Dalia Sofer

The Ark and the Archivist

Danilo Kiš’s early life was full of death and disappearances. His writing strived to make sense of both.

Discussed: Unlimited Genealogy, Romanticism Without Meaning, The Holocaust, Disappearing Fathers, Ordinary Lives, The Collective Jewish Psyche, Quasi-anthropomorphic Metamorphoses, Doubles, Nothing Amid Nothingness, Cataloging the Universe, Vladimir Nabokov Begetting James Joyce, Literary Allusions as Plagiarism, Nationalism as Paranoia, Morse Code, Tehran in 1980

If I had to name one book that bewitched me as a child, it would not be a picture book or a collection of fairy tales, but rather a slim, steel blue, clothbound volume on my parents’ bookshelf: a genealogy of my mother’s family dating back to the 1700s. It was, as genealogies tend to be, a network of names, some with biographical entries, others bare, each accompanied by two dates—of birth and death—or, in the case of the latest offshoots, a date, an en dash, and a question mark. I would look for my mother’s name in the book’s final pages and fill in the void that did not contain my father, my brothers, my sister, and me, because the genealogy had been assembled by relatives who had decades earlier settled in San Francisco, and who no doubt (in those pre-internet days) had difficulties tracing all the members of the family, most of whom—including us—lived in the Middle East. Transfixed by the physical orderliness of a no-longer-physical past, and perhaps disconcerted by the fissure the book had inadvertently injected into my family by stripping us of the proof of our existence, I undertook, in childish heroism, my own compendium: a notebook that I titled “Everyone I Have Ever Known,” inside which I wrote, quite literally and in no chronological sequence, the names of everyone I had ever known: family members, friends, teachers, neighbors (both alive and dead). If I understood, even then, the futility of such a project, I could not help the compulsion to contain the uncontainable.

What I did not know was that I had entered Kiš-ian territory, the uncanny terrain of the writer Danilo Kiš.

An Orpheus who through mastery of language carries the reader to the underworld and back, Kiš, though still largely unknown in the English-speaking world, was that rare breed of writer as equally committed to style and technique as to excavating the truth, in all its cold-bloodedness—often by reinventing it. As he said in a 1989 interview:

I don’t believe a writer has a right to give in to fantasy… After everything the history of this century has dealt us, it is clear that fantasy, and hence romanticism, has lost all its meaning. Modern history has created such authentic forms of reality that today’s writer has no choice but to give them artistic shape, to “invent” them if need be: that is, to use authentic data as raw material and endow them, through the imagination, with new form.

Hailed by such writers as Susan Sontag, Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie, and Joseph Brodsky—who deemed Kiš’s novel Garden, Ashes “the best book produced on the Continent in the post-war period”—Kiš was considered for the Nobel Prize in the mid-1980s. As British historian Mark Thompson writes, in a remarkable new biography published in March by Cornell University Press and titled Birth Certificate: The Story of Danilo Kiš: Kiš’s work “carries an echo… of literature seeking a frontier with its opposites: encyclopedias, police files, casualty lists, birth certificates, railway timetables, gazetteers. He tests fiction’s possibilities, not by slighting our desire for stories but rather by drawing that desire into zones of history where it cuts against our hunger for truth, unadorned.”

This knack for walking a tightrope between dual forces and mirror worlds, bordering on necromancy, may be attributed to the fact that Kiš was an inheritor of a perturbed and ultimately miscarried history: he was born in 1935 in Subotica, a former Austro-Hungarian city that had become a Yugoslav border town and would, shortly after Kiš’s untimely death, in 1989, become part of Serbia. His Montenegrin mother was Eastern Orthodox, while his Hungarian father, a railway inspector, was Jewish, a fact that would lead to the family’s multiple displacements during the war and to the father’s eventual deportation, in 1944, to Auschwitz. This disappearance would become the driving force behind much of Kiš’s writings, translations of which have trickled into the United States over the past few decades: most notably A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, introduced by Philip Roth in 1980 as part of the “Writers from the OtherEurope” series; the triptych Early Sorrows: For Children and Sensitive Readers; Garden, Ashes; and Hourglass—which together form what Kiš referred to as the “family cycle” books; The Encyclopedia of the Dead; Homo Poeticus: Essays and Interviews; and new translations, last August, of The Attic, Psalm 44, and The Lute and the Scars.

Kiš’s primary subject was persecution, especially the Holocaust and Stalinist purges—historical events he considered too horrific to be presented as either entirely invented tales or wholly realistic fiction. In his family cycle books, he depicted the vanishing world of Hungarian Jews through the disintegration and ultimate disappearance of one Jew: Eduard Scham (based on Kiš’s own father, Eduard Kiš, born Eduard Kohn). Beginning as a peripheral figure in the life of his young son, Andreas (Andi) Scham (Kiš’s fictional doppelgänger) in Early Sorrows, Eduard looms increasingly large in Garden, Ashes, until he reemerges as the central character, E.S., in Hourglass, a mosaic tale of a man writing a letter over the course of a single night, told through four narratives, and elucidated in the final section by an actual (though perhaps somewhat altered) letter that Kiš’s father wrote in 1942 to his sister Olga.

Danilo believed that his father’s vanishing was foretold by his repeated earlier disappearances: diagnosed with “anxiety neurosis,” Eduard Kiš, much like Eduard Scham, was thrice hospitalized, and after the family left Yugoslavia in 1942 to move in with Eduard’s relatives in the Hungarian town of Kerkabarabás, he frequently slipped away from the house to meander through the surrounding forests or to get drunk at one of the village bars. These absences—culminating in his final disappearance—turned the father into something of a myth, thus reversing the order of things: instead of the son growing up to vanquish and eventually reconcile with the father, the vanished father consumed the son, perhaps leaving no possibility for reconciliation. “I had not previously been in a position to observe my father,” Andi says in Garden, Ashes, “and my curiosity in this respect had been completely frustrated by his repeated absences, by what I would call his conscious sabotage of my Oedipal curiosity.”

As Thompson explains, the writings Eduard Kiš left behind—a collection of personal papers and documents, along with the 1938 edition of The Yugoslav National and International Travel Guide, which he had edited—would become springboards from which Kiš reconstituted his father. In a fictional account of their departure from Kerkabarabás after the father’s disappearance, Kiš writes: “Here are his birth certificate, his school diploma, those incredible torahs covered with the script of a distant, almost mythical past, precious testimony of a dead poet… this would be the sole legacy of my childhood, the only material proof that I ever existed and my father ever existed.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Dalia Sofer is the author of The Septembers of Shiraz. She is the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award and of the 2008 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. She lives in New York City.

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