The Attic by Danilo Kiš (trans John Cox). Dalkey Archive Press. 112pp., $12.95.
Although he had long been controversial in what was then his native Yugoslavia, Danilo Kiš was practically unknown in the West until 1980, when Penguin published his devastating collection of stories, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, as part of its “Writers From The Other Europe” series. Since then Kiš’s work in translation has been scattered across a number of presses notable for their dedication to innovating translated literature. Recently, one of the best, Dalkey Archive Press, has picked up steam with the man Susan Sontag called “one of the handful of incontestably major writers of the second half of the century”. In 2001 it republished A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, and then in 2003 Kiš’s earlier, more opaque Garden, Ashes. And now, all at once, it hands us three new translations—The Attic, Psalm 44, and The Lute and the Scars.
Kiš was born in 1935 in what is now Serbia, the son of a Jewish father who would later be killed in Auschwitz. His mother took him and his sister to Hungary, where they passed the duration of the war in exile. They returned to Yugoslavia afterwards, but Kiš would be remain in and out of exile his whole life, spending his last ten years in Paris. Like W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño—two other incontestably major postwar writers—Kiš was only in his fifties when, in 1989, he passed away, a writer who had not nearly received his due. These new translations “represent only a fraction of the excellent work that still remains inaccessible in English,” according to their translator, John K. Cox.
Of the three, The Attic may be the most interesting. It is an antic account of the young lives of its narrator, the pseudonymous Orpheus, and his friend Billy Wiseass as they attempt to come to terms with life and death, love and art. Throughout the novel we find Orpheus at work writing a novel called The Attic, and he frequently alerts us to the fact that we are reading it as it is being written. (“’What can I do for you?’ said a new character as he extended a bow.”) He meets a young woman, to whom he gives the name “Eurydice”; in doing so, he writes, he “sang her into existence”. His relationship with her, his creation, comes to resemble his relationship with his other creation, The Attic—each one forever on the verge of collapse as a result of Orpheus’ own informality, his own frankness. Composed variously of prose, letters, journal entries and lists, The Attic, Kiš’s first novel, is an extremely interesting debut, a book that contains the seed of almost every formal trait that would later become characteristic of its author’s artistic project. “Isn’t my novel The Attic really just a framework?,” asks Orpheus as the book ends. “A framework for what?” Kiš’s career, evidently.
When we first meet Orpheus, he speaks of a time in the recent past when he was “feverishly demanding answers from life, and so I was completely caught up in myself—that is, caught up in the vital issues of existence.” He offers a list of twenty-three “questions to which I was seeking answers”, among which we find “the issue of nourishment”, “cosmopolitanism”, “apoliticism and engagement”, “kindness and heedlessness”, “idealism and materialism”, “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza” and “death and suicide.” Kiš’ expands on these themes in future works, with Garden, Ashes finding its protagonist detailing 226 disciplines in which he seeks answers, breathlessly spanning everything from “alchemical studies” to “zoological studies.” In “The Debt,” perhaps the most imaginative, well-wrought story in The Lute and the Scars, an aging writer lies on his hospital bed, where before his death he counts out some forty debts he feels owes—many of them to real historical figures. In this slightly fleshed out list, which echoes The Attic in both form and theme, the old man decrees:
“To Ljubomir Popović, who taught me kindness, because it isn’t enough simply to have a kind heart, and goodness has to be learned like the alphabet: two crowns. . . .
To Dimitrije Mitrinović who revealed to me the existence of other worlds, better and happier, beyond these hapless provincial backwaters: two crowns. . . .
To the judge from Split, Jerko Moskovito, who assisted me in regaining my freedom at my trial, and who thereby demonstrated the degree to which one’s personal attitudes and courage in hard times are capable of changing that fate which cowards believe to be inevitable and pronounce to be fate or historical necessity: two crowns.”
When the writer finishes, he finds he is two crowns short of being able to pay what it is he has deemed himself to owe. He asks the nurse for a loan. She obliges, tossing two coins onto his nightstand. When they stop spinning, his heart stops too. “You, nurse, you paid the fare for his ride on Charon’s ferry,” concludes the doctor. To paraphrase the late Chris Marker, the partition that separates life and death does not seem so thick in the work of Danilo Kiš as it does in that of others—at times no thicker than the length of a list.
The partition that separates life and art seems thinner too for Kiš, with his characters often finding their lives framed in literary terms. In Psalm 44, a novel whose protagonist, Marija, attempts to make an escape from a concentration camp, Kiš writes: “she was now in a safer refuge than she had been a few moments ago when she was standing there glued to the wall: crammed under the bed where the invisible hand of the deus ex machina had stowed her in haste.” His next novel, Garden, Ashes, finds the narrator Andi Scham claiming that his father “only knew that he was supposed to fulfill a chapter of the great prophecy.”(Kiš’s italics) In the title story of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, the revolutionary Novsky at first refuses to make a sham confession during the Stalinist show trials for fear it would ruin his biography, which up until that point was “final and well-rounded, without flaws, as perfect as a sculpture.” Finally, the first story in The Lute and the Scars, ‘The Stateless One’, echoes Psalm 44 (and anticipates “The Debt”): “this upright coffin, made to order for a first-class funeral and controlled by the invisible power of a deux ex machina, had descended from above, docked like Charon’s ferry.”
The willingness of Kiš’s texts to accept themselves as such is a thread that runs right through the author’s oeuvre, beginning with The Attic, which is after all a novel about its own composition. When the girlfriend of Billy Wiseass becomes pregnant, he approaches Orpheus with a problem: he has no money for an abortion. “But she definitely has to have the abortion,” writes Orpheus. “This is as urgent as it gets. Otherwise, voilà, a new character!” Orpheus worries what it would do to the text if Billy’s girlfriend were to go ahead and have the child. “I am very much afraid, Billy, you dimwit, know-it-all, sonofabitch. Igor, devil—I am very much afraid that you might become a hero.” As he would continue to do, Kiš suggests how his work might be read. This voilà anticipates a future one in the rather fine postscript to the story “Jurij Golec” in The Lute and the Scars:
Aside from these utilitarian facts, e.g. the price of a fur, I discovered an entire array of exotic fauna and subsequently went over Noemie’s wardrobe in my mind, that wardrobe where so many furs of inscrutable origins shimmered: mink, silver fox, arctic fox, lynx, Canadian wolf, astrakhan, beaver, nutria, marmot, muskrat, coyote; and these have now, voilà, found their way into the story through the back door, after the fact, unleashing new sensations, opening new worlds: métiers, market forces, money, adventure, hunting, weapons, knives, traps, blood, animal anatomy, zoology, far-off exotic regions, nocturnal animal noises, Lafontaine’s fables; great are the temptations of a tale. In contrast to a novel, however, one may not, in a tale, open the doors of cabinets with impunity.
A text that accepts itself feels, paradoxically, grounded in reality. Whereas fictional accounts in the style of the nineteenth century novel have what Umberto Eco calls an “interior ontological legitimacy”, the fiction of Danilo Kiš is always striving to achieve an exterior ontological legitimacy—to be “unhistorical though no less real,” as Kiš says of a character in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich. Letting his work step outside of itself to comment on its own nuances is one method of this pursuit. Another is to use quotations from supposed documentary evidence. Another still is to include real contemporary figures: in “Jurij Golec” Emil Cioran attends a party hosted by Madame d’Orsetti, who “was a good friend Queneau and Perec.”
As with everything else, this formal intention begins with The Attic. It is not for nothing that the narrator of that novel calls himself Orpheus, nor that he calls his love interest Eurydice. It seems likely that Kiš read Maurice Blanchot’s seminal text L’Espace littéraire, released in 1955, just eight years before The Attic,and containing the short essay “Le Regard d’Orphée.”
Blanchot’s essay sheds light on the gaze of The Attic’s Orpheus. Orpheus loses his Eurydice by addressing her in the familiar “tu” form. “C’est un peu fort,” she says in response. “En tout cas tu n’auras pas trop longtemps l’occasion de me dire ‘tu’. Je vais partir.” We recall that Eurydice is his creation (“I sang her into existence!”), which he loses by addressing with absolute frankness. There is a link to be drawn between this and his treatment of that other creation of his, The Attic itself, which, by acknowledging it as a text, he also addresses with absolute frankness. In other words, the gaze is constituted by those moments when the text steps outside to comment on its own nuances—“enclosing within the song what surpasses the song,” as Blanchot has it.
In his essay, Blanchot writes: “To look at Eurydice without regard for the song, in the impatience and imprudence of desire which forgets the law: that is inspiration.” He pinpoints this moment of inspiration, which is also a moment of error, as the beginning of all writing.
Writing begins with Orpheus’s gaze. And this gaze is the movement of desire that shatters the song’s destiny, that disrupts concern for it, and in this inspired and careless decision reaches the origin, consecrates the song.
Blanchot reminds us, though, that Orpheus only gained his entry to the Underworld thanks to his poetry. He would not have had the opportunity to turn around, to gaze, to begin literature if he weren’t already a poet.
In order to descend toward this instant, Orpheus had to possess the power of art already. This is to say: one writes only if one reaches that instant which nevertheless one can only approach in the space opened by writing. To write, one has to write already.
By the same measure, The Attic’s Orpheus would not have had the opportunity to cast his equivalent of the gaze if, within the book we are reading, he weren’t already writing it. In other words, to write The Attic, one has to be writing The Attic already. Writing begins with Orpheus’s gaze. So, too, the writing of Danilo Kiš.
Kevin Breathnach is a freelance writer from Dublin, Ireland. He currently lives and works in Gwangju, South Korea.
Read More on this Subject:
No related posts.
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Kevin Breathnach