The Encyclopaedia of the Dead by Danilo Kis

The Encyclopaedia of the Dead by Danilo Kis

It’s not Borges.

“…the title story …is one of the most moving I have ever read, a testament to both the power and the weakness of literature and human memory; it’s both an elegy and a howl of impotence, resonating in more dimensions than the two of the printed page. It tells of how a scholar on a cultural visit to Sweden is let into a library late at night in Stockholm (after a performance of August Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata; I think that’s significant). There, she finds a volume in which her father’s entire life is written, even though he had died only two months before. There is every conceivable detail:

As for my father’s military service, the book traces the marches he took with the Fifth Infantry stationed in Maribor, and specifies the names and ranks of the officers and NCOs and the names of the men in his barracks, the quality of the food in his mess, a knee injury sustained in a night march, a reprimand received for losing a glove, the name of the cafe at which he celebrated his transfer to Poñarevac.

 “There is also a key principle: “The only condition … for inclusion in The Encyclopedia of the Dead is that no one whose name is included here may appear in any other encyclopedia.” In other words, it is a profoundly democratic undertaking; and only someone who was of a thoroughly democratic spirit, someone who could recognise, and not only in theory or abstract, the importance of every single individual, could have thought of it. Its egalitarianism is such that those who have already made their mark on history, or think they have, have no need to be included.

“Which might shed light on how Kiš felt about history, and what the people who made history thought of him. He was born almost as an incarnation of central Europeanness on a train running from Hungary to Yugoslavia, in 1935, according to one story. The son of an assimilated Hungarian Jew (from the same town as James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom’s ancestors) and a Serbian Orthodox mother, he was never easy to pin down in terms of political or national allegiances, only in his commitment to freedom. Kiš was due to win a prize for the first story in this collection, “Simon Magus”, until a party official suspected it might be an anti-communist satire. (If it is, it is many other things, too, the most important being that it is a humdinger. Based on a gnostic story about a heretic itinerant preacher, it is a parable that both courts and yet firmly resists interpretation, which is something that can be said for much of his work.) He died in Paris in 1989, at only 54.

“This country does not need the censor to make an author unknown or forgotten, so Penguin must be congratulated for bringing him back into our ken. Kiš was one of the greats of the century, not just an original mind but a compassionate one, too, and capable, as he is with this collection, of reinventing and invigorating the short story.”

Some of the stories are magical and intruiging – real works of art. But some a little tedious. He is not Luis Borges, but it’s hard to read him and think of him as anything other than falling short of Borges.

The Guardian goes on… “He owed much to Jorge Luis Borges, and acknowledged it; but there’s something warmer about Kiš, something that for all its intelligence knows more the pain of being human. He is one of those writers you feel is on your side.”

There is though a very interesting story based on the infamous antisemetic tract “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”  called “The Book of Kings and Fools”, which is interesting for how it deconstructs how such works sneak into the murky edges of our culture/society/literature.

Overall – interesting, and at times exciting.

Mr A



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