The essays and interviews collected in this book by Susan Sontag cover a sixteen-year period from 1973 to the author’s death at the age of fifty-four in 1989, just before the breakup of Yugoslavia. This work is essential reading for anyone already interested in Kis’s fiction and serves as a good introduction to Kis the essayist and Kis the man.
Kis says he writes only about subjects that obsess him intimately, and his two central subjects have been the individual’s fate under fascism and Stalinism. In the interviews and essays he records the origins of his books, explaining how his early works—EARLY SORROWS (1970), GARDEN, ASHES (1965) and HOURGLASS (1972)—were autobiographical in nature, dealing with a Jewish family in Hungary in 1944; Kis’s father was a Jew who died in Auschwitz. In his later books—A TOMB FOR BORIS DAVIDOVITCH (1976) and THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE DEAD (1983)— he substituted his century’s history for personal experience and wrote about Stalinism and the Soviet camps, basing much of his work on the memoir, SEVEN THOUSAND DAYS IN SIBERIA, by the Yugoslav writer Karlo —tajner. His anti-Soviet writings faced opposition in Yugoslavia—which Kis expected—but the opposition in leftist circles in the West who could not accept such fierce criticism of the Soviet system surprised and disappointed Kis.
Politics, however, is really not the heart of this collection. The main focus is writing, and some of the best pieces are tributes from Kis to the major influences on his work, from Vladimir Nabokov to the Marquis de Sade, from Jorge Luis Borges to Gustave Flaubert. Kis refused to be Homo politicus only; he wanted to be Homo poeticus, the writer who suffers from love, mortality, metaphysics and, of course, politics. He accomplished his goal.