Danilo Kiš and the soda siphon
By Sean L Hanley, on 23 April 2013
Guest contributor Mark Thompson explains why he wrote Birth Certificate. The Story of Danilo Kiš.
In Belgrade in October 1993 to research a a book about the media in the Yugoslav wars, I stayed with a friend who shared my enthusiasm for the fiction of Danilo Kiš (1935-89). This friend suggested I should take a break from lies and propaganda to meet Kiš’s former wife, Mirjana Miočinović, who was a public figure in her own right, thanks to her fierce denunciations of the Milošević regime and its supportive crew of nationalist intellectuals.
Mirjana kindly invited me to the flat she had shared with Kiš before their divorce in 1981. As I sipped rakija and struggled with my Serbo-Croatian, an object on a chest or sideboard caught my eye; it was an old-fashioned soda siphon painted decoratively with names in Cyrillic. Then the object itself altered imperceptibly, when I recognised it as the original of the siphon in Kiš’s great and plangent story, “The Encyclopaedia of the Dead”, about a woman’s discovery of a miraculously complete biography of her father, whose recent death she is mourning.
Near the end of his life, the old man—a retired land surveyor—had taken up painting:
…he painted all day, unflaggingly, a cigarette dangling from his lips. (And in the silence we could hear the wheezing of his lungs, like bellows.) On the aquamarine background of a large soda-water siphon he painted the names of Belgrade cafés in the lettering he had once used for maps: The Brioni, The Bay of Kotor, The Seagull, The Sailor, The Daybreak…
The story had resonated deeply, no doubt in part because I had chanced to read it for the first time only a few weeks after the death of my own father. The sight of the ur-siphon, several years later, rippled around my nervous system like energy.
It took a decade longer to understand that frisson for what it was: the essential thrill of mimesis. For the representation of a remembered item, imbued by Kiš’s craft with emotion, surpassed the original in vividness and significance. (Kiš wrote the story in Paris; I read it in London; the syphon itself never left Belgrade, presumably.) The thrill was intensified by the circumstance, in Kiš’s story, that the siphon was an element in an impossible imaginary biography: it belonged in a fiction within a fiction. And yet the fictional item—so deftly conjured in the story—seemed more real than its three-dimensional analogue. Which was, after all, just a hand-painted soda syphon.
I looked away, to protect the siphon in my head: not yet grateful, as I would become, for this lambent vindication of Henry James’s avowal: “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance…”
Even without such clarifying collisions with its raw, unadorned progenitors in the real world, Kiš’s prose at its best creates a nimbus of the ideal – it is generated, exhaled, by the perfection of his style – which he sets against the dark materials of his novels and stories. One source of the impulse to write about Kiš was my fascination with the effects he achieved by working out his unflinching themes in such wrought and artful language.
To write a biography of so transparently autobiographical a writer could seem an odd undertaking: a painstaking labour to decipher what is perfectly obvious or, even worse, irrelevant. For Kiš is the opposite of those writers who disguise the real-life originals of characters or events in their fiction—and whose biographers can therefore usefully, or at least amusingly, detect and map the connections.
The interest, for Kiš and for his readers, was not who underlay his characters, but how they were changed by being “transposed” (a key verb in his critical vocabulary) into fiction. Asked about the resemblances between the family in his novel Garden, Ashes and his own family, Kiš said “I am convinced that it is me, that it’s my father, my mother, my sister—that they are us as we should have been” if history had not crushed them. The candour of that statement, with none of the coyness or showing-off that mar most interviews with writers, was characteristic.
So was the counterposing of literature and history. For history had destroyed Danilo’s father, Eduard Kiš, when it deported him to Auschwitz in 1994 (transporting him across the same railway system that he had served as an inspector: history possesses the tyrant’s coarse sense of irony, as well as his power). Whereas literature grants the power of reconstruction; by grace of the resources of fiction, Eduard Kiš could be posthumously restored to the world, not as an idealised victim, but as a tragi-comic everyman. The creation of a father—reversing not just history but biology—presents a cardinal challenge to any artist. The story of how Danilo Kiš rose to that challenge, among others, lies at the heart of my biography.
Mark Thompson is as a journalist, historian, and translator. His new book Birth Certificate. The Story of Danilo Kiš is published by Cornell University Press.
He will be discussing the book in conversation with Dubravka Ugrešić and Vesna Goldsworthy at an event at 5.30pm on 30 April 2013 organised by the UCL-SSEES Centre for South East European Studies.
Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.