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. (more…)