A Tomb for Boris Davidovich

by Danilo Kiš

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A Tomb for Boris Davidovich consists of seven loosely related stories, which could be read separately. They all share one element, however, that gives them an organic unity. The first story, “The Knife with the Rosewood Handle,” takes place, for the most part, in Bukovina, a part of Romania (now part of the Soviet Union) in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Miksha, a handyman who “could sew on a button in ten seconds,” works for a Jewish shopkeeper until he is fired for skinning a skunk in his master’s yard. Afterward, Miksha becomes acquainted with a revolutionary, Aimicke, who introduces him to the underground. In their secret activity, they suspect that a police informer is in their midst. Miksha takes it upon himself to uncover and punish the traitor; he decides that the traitor is a young girl named Hanna Krzyzewska and murders her. Later, it turns out that it was Aimicke who was informing the police about the group’s activities. Miksha, who has fled to the Soviet Union, is arrested and induced to confess that he worked for the Gestapo, in the process implicating twelve Russian officials, who, with Miksha, receive sentences of twenty years of hard labor.

In the second story, “The Sow That Eats Her Farrow,” a disenchanted Irishman, Gould Vershoyle, leaves his homeland in search of a better place to live. He winds up fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. When he informs his commander of his suspicion that Moscow is masterminding the war (not knowing that his superior is a Soviet agent), Vershoyle is sent to the Soviet Union, where he perishes in the gulag in 1945.

In “The Mechanical Lions,” Edouard Herriot, the leader of the French Radical Socialists, is intrigued by the Soviet system of government and makes a visit to the Soviet Union in order to see whether religion is suppressed there. Everything during the visit is staged, and Herriot goes home convinced that there is indeed religious freedom in the Soviet Union. The man in charge of his visit, A.L. Chelyustnikov, is later arrested and makes a false confession implicating others. After serving his sentence, he visits Lyons and signs his name in a guest book as “an admirer of the work of Edouard Herriot.”

“The Magic Card Dealing” shows another European revolutionary, a Hungarian doctor named Karl Taube, who follows his political sympathies to the Soviet Union, where he is arrested and spends years in various labor camps. As a doctor, he saves the fingers of a man who cut them in order to gain his release. When this same prisoner wins a card game with another inmate, he arranges for the revenge murder of Taube by the loser.

The main story, “A Tomb for Boris Davidovich,” also deals with a revolutionary who has fought against the czarist regime from his early youth. He becomes an important official during the 1920’s, only to fall out of grace and land in prison, where he is mercilessly interrogated by Fedukin, a master at his trade. Davidovich is asked to sign a confession of treason and to implicate others, which he refuses to do. After attempting to commit suicide several times, he finally agrees to be shot as a traitor rather than be hanged as a common thief. He is not shot after all but is sent instead to a labor camp, where he dies in 1937 during an escape attempt.

In “Dogs and Books,” Danilo Ki goes back in time to fourteenth century France during the pogroms against the Jews. Baruch David Neumann, a refugee from Germany and a former...

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Jew, agrees to be converted to Christianity to save his life. Later, he recants, claiming that he agreed to conversion only under duress. After changing his mind several times, finding it impossible to renounce Judaism, he perishes under mysterious circumstances.

“The Short Biography of A.A. Darmolatov” (an obscure contemporary Soviet writer) is the most incongruous story in the novel. It is not quite clear why this man is depicted—whether because he was at one time connected with Davidovich, or because he has developed mental problems trying to be a successful writer under oppressive conditions, or because he has become a medical phenomenon by developing elephantiasis. It is also the only story in which there are no victims, Jews or others, and in which no one is arrested or forced to sign an involuntary confession.