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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1957

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 the punishments of the Fascist regime that, in 1942, rules his (Kiš’s) native Serbo-Croatian region of Novi Sad. E. S., retired from his post as railway inspector, has been deprived of most of his pension and must live hand-to-mouth and on the run, homeless, his family hungry, dependent on the unreliable generosity of relatives and friends—many of whom disappear, are killed, or commit suicide. Eventually the Scham family dies of hunger and exposure to the cold.

The book’s tone, until its last chapter, is that of a punctilious legal examination: cold, dry, precise, pitiless, devoid of sentiment or pathos. While most of the “documents” are fictive, they do instill an atmosphere of official authority and authenticity. The paradigm is that of a police investigation, with the son-narrator the chief prober and his late father, E. S., the chief witness-suspect. Edward Scham’s character is viewed through multiple screens, as the novel visits and revisits three categories: “Travel Scenes,” “Criminal Investigation,” and “Notes of a Madman.” These fragments, while minimizing the role of the narrator, tax the attention and collaborative power of the reader, who is expected to bridge the gaps in the narration and arrange the pieces of the puzzle in a coherent pattern.

Scham’s immensely complex personality, bursting out of these separate textual segments and featuring differing aspects of his self, sits for a disturbingly unfinished portrait that suggests the impossibility of fully knowing a human being. It is the monstrous Holocaust, with its mass extermination of Jews, which fills the narrow, hourglasslike space between the interrogated and the interrogator. The novel’s last pages print a long, bitter letter from Scham to his sister, Olga. In it he describes and denounces cruelly callous conduct by another sister and her immediate family toward Scham’s family, who visited them for two weeks and received virtually no food, heat, or shelter. The Holocaust has brutalized the feelings of the afflicted. All Scham can conclude, in his letter’s (and the novel’s) last line, is, “It is better to be among the persecuted than among the persecutors.”

Kiš’s fictive technique in Hourglass is clearly influenced by the French New Novel as practiced by Alain Robbe- Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Philippe Sollers, and others. The factual, impartial nature of the book’s series of discontinuous documents prohibits emotional comfort and curtails psychological analysis. The reader receives minute, exhaustive descriptions of train tracks and timetables, the contents of valises, the rags in a man’s mouth as he is being beaten to death, Scham’s smashed teeth and glasses, his rat-infested house collapsing, the deaths of Jews. Kiš, in this difficult work, demands an intensely perceptive response from what must necessarily be an intelligent and alert reader.

Kiš’s other two books available in English are also noteworthy. A Tomb for Boris Davidovich consists of seven stories closely united by one theme: the prosecution and execution of persons in the name of ideologies. A mordant irony pervades the work: Virtually all the victims are felled by the very system they helped to create. In five of the tales the principal characters are Jewish pawns of Stalinist totalitarianism. In another, a Jew, A. A. Darmalotov, dies a natural death but has been guilty of silence concerning injustice and of compromising his literary talent so he could survive. The seventh story, “Dogs and Books,” describes a series of pogroms that occurred in 1330 in southern France, with Kiš using the ancient parallel to emphasize the cyclical nature of history.

The protagonist of the title story, the book’s longest, is Boris Davidovich Novsky, an elegant but anarchistic engineer at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. He masterminds spectacular assassinations, fights heroically in the 1917-1919 Civil War, and becomes an important political commissar. In 1930, however, Boris is arrested and accused of being an economic saboteur and spy for Great Britain. Kiš is at his most powerful in depicting the fierce struggle between the relentless Soviet interrogator Fedukin and the brilliant Boris, who insists on leaving his life on legendary terms: “I’ve reached my mature years—why spoil my biography?” Finally, Fedukin finds the key to Boris’ downfall: For every day his prisoner delays confessing to the false charges, he pays with the life of another prisoner arbitrarily chosen for execution. Boris yields and works with Fedukin on the text of a ten-page “confession” but then is disappointed to be given only a one-year sentence. Seven years later, during Joseph Stalin’s terrible 1937 purges, Boris is rearrested but escapes his guards and leaps into a boiling foundry caldron. From it “he rose like a wisp of smoke, deaf to their commands, defiant, free from German shepherds, from cold, from heat, from punishment, and from remorse.

This book constitutes a stunningly sparse statement on persecution, uniting documentary data with tersely poetic descriptions of characters’ interior worlds. The interrogations, tortures, and confessions have their outcomes determined by nebulous, chance-ridden conditions as human beings define themselves under excruciating pressures. Like Jorge Luis Borges, Kiš uses historic episodes and actual documents, only to transpose and reintegrate them into the fabric of his mordant vision.

When A Tomb for Boris Davidovich was published in Yugoslavia, it was viciously attacked by both Stalinist followers in influential literary and editorial posts as well as by Serbo- Croatian nationalists, who tended to be pro-Russian and anti- Semitic. Kiš’s enemies charged him with plagiarism, citing works by Arthur Koestler, Karl Steiner, Nadezhda Mandelstam, and Roy Medvedev, among others. Deeply offended, Kiš responded with a blistering 345-page polemic counterattack, Cas anatomije (1978; the anatomy lesson) and moved to France.

The Encyclopedia of the Dead is a collection of stories that resembles A Tomb for Boris Davidovich in applying the documentary method for lyrical purposes. Its nine tales unite scholarship, violence, and the afterlife, the fantastic with the erudite. In the subtle title story, the female narrator finds an encyclopedia of all men and women who ever lived—but those who became famous are excluded. Kiš insists that each individual is unique and worth celebration, as a daughter reads the book of her dead father’s ordinary life and even a Hamburg harbor whore is buried respectfully. In the opening story, “Simon Magus,” Kiš reworks the gnostic legend with biblical eloquence and compact learning, as man revolts against gods and the human condition. In “The Book of Kings and Fools,” he investigates the morality of the written word when it is used to produce The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the world’s most pernicious anti-Semitic forgery.

In sum, Danilo Kiš is a coolly intelligent, clever, gifted writer passionately committed to individual freedom and dignity. His style and tone blend lyrical poignancy with ironic irreverence, the factual with the fantastic, the starkly clinical with the horrifying. He deserves a wide audience among discriminating readers.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVI, July, 1990, p.2071.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, June 1, 1990, p.753.

Library Journal. CXV, July, 1990, p.131.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 16, 1990, p.2.

The New Republic. CCIII, October 22, 1990, p.38.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, October 7, 1990, p.14.

The New Yorker. LXVI, November 12, 1990, p.134.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, June 8, 1990, p.47.

San Francisco Chronicle. September 2, 1990, p. REV4.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, August 26, 1990, p.4.

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