Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, by Danilo Kiš
1978, 135 pp.

Though his work is increasingly difficult to find in the United States, no conversation about postwar European literature, especially the dissident literature of Eastern Europe, is complete without Danilo Kiš. He gained a great deal of notoriety with his strange, difficult 1973 novel Hourglass, and a great deal of controversy with this brief collection of linked short stories. A Tomb for Boris Davidovich is directly in the tradition (or perhaps, sub-genre) of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, and Victor Serge's The Case of Comrade Tulayev. It is a worthy second-generation entry in that great project of literary conscience, but it does not equal or surpass its predecessors, nor does it seem as significant a piece of work as the controversy around it once suggested.

The book consists of seven short stories, usually linked from one to the next by the mention or brief appearance of a character from the previous story. They are presented as factual biographies of fictional people, mostly loyal Communists who are arbitrarily arrested during the purges and subject to torture. Some are executed, some are exiled, some sign false confessions. The first four are told in titled paragraphs, giving the book a slightly avant-garde feel, but that convention is dropped with the longest and best story, which shares the title of the book. All of the stories to that point detail the contributions of someone to the Bolshevik revolution: the first character commits sordid murders at the false direction of an informant, the second is volunteer during the Spanish Civil War who is betrayed by his superior who is a Soviet agent, the third is an apparatchik who stages a fake religious service for a visiting Western diplomat in Kiev. The titular Boris Davidovich Novsky is a brave, committed, noted revolutionary who is arrested and tortured in order to extract a false confession for a show trial. His story is the only one which adds significantly to the existing Koestler/Serge examination of the same subject: Novsky wants to die honorably, to preserve a suitable ending for the biography he has been writing with his actions his entire life, and his interrogator is determined to deny him that satisfaction. Their confrontation is a grueling, bleak story, and by far the strongest point of the book.

The story which follows deals with a 13th-century Jew who is forced to convert to Christianity during a pogrom. The similarities between it and the story of Novsky are obvious, but Kiš apparently feared they would not be, so he appends a note explaining them. I found this a bit annoying, and despite his well-intentioned point about the timeless, cyclical nature of history and human cruelty, I dispute the parallels between the Jewish victims of Christian pogroms and the betrayed Communist agents of the other stories. A better analogue would have been a story about a devout and famous Christian who is tortured and murdered by other Christians for the crime of not being Christian enough.

This leads me to my general complaint about the book. While Kiš is certainly a great writer, I cannot conclude that this is his greatest book. It lacks the formal ingenuity of Hourglass, and the Borgesian precision of Encyclopedia of the Dead. It is quite short and at least three of the seven stories (one about a card game between prisoners which determines a murder, the one about the 13th-century Jew, and the last about an artist who dies of elephantiasis) seem to distract from the general point of the book. The biographical format preserves the nearly obsessive theme of memory which pervades Kiš's other work, and anti-Stalinist dissident literature in general, and the essay-like tone fits in with the sort of work being done by Milan Kundera and Czesław Miłosz. But it is a very brief and slightly disorganized book, and considering the furor it produced in Yugoslavia when it was published, I was surprised that none of its characters was from Yugoslavia, nor did any of its action take place there. With all of that in mind, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich stands mainly as an indication of what sort of dissent was possible under Yugoslav Communism: even this small book criticizing forty years later a brutal system which itself had been repudiated twenty years earlier provoked outrage. Such was the nature of the Stalinist and post-Stalinist world, and if the book seems to do less than we expect from the vantage point of the 21st century West, it is because the first (and perhaps only) duty of the man of conscience at the time was to plainly state what now seems obvious.

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