A Tomb for Boris Davidovich

by Danilo Kiš

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Characters Discussed

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Boris Davidovich

Boris Davidovich (dah-VIH-doh-vihch), a Jew and a Russian revolutionary. Boris has been imbued with a revolutionary zeal from his early youth, fighting against the czarist regime and for the Bolsheviks. As a result, a portrait of a classical revolutionary emerges: brave, resolute, bold, cool, resourceful, loyal to the cause, and blind to questioning of his ideology. Although it is not quite clear whether he joins the revolution out of a sense of justice or in quest of action or adventure, he participates in it without any reservations, which leads to a firmness of character that remains throughout his life. When he falls out of grace and is tortured and threatened with death, he refuses to sign a confession that would implicate others; instead, he prefers to be shot as a traitor rather than to be hanged as a common thief. Through his death in a labor camp during an escape attempt, he epitomizes a revolutionary who dies unjustly at the hands of his comrades. He also resembles the numerous revolutionaries throughout the world who, convinced of the rightness of their cause, are nevertheless stymied in their idealistic expectations and sacrificed to the exigencies of the revolution.

A. L. Chelyustnikov

A. L. Chelyustnikov (cheh-LYEWST-nih-kov), a Russian revolutionary, another example of a loyal servant of the revolution, yet for entirely different reasons. A boaster and a womanizer, expert at playing cards, he seems to have become a revolutionary out of opportunism or inertia. He is a typical organization man, even to the point of agreeing to be a fall guy to serve the cause. It is not surprising that he survives the ups and downs of the revolutionary struggle, even though he is not without scars or close calls.

Fedukin

Fedukin (feh-DUH-kihn), a secret police investigator. A revolutionary of yet another sort, Fedukin serves the revolution and the state out of a need to do evil and hurt people to satisfy his sadistic impulses. A tall, pockmarked, and unbending interrogator, of modest education but of some literary talent, he derives the greatest pleasure when he investigates and tortures his former comrades, guilty or innocent. His motto is, “Even a stone would talk if you broke its teeth,” referring to those victims who have passed through his hands. He believes that it is better to destroy one person’s truth than to jeopardize “higher” interests and principles and that to sign a confession for the sake of duty is logical and moral and, therefore, deserving of respect. He simply cannot understand the “sentimental egocentricity of the accused, their pathological need to prove their own innocence, their own little truths.” Fedukin thus becomes villainy incarnate, without any alleviating circumstances or rational explanations.

Karl Taube

Karl Taube (TAH-uh-beh), a Hungarian revolutionary, representative of a well-meaning European intellectual who joins the revolution as a firm believer in just and idealistic goals. Taube eventually dies during the intraparty intrigues in the Soviet Union. He pays the ultimate price, however, in a bizarre way—he is murdered by common criminals in the prison. He thus becomes a victim of blind fate because, had the leadership not imprisoned him for a flimsy reason, he would not have been killed. Refusing to recognize harsh realities and clinging to his dream of a better life, he perishes for trying to solve problems through reason under circumstances that are governed by passion and blind hatred.

Gould Vershoyle

Gould Vershoyle (gewld vur-SHOYL ), an Irish revolutionary. His disenchanted search for a better place to live takes him to Spain, where he fights for the...

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Republicans in the civil war, and to Moscow, where he is taken because of his suspicions about the Soviet role in the war. His death in a labor camp in 1945 is another example of a juggernaut crushing everything in its way toward a revolutionary goal.

Miksha

Miksha, a handyman from Bukovina who works for a Jewish shopkeeper and is a member of the underground. Introduced to the underground by another revolutionary, Aimicke, Miksha sets out to find a traitor in their midst. He suspects a certain girl and kills her, but it was Aimicke who was informing the police. After fleeing to the Soviet Union, Miksha is arrested and forced to confess that he was a Gestapo agent, implicating twelve Russian officials as well; they all get twenty years of hard labor. Miksha thus becomes another example of the revolution devouring its own children.

Eduard Herriot

Eduard Herriot, the leader of the French Radical Socialists. Herriot represents the West European politicians who were unclear about the true nature of the Soviet system. Predictably, he visits the Soviet Union to see whether religion is suppressed there, and he returns convinced that it is not. That is all the more surprising because Herriot is a cautious and sensitive person. Chelyustnikov, who masterminds the official cover-up of the truth during Herriot’s visit, signs a guest book in Lyons years later as if thanking Herriot for being so gullible.

Baruch David Neumann

Baruch David Neumann, a refugee from Germany and a former Jew. Neumann, who lived in fourteenth century France during the pogroms, suffers the same indignities as those suffered in the twentieth century and, eventually, death for a related reason—human intolerance of different creeds and beliefs. Even though he converts to Christianity to save his life, he later recants, finding it impossible to renounce Judaism. Like Fedukin, Neumann’s detractors believe that it is better “to slaughter one mangy sheep than to allow the whole flock to become tainted.” This aspect relates Neumann’s case to other stories in the novel, proving that intolerance and inhumanity are as old as humankind.

A. A. Darmolatov

A. A. Darmolatov (dahr-moh-LAH-tov), a Soviet writer. Even though Darmolatov, a minor Soviet poet, is acquainted with Davidovich, a more significant connection is somewhat obscure. It is not quite clear whether his story is included because of his acquaintanceship with Davidovich, because he develops mental problems trying to be a successful writer under oppressive conditions, or because he becomes a medical phenomenon by developing elephantiasis. His is the only story without victims, Jewish or otherwise, and without enforced confessions.

The Characters

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The main character of the novel is Boris Davidovich, a Jew and a revolutionary from the days of his early manhood. He presents a picture of the classical revolutionary: brave, resolute, bold, cool, resourceful, loyal to the cause, and blind to questioning of his ideology. It is not quite clear whether he joins the revolutionary struggle out of a sense of justice or in quest of action or adventure, but it does not matter; once he decides to participate he does so with resolution. This steadfastness may explain why Davidovich persistently resists the efforts of Fedukin to break him during the endless hours of interrogation and torture. It is symptomatic of Davidovich’s character that, once it is clear that he will die, he wants to die as an honorable man who has fought tenaciously for his cause rather than as a common thief. In this sense, he epitomizes the countless revolutionaries throughout the world who are convinced they are fighting for the right cause but are stymied in their efforts. Be that as it may, Davidovich is a classic example of a fighter who pays the ultimate price unjustly.

Karl Taube is another example of a revolutionary who pays this price, but in a somewhat different way. An intellectual who joins the struggle out of a clear, rational decision to help better the world, he becomes a victim of the whims of blind fate. He too is senselessly sacrificed by the leadership, for if they had not sent him to prison for no apparent reason, he would not be in the position to be murdered by common criminals there. Taube dies as a well-meaning but somewhat naive intellectual who tries to use reason in solving problems in a situation that is governed by passion and blind hatred.

This situation is not the same with two other characters who stand out in the novel—Chelyustnikov and Fedukin. Both serve the Revolution faithfully but with a different attitude. Chelyustnikov is a typical aparatchik (an organization man), who is not only unquestioningly loyal to the cause but also without any compelling intellectual reason. He does everything that the Revolution asks him to do, even when it requires of him to play the role of a fall guy. Nevertheless, one cannot escape the conclusion that he is doing it for purely opportunistic reasons or simply out of inertia. Otherwise, he would express his doubt in the righteousness of the cause, for which he has ample opportunities.

Fedukin, on the other hand, is in the revolutionary struggle for reasons that stem from the dark recesses of his character, out of his need to do evil and hurt people to satisfy his atavistic impulses. That is the only explanation for his zeal in torturing his victims, be they guilty or innocent, especially his former comrades. He is therefore a villain incarnate, without any alleviating circumstance or rational explanation.

One other character, Baruch David Neumann, deserves to be mentioned. Having lived in the fourteenth century, he has no apparent relation to the happenings of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, he suffers the same indignities and, eventually, death for a related reason—man’s intolerance for people of different mind and belief.

These and the other characters, however, are only sketchily developed because the author’s intention was not to create well-rounded characters but rather to show what they stand for as types.

Bibliography

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Czarny, Norbert. “Imaginary-Real Lives: On Danilo Ki,” in Cross Currents. III (1984), pp. 279-284.

Shishkoff, Serge. “Kosava in a Coffee Pot,” in Cross Currents. VI (1987), pp. 341-371.

Vitanovic, Slobodan. “Thematic Unity in Danilo Ki’s Literary Works,” in Relations. Nos. 9/10 (1979), pp. 66-69.

White, Edmund. “Danilo Ki: The Obligations of Form,” in Southwest Review. LXXI (Summer, 1986), pp. 363-377.

Zimmerman, Zora Devrnja. Review in World Literature Today. LIII (Autumn, 1979), p. 713.

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