape was inserted).

Kiš—and this was probably one of the sources of the conflict around The Tomb …— did not see anything wrong in using his literary authorities to create a perspective. In the semiauto-biographical, poetic EarlySorrows and Garden, Ashes we will find variations on themes from Proust and Schultz, in the dazzling Hourglass completing this trilogy (one of the saddest trilogies produced by Central European literature, perversely called by the author “a family circus”) the anarchic spirit of Joyce and the obsessive discipline of Queneau rule the day, in The Tomb… and The Encyclopedia of the Dead Kiš re-assembles Borges and plays with the cold precision of Nabokov.

And somewhere in the background lurks a nostalgic hope that through this desperate tinkering, writing can adjust history and turn the spotlight on those who, like Eduard Kiš or the half-anonymous protagonist of the fa-mous short story The Encyclopedia of the Dead, do not appear in any other encyclopedia. Hourglass draws its visionary narrative from a long letter of the author’s father to his sister, the only longer text which—by chance or turn of fate—he left behind.

A Literary Debut Written with 25 Years

The short novel Psalm 44, appearing for the first time in Polish translation, is practically a literary debut of Kiš – written in 1960, it was published two years later in one volume with the novel The Attic. It is also a unique attempt (not repeated later) at directly facing the theme of death camps. The idea for this book reportedly occurred to the author after reading a newspaper note about a woman who gave birth to a child in Auschwitz and they both survived until the liberation of the camp.

Danilo Kiš devoted all his works to answering the question of how it was possible that one man—his father—dematerialized without a trace, drawing the whole world behind him.

The plot here is only a pretext: young Maria is hiding a new-born before her camp supervisors and waiting with another inmate for the signal to escape. The Russians approach the camp, there is a rumor that the Germans will hastily liquidate the prisoners. In the evening before the escape, Maria is watchful and delirious at the same time. In her hallucinations, childhood memories mix with reminiscences of her camp love affair with the Jewish physician Jakub – the baby, little Jan, is of course the fruit of his love.

Psalm 44, let us say that clearly, is no great literature, it is a rather naive, inconsistent attempt at catching many lose threads. What is interesting for the reader, especially knowing the mature work of the Serb writer, hides in the second and third plane. The childish eyes of Maria in the flashbacks are definitely the eyes of Danilo himself; why are you suddenly not allowed to board a tram with your mother? Why do other children insist that “your dad crucified Christ?” Did Mr. Rosenberg, waiting in line for death, really saw people hacking corpses on the frozen Danube? And what exactly the father had in mind in his long, solemn, murky speech about the inscription “Für Juden verboten?”

***

Kiš sometimes had a somewhat tarry sense of humor. A secondary character of Psalm 44 is a certain Dr. Nietzsche, a Nazi camp physician, a specialist in physical anthropology. In the face of the possible defeat of the Reich this physician makes a scientific proposal to Jakub – he suggests that should Jakub survive, after the liquidation of the camp, he should take care of the collection of sterilized and purified Jewish bones. “I think that you understand that if it came to the Holocaust – as it was planned, as you also know very well – nothing would remain of your race besides this collection of skulls,” says Dr. Nietzsche, worrying about his treasures.

Piotr Krofta

Piotr Krofta is a writer, literary critic, journalist, a long time contributor to Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, and collaborator of Polish Radio Programme II, author of the books Beautiful Evenings and Grey Monkey. He lives in Warsaw.

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