A Tomb for Boris Davidovich

by Danilo Kiš

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Critical Context

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A Tomb for Boris Davidovich is a typical thesis novel and thus represents the frequent phenomenon in contemporary literature of the heavily politicized novel. It is important for the reader to know that Danilo Ki comes from an East European country, one where occurrences similar to those in the novel have taken place. In this manner, Ki joins several writers, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Voinovich, Milan Kundera, and Josef Skvorecky, who have voiced similar concerns in their works. Ki is less openly political than Solzhenitsyn and Voinovich, however, and more akin to Kundera. Ki prefers to refer directly to historical and political events and to personalities and to deal with literature of facts, rather than to couch his works in tones of allegory and irony. He is direct and uncompromising when it comes to his main theses.

The novel provoked a great controversy and quickly became a literary cause celebre when it appeared, not only in Yugoslavia but also abroad. Ki was accused of plagiarism, of lifting entire passages from archives and other sources, an accusation that he was able to refute easily by pointing out that he had used the collage technique deliberately and had quoted the sources used. The controversy lasted several years and divided the literary community, involving aesthetic judgments, political considerations, and emotional reactions. In the last analysis, it was more of a political argument than anything else, for it was clear that Ki’s frontal attack on the remnants of Stalinism in Yugoslavia, adroitly couched in the depiction of a Soviet milieu, had struck sensitive nerves. The relatively free literary conditions in Yugoslavia, along with Ki’s polemic verve, carried the day for him and for his novel.

Aside from this affair, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich can be considered a landmark in Ki’s literary opus. It confirms his belief in literature based on fact and in the artistic treatment of nonliterary subject matter. It also marks a turning away from the personal concerns in his earlier works toward more universal themes. Much more than a political dispute, it is a testimonial to man’s yearning for freedom and dignity, which, together with Ki’s artistic skill, has made this novel an important work in world literature.

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