“… [she] passes over her personal memories as if writing them on water”: Danilo Kis, ‘A Tomb for Boris Davidovich’

I heard as if dazed, the murmur coming from the salon, accompanied by the din of silver utensils like the tinkling of bells, as saw as through a fog the world we had left behind, and which was irretrievably sinking into the past, as into murky water.”

Recently, I read two (extremely) dark European novels. The first was Danilo KisA Tomb for Boris Davidovich, a collected of seven loosely-connected short stories, which deal with the mental and moral degradation of men under communist totalitarianism. The central character in each story is akin to Koestler’s Rubashov (and indeed, one of the stories is quite similar to the basic theme of Darkness at Noon): a well-intentioned, well-meaning individual, who joins the Communist Party in a blaze of idealism, only to become either the agent of its crimes, or its victim, or – in some cases – both.

The one thing that strikes you about A Tomb for Boris Davidovich is Kis’ lyrical prose style, that could almost pass for poetry at times. For instance:

During the brief periods of my ‘freedom’ I watched, as in a movie theatre, the passing of sad Russian villages, towns, people and events, but I was always in flight – on a horse, on a boat, in a cart. I never slept in the same bed for more than a month. I’ve come to know the horror of Russian reality in the long tedious winter evenings when the pale lights of Vasilevsky Island barely blink, and a Russian village emerges in the moonlight in a false and deceptive beauty.

Joseph Brodsky, in his introduction to the novel, argues that this lyric detachment – almost, at times, rising to allegory (in fact, one of the short stories takes place during the Inquisition, which is clearly meant to mirror communism) is not only an aesthetic choice, but a political one as well. Brodsky writes:

“By virtue of his place and time alone, Danilo Kis is able to avoid the faults of urgency which considerably marred the works of his listed and unlisted predecessors [Koestler, Orwell]. Unlike them, he can afford to treat tragedy as a genre, and his art is more devastating than statistics… with his emphasis on imagery and detail, combined with ironic detachment, Danilo Kis’s obviously poetic prose puts his horrid subject matter into the most adequate perspective by alerting the reader to the prose’s own intelligence. Thus, the reader’s ethical evaluation of the phenomena described ceases to be merely a matter of his distraught sentiment and comes out as a judgment made by his profoundly offended supreme human faculties. It is not that the thought is felt but, rather, that the feeling is thought.”

The idea seems to be that aestheticising tragedy allows us – the readers – to detach ourselves from its immediacy, and to understand it clearly and understand it whole, in a way we could not otherwise. Kis himself describes this beautifully, in his last story, about a minor revolutionary poet-cum-functionary, when he writes:

“The poems dated 1918 and 1919 offer no hint of their place of origin; in them everything still occurs in the cosmopolitan region of the soul, which has no precise map.”

I am reminded here of Eliot’s approach to poetry. In Tradition and the Individual Talent, for instance, Eliot writes: “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.” Eliot goes on to excoriate the idea that strength or depth of emotions and feelings could bear any relevant to aesthetic quality, famously concluding with “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”

Which is all very well, but as Edward Said writes so eloquently in his introduction to Elias Khoury’s White Mountain, not every artist has the privilege of detachment, or the luxury of tranquilly sublimating his emotions into a work of art. The urgency of some situations has an inevitable effect on the urgency with which a writer treats her subject. Brodsky suggests that that is a shortcoming, but I’m not so sure. I am thinking, of course, of Ghassan Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa, a searing political novel whose prose screams out “lived experience!” from every line. Kanafani’s novella remains was my first window into Palestine, and remains my favourite, primarily because of its unapologetically political tone, that brings home the Palestinian experience in a sharp and unforgettable way (and is no less aesthetically unpleasing, for that).

Kanafani’s writing might be profitably contrasted with Emile Habibi’s Saeed the Pessoptimist (and this is a comparison Saeed makes in his Introduction). Saeed the Pessoptimist is a Rabelais-ian, magical-realist approach to Palestine, that fills you with laughter and tears, sometimes at the same time. I view Kanafani and Habibi as complementary – ultimately, contra Brodsky, I’ve found that it is both detachment and immediacy – in writing – that serve to provide one with a holistic experience of the writers’ subject.

His style apart, Kis treats some familiar themes. The eponymous title story, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, is – in the line of Koestler and Orwell – about the totalitarian State’s logic that requires a disgraced functionary to publicly condemn himself before his liquidation: in Kis’ words, to “accept the premises as the living reality, more real than a jumble of facts, and… colour those premises with his own remorse and hatred.” Where it differs from – and goes beyond – Koestler and Orwell is in giving us a window into the mind of an inquisitor who is more of a low-level functionary than an O’Brien. In this way, we see how totalitarian logic infects the minds of its agents. The inquisitor Fedukin, for instance believes that:

“… it was better that the so-called truth of a single man, one tiny organism, be destroyed than that higher interests and principles be questioned… what provoked Fedukin’s fury and dedicated hatred was precisely this sentimental egocentricity of the accused, their pathological need to prove their own innocence, their own truths… it enraged him that this blind truth of theirs could not be incorporated into a system of higher value, a higher justice which demanded sacrifice, and which did not and must not care about human weakness. This was why for Fedukin anyone became a blood enemy who could not comprehend this simple and almost obvious fact: to sign a confession for the sake of duty was not only logical but also a moral act, and therefore worthy of respect.” 

Themes like this abound.

In reading A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, I was reminded of another novel I’d read just a little while before: Leonardo Sciascia’s Equal DangerOstensibly a murder mystery, it is set in an indeterminate country that is very evidently Italy. The mystery is a vehicle to expose the political corruption at the heart of 1960s/70s Italian society: the detective investigating  a series of murders of judges, is asked to find a way to pin the blame on the political left. The entire novel is pervaded with a surreal atmosphere, and involves art galleries, disquisitions on the idea of justice, and an incomprehensible ending. Nothing is described – everything beyond the actual plot of the murder mystery is hinted at, alluded to, suggested. Much like A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, Sciascia relies upon creating an atmosphere through lyrical prose, that drives home his message, instead of describing it. The detached, ironical tone is perhaps best embodied in the detective’s reflections about some young revolutionary activists that he sees:

“He pitied them, he pitied all young people whenever he found them caged in their scorn, their anger. Not that there was nothing to be angry and scornful about. But there was also something to laugh about.”

Only towards the end does Sciascia permit himself the indulgence of direct political comment, again through the mind of his protagonist, when he sees two young lovers. The contrast is sudden, stark and effective – and somehow (for me at least), it seemed to effortlessly sum up the entire conundrum of the 20th-century political left:

“It’s the libertines who are preparing the revolution, but it’s the puritans who will make it. They, the two [lovers], the whole generation they belong to, would never make a revolution. Their children, maybe; and they would be puritans.”

Because, after all – as Sciascia astutely brings home at the very end of his book – the organised left will never do so. The closing dialogue is with a member of the “Revolutionary Party”, who is intent on hushing up the murders to avoid a political scandal:

“We are realists, Mr. Cusan. We cannot run the risk of a revolution breaking out.” And he added, “Not at the moment.”

“I understand,” Cusan said. “Not at this moment.”

I was suddenly reminded of the closing lines of Animal Farm. “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”




Filed under Danilo Kis, European Writing, Italy, Leonardo Sciascia, The Balkans

3 responses to ““… [she] passes over her personal memories as if writing them on water”: Danilo Kis, ‘A Tomb for Boris Davidovich’

  1. Brilliant, and nice comparisons with the Sciascia.

    I’ve read one Kis (The Attic – https://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2013/02/27/the-attic-by-danilo-kis/) and was very impressed by it but wasn’t sure where to go next. This seems a good segue.

    I haven’t read Eliot’s original argument, but it must be right that some writers as you say lack the luxury of detachment. On a very different note, Bukowski’s Post Office utterly lacks detachment, rather it’s a tremendously well crafted scream of literally years of pent-up lived experience. Eliot’s argument as you quote it here strikes me as all artistic manifestos do, useful perhaps as a call to action or a constraint the presence of which sparks art, but never as a universal truth,

  2. I just read your review of The Attic – maddeningly intriguing, and a world apart from A Tomb for Boris Davidovich. I suppose that speaks to Kis’ astounding versatility, as a writer.

    I’ve been meaning to read Post Office for a while, but will put it near the top of the reading list now. “Years of pent-up lived experience” reminded me immediately of Jack Kerouac, which – I suppose – is not too surprising, when we’re talking of Bukowski!

    • Bukowski to Kerouac isn’t a leap I grant. I’ve been looking at Ginsberg again recently which ties in there too.

      The fact this is a world away from The Attic makes it all the more interesting.

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