Danilo Kiš

Danilo Kiš (1935–1989), Yugoslavia and France

Kiš was born in Subotica (in the north of Vojvodina), Yugoslavia. His mother was Montenegrin (and an Orthodox Christian), and his father from a Hungarian Jewish family, so Kiš is often counted as a Serbian writer, or a Yugoslav, as he himself would say. Vojvodina was (and to a lesser extent still is) a very ethnically mixed region, which made for a great deal of violence during the second world war. After the war, in which Kiš’s father and several other family members died in Nazi concentration camps, he lived in Hungary and then Montenegro and eventually studied literature at the university in Belgrade: he was the first person to graduate from there with a major in Comparative Literature. He spent much of the rest of his life in Paris, or else teaching Serbo-Croatian language (plus some literature and culture) elsewhere in France, and died in Paris of cancer. Many of his works are lightly veiled autobiography, like the one we're reading, while others concentrate on wartime persecution of “small,” innocent people, often though not exclusively Jews. His best-known work in the west, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, was written partly to illustrate the tragedies of Communism to left-wing French colleagues and acquaintances who were reluctant to believe the information about the Gulag as it began to emerge from dissident historians and the memoirs of survivors. Kiš’s fiction learns a great deal from Latin American literature of the 20th century (he and Borges are, rightly, often compared), but he has a distinctive view of the bizarre, fantastic and tragic components of everyday reality and a distinctively dark sense of humor. He himself also mentioned Bruno Schultz and Franz Kafka as formative influences.

Garden, Ashes (Bašta, pepeo, 1965), is partly fictionalized autobiography (with the names changed, but only slightly changed, and many other things left the same), partly an uneasy tribute to the author’s father and his tragic fate during the Second World War.

Garden, Ashes was translated by William J. Hannaher.

Questions for reading:

Other books by Kiš:

Works about Kiš:

A quick search in the MLA Bibliography turned up several dozen articles in a variety of languages.

Garden, Ashes could be compared with works by Elie Wiesel; Kiš’s Tomb for Boris Davidovich, intense but very thought-provoking reading (and only 130 pages or so) could be profitably read alongside Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon or one of Kiš's sources, Karlo Štajner's 7000 Days in Siberia, in Tripod, translated by Joel Agee, and with an introduction by Kiš.