Among the works Kiš left behind included a form-bending prose triptych -- Garden, Ashes (1965), Early Sorrows (1970) and Hourglass (1972) -- two masterworks of short fiction -- A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (1976) and Encyclopedia of the Dead (1983) -- and a string of dazzling polemical essays and interviews about his own work (some of which were translated into English and published in 1995 as Homo Poeticus.
The early death of one of Europe’s humane and powerful literary voices was a tragedy for literature. But history suggests that the timing of the Kiš’ passing was – at least in one aspect – merciful. Kiš did not witness the engulfment of Yugoslavia in the blood-soaked tide of competing nationalisms that he so thoroughly despised and belittled.
After all, witness was at the center of Kiš’ literary works, which grappled with the worst of Europe’s mid-20th Century horrors: Nazism and Stalinism. The author experienced the first of those horrors in his childhood. Kiš was the son of a Hungarian Jewish father and a Montenegrin mother, and his father and other relatives died in Auschwitz. It was a trauma that fueled the keenly-felt and minutely-observed explorations of memory mingled with looming tragedy in his first three books.
In a 1988 interview included in Homo Poeticus, Kiš observed that his later exploration of Stalinism in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich arose in part from a prick of conscience:
Yes, there’s a break in my work between the family cycle (the first three books) and what followed. I went on with my investigations, but substituting the experience of the century for my own personal experience. I felt it was wrong to take on fascism while ignoring Stalinism, especially as they have traits in common: the predominance if Jews in both the Nazi and Soviet camps (pace Solzhenitsyn, who tends to bring in Jews only if they are camp guards.)
The brutality of Stalinism in Kiš’ work is sharpened not only by Stalinism's perversion and betrayal of revolutionary idealism (the classic trope), but also in the author’s painfully comic vision of human beings careening through a universe of injustice and accident. In Boris Davidovich, the grand forces of history are whittled to the sharp and savage portraits of victims and victimizers. Modern pogroms and purges are shrouded in illusion and infiltrated by chance and caprice.
One of the great ironies of Kiš’ career is that Boris Davidovich set off a lengthy war within Yugoslavia’s -- and mainly Serbia’s -- literary establishment that turned not upon interpretations of Stalinism (the vexed question that forced both author Mihajlo Mihajlov and director Dušan Makavejev into dissidence and exile) but on questions of nationalism and literary cabalism.
An initial and unfounded attack upon Kiš’ use of source materials as “plagiarism” a few months after the book was published burst into a conflagration that raged through magazines and newspapers. By the end of the polemics around the book, Kiš and his colleague Predrag Matvejević – a professor at Zagreb University who joined in the defense of Boris Davidovich – had laid bare the provincial prejudices and machinations of Belgrade’s literary establishment arrayed against Kiš and his book. (You can find an excellent summary here.)
The key text in the controversy was The Anatomy Lesson (1978), Kiš’ book-length defense of Boris Davidovich. (Portions of the book are included in Homo Poeticus.) Though much of The Anatomy Lesson is a dissection of his own working methods, and a refutation of any whiff of "plagiarism," the most famous passages of the book grapple with the larger stakes of the battle: literary cosmopolitanism versus narrow nationalism.
The battle over Boris Davidovich presaged the violent breakup of Yugoslavia set in motion a decade later, and Kiš clearly articulated the vicious mentality that would later sweep through the nation as rooted in paranoia, banality, kitsch and ignorance:
The nationalist is by definition an ignoramus. Thus, nationalism is the path of least resistance, the easy way out. The nationalist has no problems; he knows – or thinks he knows – his own basic values, his own and therefore his people’s, the ethical and political values of the nation to which he belongs. He is interested in no others. Nothing “other” holds any interest for him. Hell is others (other nations, other tribes), people not worth knowing or studying. All the nationalist sees is his own image: the image of a nationalist. A comfortable position, as we have said. Fear and envy. A choice, a commitment requiring no effort. The nationalist feels not only that hell is other nations but also that everything not his (Serb, Croat, French…) is alien to him.Though Kiš won the battle over Boris Davidovich, the nationalists in Serbia and elsewhere in former Yugoslavia eventually won the larger culture war. The conflicts that tore Yugoslavia apart were rooted in the paranoia and ignorance belittled by Kiš, and the cultural artifacts of that era trafficked in the banality and kitsch that he so savagely ridiculed.
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Perhaps it was a mercy that Kiš did not live to see the bloody triumph (however temporary) of naked political nationalism in former Yugoslavia. (The jury is still out on its more subtle political manifestations. Culturally, nationalism still holds considerable sway.)
But the collapse of communism and Yugoslavia’s wars indisputably demolished a greater literary project in which Kiš’ was implicated: the notion of the “Central European” writer.
I choose the word "implicated" expressly because of Kiš' tantalizing ambivalence about the concept. His longest extended meditation on the topic is a 1986 essay, "Variations on Central European Themes" (included in Homo Poeticus), which flits in fits and starts between defining and debunking a "Central European" category in politics and (most importantly) in literature.
Early in the essay, Kiš dubs the concept as "risky business" and tartly observes that:
Even taking a historical perspective, we have trouble speaking of "Central European culture" as a coherent supranational entity, the differences in national cultures being greater than the similarities, the antagonisms more alive than the agreements.
Yet in the period in which Kiš reached his artistic zenith, the concept was alive and well in Western Europe and the United States, largely as a method in which a quorum nations of so-called "Eastern Europe" under Soviet domination (Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania) or perched uneasily between East and West (Yugoslavia) could be reconnected somehow with a political and cultural reality that predated Anschluss, devastation and Communist rule.
The notion of a literary “MittelEuropa,” created in the great cultural mixing bowl of the Hapsburg monarchy, and stretching roughly from Karl Kraus and Karel Capek through Joseph Roth and through to Milan Kundera and Kiš himself had a cachet that the author of Boris Davidovich eyed warily:
The sudden interest in "Central Europe" is the result less of concern over a culture remaining in the shadows than of the West's growing awareness that the Manichean East-West split has caused an entire geographical region to vanish into the mists.and, later:
At present the notion of a Central European sphere of culture may well be felt more strongly in the West than in the countries that ought logically to constitute it.In 1978, it had been a full decade since the last political eruption in MittelEuropa (the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia). Before that, of course, was the spectre of 1956 in Hungary. The declaration of martial law to quell the rise of Solidarity in Poland was two years in the future. Indeed, a spirit of cultural ferment in the region -- be it Article VII of the 1975 Helsinki Accords and the founding of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia in 1977 -- was thick in the air.
But as his "variations" gather intensity, propelled forward in short bits of prose, Kiš warms to the idea of Central Europe. When he reads Polish writer Andrzej Kusniewicz or Hungarian writer Peter Esterhazy, he writes, "I find something in the way they put things that draws them close to me, a Central European poetics if you will? "What is the tone, the vibration that situates a work within that magnetic field? Above all, the inherent presence of culture..."
More commonalities follow and aggregate. "Since even the awareness of belonging to a culture known as Central European is ultimately an act of dissidence," Kiš writes, "writers whom others call Central European or who define themselves as such generally live in exile (Milosz, Kundera, Skvorecky) or are marginalized and appear in samizdat (Konrad) or are in prison (Havel)."
The tone of the essay also gets more personal as it winds to its conclusion. In my view, the figure of Austrian playwright Odon von Horvath looms large in Kiš' thinking and writing in this era.
Horvath was a classic MittelEuropean mongrel: born in former Yugoslavia (Rijeka) as the son of a Hungarian diplomat, educated in Belgrade, Budapest, Bratislava and Vienna. Horvath's own self-portrait rendered his background as "a typical old Austrian-Hungarian mixture: Magyar, Croatian, German, Czech -- my name is Magyar, my mother tongue is German."
In a short 1983 essay called "Birth Certificate," Kiš consciously echoes Horvath's biography, emphasizing his Hungarian Jewish and Montenegrin background, noting that "The ethnographic rarity I represent will die out with me."
One of Kiš' final stories was an almost-literal retelling of Horvath's biography -- and in particular, Horvath's untimely end. Translated and published in the anthology Balkan Blues: Writing Out of Yugoslavia, it is a haunted tale. Like Kiš, Horvath died in exile in Paris, hounded out of the magical sphere of Central Europe by the political and cultural controversies of the time.
The story establishes the Central European pedigree of a writer that Kiš renames "Egon von Nemeth" before literally erasing it in a cold fury against the obsession with race and class that destroyed a generation of Europeans. The final line of Kiš' story suggests that the task of seeing and recording that is essential to the writer requires a self-immolation of sorts, an rubbing out of all the cultural threads that one would wind together to form a Central European strand:
The witness needs impartiality; the remorse of some is as alien to him as the prejudice of others.