A Historian of Infamy

RV-AH878_BKRV_K_G_20120823001636Sam Sacks reviews Danilo Kiš's Psalm 44, in the WSJ [h/t: Hong-An Tran]:

One of the less admirable affectations in the republic of letters is the tendency to borrow political language to speak of matters of aesthetics. Thus you'll often hear brave-sounding complaints against the tyranny of traditional narrative and the suppression of experimental forms.

Such armchair posturing seems especially flimsy set alongside the fiction of Serbian writer Danilo Kiš. Born in 1935 and raised amid the twin maelstroms of the Nazi and Soviet genocides, Kiš came to a European literature battered from decades of misuse as a tool for political power. “Central European writers,” he wrote in a 1986 essay, “have long been caught between two kinds of reductionism: ideological and nationalistic.”

Kiš's achievement was to create fiction that was not only free from such corruptions but that sought, through a subversive documentary style, to reclaim history from the propagandizers. His greatest works, the nonpareil story collections “A Tomb for Boris Davidovich” (1976) and “The Encyclopedia of the Dead” (1983), are compendiums of the crimes that the Soviet Union and its Western sympathizers had hoped to whitewash. By the time of his death from cancer in 1989, at the age of 54, he had produced a meticulous body of work that conjoined political protest with literary ingenuity.

Dalkey Archive Press has now brought forth three unfamiliar Kiš works—two early novels that haven't before been translated into English and a selection of posthumously published stories. They further illuminate a writing life doggedly devoted to the quest for stylistic innovations to rejuvenate literature after its paralyzing association with agitprop and government censorship.