Danilo Kiš

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Danilo Ki (keesh) was born in Subotica, Yugoslavia, a commercial and industrial city on the Hungarian border. In this regard he has been compared to Joseph Roth and Bruno Schulz, both of whom were born on the borders of the old Austro-Hungarian empire. Two motifs in particular link Ki to the tradition of the Middle European novel. One is the omnipresence in his works of the troubled past; the other is the looming figure of the father (found in Franz Kafka as well as in Roth and Schulz), particularly in Garden, Ashes and Hourglass. In Ki nostalgia is blended with foreboding, and sentimentality is absent. In A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, Subotica, seen through the eyes of a young man leaving his native city forever, is a picture of the bleakness common to Middle European provincial towns., Danilo[Kis, Danilo]}, Danilo[Kis, Danilo]}, Danilo[Kis, Danilo]}

Ki’s childhood and early youth coincided with World War II. The German invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 brought with it a savage war between Communist partisans and occupation troops, an equally savage conflict between feuding nationalist groups, and the murderous machinery of the Nazis’ “final solution.” Himself a half-Jew, Ki lost his father and most of his family in Auschwitz; by his own account, his survival of the massacre of the Serbs and the Jews in 1942 at Novi Sad was miraculous. It is not surprising, therefore, that although his novels are not directly autobiographical, the suffering of the Jews in Yugoslavia and Hungary is a continual theme. Psalam 44, one of Ki’s earliest works, takes up the persecution of the Jews in Belgrade in the detached, clinical way that is a mark of his style. Garden, Ashes, a surreal memoir of childhood, has been called an ode to the father—in this instance, a father who manages to fling a note from a passing cattle car. Hourglass continues the theme of his own family’s persecution; the title refers to a letter from his father. “The Book of Kings and Fools,” a story in The Encyclopedia of the Dead, is a parable of evil based on the Protocol of the Sages of Zion, the infamous anti-Semitic work that, in Ki’s words, can be likened to “a book of murderers.”

The work for which Ki is probably best known is A Tomb for Boris Davidovich. Consisting of seven narratives, actually seven versions of the same story, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich gives a brief account of the self-destruction of the Comintern during the Stalinist terror. Ki’s characters are for the most part based on real people; his narration of the relationship between victim and torturer is clinical and sparse, calling to mind Tadeusz Borowski’s short story “Proszeg panstwado gazu” (1948; “This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” 1967). When it was finally published in Yugoslavia in 1976, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich sparked a storm of protest, which has been attributed to conservative Stalinists and pro-Russian, anti-Semitic nationalists. Although such charges as plagiarism were couched in literary language, the political overtones are unmistakable. A Tomb for Boris Davidovich has been called an expansion of history, and history, it has been noted, can be a dangerous subject for a writer in any country, especially in one where a particular ideology is supreme.

Although Ki is recognized in Europe as one of the most important postwar writers, he is not widely known in the United States, where his reputation rests largely on A Tomb for Boris Davidovich . Reviews of that work, though generally favorable, show genuine puzzlement that reflects a lack of knowledge of Middle European history and twentieth century literary tradition, as well as Westerners’ difficulty in grasping the often bizarre nature of the institutionalized insanity that is Ki’s...

(The entire section is 949 words.)