Wednesday, February 2, 2011
A TOMB FOR BORIS DAVIDOVICH by Danilo Kis
On this fete de groundhog, this 129th anniversary of the birth of James Joyce, I've just finished reading the best-known work of Joyce's Yugoslavian reader, Danilo Kis. Somewhere in Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer, a character remarks upon the historical irony by which Kafka's darkest fantasies (an atmosphere of general paranoia, absurd accusations, arbitrary arrest and execution, secret attic rooms) became the reality of the next generation of European Jews. Kis (whose work was introduced to the English-reading world in the great Penguin 'Writers From The Other Europe' series, edited by Roth) comes at the tragedies of midcentury Europe from the other side. Instead of reading Kafka into reality, Kis tells ostensibly realistic tales in a style that evokes both Kafka and Kafka's Argentine disciple, Borges. And instead of focusing on the crimes of the Nazis (presumably a politically 'safe' subject in Tito's Yugoslavia), Kis here writes of the crimes of our late, unlamented century's other titanic ideological monster, Djugashvili the Terrible. With only one exception, all the stories in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich are variations on a single theme: the tragic irony of Stalinism. Kis explores the terrible ironies that result when an ideal for which you are willing to die is hijacked by people who are even more willing to kill you. (The one story that doesn't deal explicitly with Stalinism, "Dogs and Books," the tale of a 14th-century pogrom, is thematically related to the Stalinist tales and can be understood as an attempt, not entirely successful because too forced and explicit, to thematically expand the book into a more general statement on a 'tragic sense of history.') This is a necessary book--probably more necessary than brilliant. For Kis's variations are of uneven quality, and once you've read the first two, the rest are fairly predictable. Boris begins strongly, with two tales of impressive formal originality and moral force, "The Knife with the Rosewood Handle" and "The Sow that Eats Her Farrow." The next two, "The Mechanical Lions" and "The Magic Card Dealing," contain interesting passages but impressed me less. The title story is very good, an impressive Kafkazation of Koestler's Darkness at Noon with perhaps a dash of the later chapters of 1984 thrown in. The last two tales are shorter and lesser works, although the book's final line, on writing and testicular elephantiasis, is an instant classic. So while A Tomb for Boris Davidovich doesn't impress me as much as it impressed William Vollmann, for example, it's still artistically and historically important enough to demand to be read.