Danilo Kiš Long Fiction Analysis
In most of his works, Danilo Ki is preoccupied with the suffering of people during wartime, especially those the hardest hit—Jews and other minorities. He does not dwell on suffering per se but rather on what war forces the victims to do under such unusual circumstances. The mistreatment of the innocent and their outward dehumanization offer them a chance to observe their past and to arrive at some rudimentary understanding of the meaning of existence. This process pertains even to those who suffered in peacetime at the hands of oppressors, since their suffering, too, was often the result of war. By transforming the tragic fate of specific individuals into general experience, Ki imbued his works with universality and pathos. His sophisticated approach to both form and subject matter raises the artistic value of his works.
Ki’s first work, the short novel Mansarda (the attic), did not foreshadow his primary concerns discussed above. The work of a novice, Mansarda reveals the ebullience of a writer flexing his muscles. One impressionistic chapter follows another in no discernible order. The characters find it difficult to separate reality from hallucinations. There is hardly any plot, and the themes crystallize only after a tortuous course of events. What the novel does show, however, is the age-old problem of young people in search of identity amid growing pains, and the seductive and often tragic combination of love and suicide. The central feature of this fledgling yet remarkably mature work is the metaphor of an attic, where theprotagonist lives, to which he constantly returns yet from which he is pulled down to earth, where he must face the reality of everyday existence. Although Mansarda did not solve this perennial dilemma, it promised even more mature accomplishments by the young author.
In Psalam 44 (Psalm 44) appears for the first time the theme that would recur in most of Ki’s subsequent works. Written in a more controlled style than Mansarda, Psalam 44 depicts, in an almost entirely realistic fashion, a few hours in a Nazi concentration camp during the last days of World War II. Again, Ki does not so much describe what happens to the main characters—a captive Jewish doctor forced to ply his trade in the camp and a young Jewish girl who has just given birth to their child—as he does reveal their thinking and feelings. Tortured by their tense inner world and the bizarre real world crumbling around them, they are nurtured by the concern and help they receive from other inmates and, most important, by their own love, which conquers all obstacles. The author does not succumb to this potentially trite subject matter, nor does he moralize. Resisting these temptations, Ki creates a deeply felt artistic document of humankind’s inhumanity toward humans.
In his third novel, Garden, Ashes, Ki’s main theme gains full force. Through the reminiscences of his dolorous childhood, he builds a monument to the memory of his remarkable father—to his memory because, a victim of a pogrom, he left the child’s world before there could be a closer, more prosaic relationship. The father was an eccentric and an incorrigible dreamer, a frustrated genius, a poet, a philosopher, a grotesque Don Quixote, a drunkard, a proud squanderer of his many gifts, a giant among Lilliputians, and a misplaced wanderer from some exotic land. He was the focal point of the child’s imagination and preoccupations for a long time.
The father’s most important function, as far as the boy is concerned, was to impress on the child’s feverish imagination a firm belief that life is not what it seems to be—a sequence of cruel, frightful, seemingly meaningless events—or that at least it does not have to be so. The fact that the father was always an alien among the people around him only enhances the boy’s awe and love for him. The tragic circumstances of his disappearance and the passage of time have added an aura of pathos and unreality to the already unreal experiences of a growing boy—learning to accept and cope with his father and his memory. The reader is left with the feeling that the bonds between the...
(The entire section is 1747 words.)