The Encyclopedia of the Dead

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Danilo Kis is a writer whose life mirrors the complex fate of Central Europe. Born in Hungary in 1935, of Jewish descent (his father died at Auschwitz), he grew up in Yugoslavia. THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE DEAD, first published in Serbo-Croatian in 1983, is his third book to appear in English translation, following GARDEN, ASHES, a novel, and A TOMB FOR BORIS DAVIDOVICH, a collection of linked stories.

Kis is frequently compared with Jorge Luis Borges. Like Borges, he writes stories that mix formidable erudition with a taste for the esoteric and the fantastic; several of the stories in THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE DEAD, including the title piece, center on fictitious books in the manner of Borges’ “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Kis’s fiction is his self-confessed inability to invent stories: He takes his materials from history and from the works of other writers, often with malicious intent. The central event in his career to date is the bitter controversy in Yugoslavia over his alleged plagiarism in A TOMB FOR BORIS DAVIDOVICH. While politically motivated and in some respects ludicrously exaggerated, the charges nevertheless reflect the unusually high degree of “intertextuality” in Kis’s fiction. THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE DEAD concludes with a postscript in which Kis makes a great show of identifying the sources of the stories; his intent is clearly ironic, and in some cases he deliberately omits reference to...

(The entire section is 402 words.)