Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Danilo Kiš

Danilo Kiš would have been the author representing long-term consciousness for Yugoslavia and Serbia. Briefly popular in the country and abroad, and an intellectual influence on the new popular culture at the time (Novi Talas), he was being attacked publicly by Belgrade's macho nationalist-communists. Some of them were good, acclaimed writers, translated to many languages themselves (Miodrag Bulatović and Branimir Šćepanović), or local literary critics (Dragan Jeremić). They were critiquing Kiš supposedly on the merit of his art, but in fact from a parochial all-knowing angle, convinced of recognizing forgery in his use of sources, attacked him ad hominem. Kiš fought back in what became a theatrical brawl - the "Kiš affair" (it is a bit of a surprise that there are no plays written about it, but maybe there are for all I know). Kiš was definitely better read, better educated, and informed, but not necessarily their literary superior. He knew several languages and had an ear for what was going on in the outside, current, ever more complicated world. He was one of those artists always looking for the perfect form, but not the one form to set all his work in, rather a form that is perfect just for the piece he is writing at the time, a form particular to the text. He was an artist.

He cited Shklovsky as an influence among others (and the term ostranenie, in Serbo-Croatian oneobičavanje, which translates as estrangement, defamiliarization, or better enstrangement, as per Benjamin Sher). While perfecting his craft, he found in Borgesian manner the way to write. But he was an after-the-fact fantastic realist. Borges is only reaffirming Kiš's technique, that technique is already his. When he gets to know the Argentinian's work he has already tried his hand at the similar documents-in-text tricks, for instance. It is, instructive to see the three mentioned intellectual towers entangled: Borges, Kiš, and Shklovsky.

It is argued here that the major difference between the appeal of Borges and of Kiš is that the former does not take things too seriously, if that makes sense. Both are erudite, but Borges is playful and conformist. He is more optimistic and is able through language proximity (Spanish is more accessible to the Anglophone public), longevity, and aristocratic lightness to appeal to the wide readership. Kiš is serious, often gloomy, and only sometimes (brilliantly) humorous. I'd dare suggest that the solemnity comes from the war experience if nothing else, the death of his father and the life intimate with the war drama. This light/dark difference between the two was commented on by Kiš himself, and by own account was the impetus for "A Tomb for Boris Davidovich." Kiš thought that lightness does not get at the heart of art's purpose, which is to make the world more bearable.

In the Yugo variety of communism, which mellowed out fore few years in the 1970s, Kiš was able to be in a respectable self-exile in Paris. He was not harassed, or anyone close to him, and he was popular in his native country, but beyond the interested in "Kiš affair" he did not have much of a readership in United States. Shklovsky, post-mortem, helped his case. It is fair to say that after the publication of Shklovsky's work, the momentum in Dalkey Archive led to publishing Kiš. The two can be grouped, in Cross-Atlantic understanding, into a geo-political entity that is Eastern Europe, or Central Europe, Slavic Europe, or unrepresented Europe. For the sake of the argument, following the earlier mention that juxtaposes Borges and Kiš, I would like to bring in Shklovsky to complete the discussion on the role of lightness and darkness vis-a-vis personal history, literary ouvre, and readership. I think their histories can be usefully reduced here, Kiš's public persona was attacked similar to Shklovsky's, and the Russian was made an exile. With historical distance, it could be said that local literary skirmishes were to be expected for those two, and they are united with Borges in the way they were apolitical, but were politically prosecuted. Theirs is the art of the civil society (the more their own societies' cultures accept them, the more they are civil and impersonally open). Shklovsky was an elitist, as were Kiš and Borges (but Kiš lived only 50+ years, Borges and Shklovsky to 80+!), and all three were elitist perhaps due to their erudition. That is often the cause, anyway.

Susan Sontag mentioned latent anti-semitism as one of the reasons why Kiš was pilloried, but I don't think this was the case. It was because he was perceived as an unethical, righteous, and unapologetic loud mouth that would have taken down the literary establishment and questioned mercilessly the entrenched macho-aesthetic values. More important, Kiš's peers knew that he was a great writer, but in their own uninformed parochial ways thought it better to attack him for his firmly individualist worldview than to separate the personal from the literary. It was a tale of local elites threatened by an elitist. While it is not easily reducible to the rubric of individualist vs collectivist histories, it shows that it has always been difficult to be civil in those geo-political parts (Kiš's fellow-citizen from Subotica, Radomir Konstantinović, described it well in his "Filosofija palanke" [Small-town philosophy]).

Kiš died of cancer and did not live to see the Balkan shit in the 1990s. These days his work is receiving renewed interest in the Anglophone world (many of his works published by the great Dalkey Archive), and his readership is hopefully getting much bigger. His fiction and essays have been relevant, but not widely read, and I think he will, if he does not already, like Borges and Shklovsky start to belong to the world rather than the Balkans or "Other Europe". He will achieve a duly world renown, and in the process his attackers will also get fresh exposure. The irony is that they have been mentioned alongside Kiš in foreign anthologies, as representing fantastic realism of Eastern European flavor. They will be judged by their art, in a civil society.


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