Perhaps Yugoslavia’s finest twentieth century writer, Danilo Kiš is little known in American literary circles. Born in Subotica, on Yugoslavia’s border with Hungary, he was the son of a Jewish father and an Orthodox Christian mother. She was obliged to sew a yellow star for her young son by the Nazi authorities who governed the country during World War II. Kiš had his first novel, Mansarda (attic), published in 1962. He produced a steady stream of poems, plays, essays, and short stories as well as long fiction. In 1984, his collected works were issued in ten volumes in Yugoslavia. Having moved to France in 1978, Kiš lectured at the universities of Strasbourg, Bordeaux, and Lille. He died in Paris of lung cancer on October 15, 1989. Posthumously he was awarded the 1989 PEN/Bruno Schulz Prize, which honors foreign writers insufficiently recognized in the United States. The award money is being held in trust by PEN to support the translation into English of other books by Kiš. Aside from Hourglass, only three of his works have appeared in English: Basta, pepeo (1965; Garden, Ashes, 1978), Grobnica za Borisa Davidovica (1976; A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, 1978), and Enciklopedija mrtvih (1983; The Encyclopedia of the Dead, 1989).
Hourglass is the middle work of a trilogy fictionalizing events that occurred in Kiš’s family during 1942. All three works deal with war-torn Yugoslavia under Fascist rule, with the father and husband about to be sent off to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The first volume, Rani jadi (1970; early sorrows), is a collection of stories focused from the young Jewish son’s point of view. The boy amuses himself impersonating his Jewish grandfather, Max Ahasverus, or “Max the Wanderer.” He observes a raid by Gentiles on a Jewish grocery storehouse. After his father has been arrested, the lad pores over the contents of a suitcase containing his father’s photographs, letters, and books—his “grand testament.” This text establishes Kiš’s main concerns: losses, fears, fantasies, memories. The father, always dominant, is often mythicized—as Prometheus, Don Quixote, Meistersinger, Prophet.
The third book in the trilogy, Garden, Ashes, is also narrated through the boy’s consciousness and even more prominently possessed by the father’s complex, kaleidoscopic, mercurial personality. He eludes definition in his protean nature, full of stormy petulance and a ceaseless gift of gab, visionary yet irresponsible, given to drunken sprees stretching to several days. Increasingly these fits express genuine madness and require regular institutionalization. Edward Scham is a born role-player, part clown, part parasite, part Pharaoh, part Tristan—an epic wanderer who chooses his suffering and predicts his passion. The son has Proustian fears of sleep and death, sensual exploration and amorous disappointment.
Hourglass differs considerably in structure and technique from the other two texts. While the locale, time, events, and concentration on the father remain the same, Kiš’s fictive technique in this novel becomes documentary, at times naturalistic. Instead of a chronological unfolding of the plot, the reader is presented with a polyphonic structure including interrogations, biographical snippets, dreams, static descriptions, reflections, and a crucial letter.
The novel’s beginning is enigmatic, as it describes in excruciating detail the interior of a room wherein a man is sitting, preparing to write a letter whose text is not revealed until the book’s last ten pages. The man stares into an oil lamp that, the reader discovers late in the text, is the flame of the Hanukkah miracle, when a miraculous cruse of oil was said to burn for eight days at the rededication of Jerusalem’s new temple by Judas Maccabeus in 165 B.c. The letter-writer is trying for his own minor miracle, hoping “that his own bit of oil would burn until dawn, until daybreak, for if the oil lasted eight days for them (the Maccabees), why wouldn’t it last eight hours for him?” The sense of time running out pervades the whole book and is symbolized by the title’s hourglass, as son and father contemplate each other across a void of time and understanding, with the dead father coming alive in scraps and shards and snippets.
The novel’s narrator lacks any previous perception or knowledge of the actions he researches through the pyramid of citations, dossiers, photographs, interrogations, and diary entries that constitute the book. He (and thereby, the reader) learns that the letter writer’s initials are E. S., which stand for Edward Scham, protagonist of the trilogy. E. S. is Jewish and therefore is forced to wear the Star of David and submit to...
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