Poster by T.A.
A brief survey of the short story
Muddling the real and the fictional, the power of Kiš's stories lie in their ability to capture truth by doctoring history
Thursday 2 August 2012 16.03 BST
n The Anatomy Lesson, a book-length essay published in 1978, the Yugoslavian writer Danilo Kiš divided the short story into two eras: "pre-Borges and post-Borges." Bearing this out, the last two of the three short story collections Kiš published during his lifetime, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (1976) and The Encyclopedia of the Dead (1983), represent a remarkable contribution to those fictions, existing somewhere between imagination and the concrete reality of the document. Just as Borges's stories thrive in the narrow strip dividing fact from fantasy, so does Kiš's work find an abnormal power in attempting to capture reality by doctoring the documentary truth.
That method might seem paradoxical, but all it means is that Kiš stands among those writers whose perception of reality, as Branko Gorjup has noted, differs from "those realists whose narrative technique hinges exclusively upon the use of mimesis". In this regard he's no different to James Joyce, Bruno Schulz or Kafka, who all bear significant influence on his work. If Kiš's project is in places more problematic than theirs, it's because of the explicitly historical subjects he tackles, such as the Holocaust and Stalin's purges. "The reader likes to know", he wrote, "whether 'it all happened' just as you describe it, whether you made any changes in the actual course of events; rare is the reader … who knows that 'it all' has never happened … anywhere but in the work itself, be it autobiography or biography, novel or story. The memoir is the last genre to give the illusion of objectivity."
A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (translated by Duška Mikić-Mitchell), a story cycle describing the grisly ends of a series of forgotten (in fact, invented) Jewish Comintern revolutionaries, is where he mashes together fiction and fact in the most provocative way. The stories are constructed like unusually artful passages from history books, or excerpts from biographical dictionaries, the text busy with footnotes and qualifiers: "some sources attest"; "despite the meagre data covering his earliest years"; "testimony about him is contradictory". We huddle alongside Kiš, peering into the murky depths of each story, trying to make out details. So convincingly is this done that we need to be reminded, as Matt F Oja writes, that Kiš "is in fact unconstrained by considerations of literal truth: he has at his fingertips all of the places, dates, and facts down to the minutest details, because he is free to invent them as he likes. But instead he chooses to invent the very limits which the historian faces: insufficient written sources, contradictory eyewitness accounts, multiple possible interpretations of a single event."
In muddling the real and the fictional in this way, Kiš is not playing games for play's sake. A half-Jewish ethnic Serb born in 1935 in Subotica, then in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, his father and many members of his extended family were murdered in Auschwitz. He believed, as he told an interviewer in 1985, that "literature must correct History: History is general, literature concrete; History is manifold, literature individual. What is the meaning of 'six million dead' if you don't see an individual face or body – if you don't hear an individual story?" Before portraying the homicidal illogic of Stalinism, he addressed the Holocaust in an outstanding trilogy comprising the short story cycle Early Sorrows (1969) and the novels Garden, Ashes (1965) and Hourglass (1972), which followed the enchanted procedures of Bruno Schulz's "mythicisation of reality". "Schulz is my god", Kiš once told Updike.
Kiš was no monotheist, however. The channelling of a wide variety of writers is one of the defining features of his work. In his recent essay, Transmission and the Individual Remix, Tom McCarthy discusses this kind of "receiving which is replay, repetition", and Kiš himself asserted that "of all influences operating in the history of literature the most important is that of work on work". In other words, as Aleksandr Hemon points out, "Kiš does not borrow from other writers, he communicates with them". Two of his major themes – the struggle with history and the preservation of memory (for him not nearly the same thing) – find their closest echo, appropriately, in the greatest of such communicators, James Joyce. For Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, "history is a nightmare from which I am trying to escape", and Kiš shares his belief that art is the only legitimate way of making sense of it. Also in Ulysses, at Dignam's funeral, Leopold Bloom stares at the graves and wonders gloomily how we can ever hope to remember the innumerable dead for longer than "fifteen years, say". If A Tomb for Boris Davidovich is a cenotaph – literally an empty grave – for the hidden victims of Stalin's purges, The Encyclopedia of the Dead (translated by Michael Henry Heim) is the same project continued along more blatantly metaphysical lines. Responding to Bloom's anxiety, the title story describes a Borgesian wing of the Swedish Royal Library that houses a book containing the biography of every ordinary life lived since 1789.
Theory lies close to the surface in Kiš's writing, but that writing, as Joseph Brodsky notes, "is essentially a poetic type of operation". Despite the veneer of objectivity his later stories required, the reader is never far from a detail that generates a disproportionate amount of descriptive light. In Simon Magus, the contingency of the early Christian church flows from an image of the apostles preaching in villages, "perched on wobbly barrels". In The Magic Card Dealing, as a murderer steals past a hospital porter – "a former Cossack who was so full of vodka that he rocked slightly while sleeping in an upright position, as though in a saddle" – the violence of the Stalinist era links arms with that of the red cavalry during the Soviet-Polish war, and so on back through time.
Kiš is one of the great European writers of the post-war period, but his reputation in English-speaking countries is not what it should be. His work was just beginning to become better known in the west when he died of lung cancer in Paris in 1989, aged 54, but the posthumous elevation of a Roberto Bolaño has not been his. Like the Chilean, whose work also manipulates biography and history, Kiš contends that fiction can access a level of truth unavailable to the historical record. Kiš often quoted Dostoevsky's judgment that "nothing is more fantastic than reality itself", and wrote in his essay, Advice to a Young Writer (1984), "Do not believe in statistics, figures, or public statements: reality is what the naked eye cannot see". Two years earlier, in the story Jurij Golec, he put it even better: "nothing is ever stable apart from the grand illusion of creation; no energy is ever lost there; every written word is like Genesis."