People over politics: Danilo Kiš and the case of Boris Davidovich

Written by Hannah Marshall –

Forty years ago this month, a slight-looking volume of stories was published in the state now referred to as the former Yugoslavia. The book was published to some success: the critics were won over and it sold in good numbers. There was nothing in June 1976 that would suggest that this book would go on to cause one of the most lengthy and bitter literary battles in twentieth century Europe.

The book was Grobnica Za Borisa Davidoviča (Faber would publish it in 1985 as A Tomb for Boris Davidovich) and its author, Danilo Kiš, was already one of the most celebrated authors in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Seven stories

Comprising seven short stories, the book weaves together fact and fiction in a style that Kiš mastered. Six of the seven are narrated by a researcher, who references “official documents” throughout the stories. The seventh story, “Dogs and Jews”, is a translation of French historical papers from the 1500s.

Yugoslavian cover for A Tomb for Boris Davidovich
Yugoslavian edition of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich

Four years before the appearance of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, Kiš had published Hourglass, ostensibly the final part in a moving Holocaust trilogy (based on his own family’s experiences during the Second World War) but more significantly the first of his works to fully experiment with the blurring of fact and fiction and employing a combination of real and fake documents – diary entries, official records, letters etc. He deployed this method to even greater effect in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich.

The stories are mini biographies, neat and concise. Each tell the story of an individual devoted to a political ideology, primarily the type of communism purported by Stalin and the regimes of the Soviet states, and who go on to be murdered by the very same ideology in which they believe. These individuals have no place in official state history – it is down to Kiš to make sure that their stories are not forgotten.

The book was influenced by a number of writers, all recognised by Kiš, but perhaps the most superficially obvious comparison could be made with Jorge Luis Borges’s A Universal History of Iniquity.

Internationally this was Kiš’s breakthrough book. Joseph Brodsky selected it for Penguin’s “Writers from the Other Europe” series. At the time it was audibly praised by the likes of Susan Sontag (and in later years, writers such as William T. Vollman and Aleksandar Hemon have championed it).

Controversy at home

Back in his home country, the book’s reception was not quite so straightforward, and whilst it was initially received with some fanfare, quiet rumblings among his contemporaries, especially in Zagreb (Kiš was based in Belgrade at the time), quickly began to build momentum.

The charge initially and most overtly levied at Kiš was one of plagiarism. Quite clearly Kiš made use of a number of writers’ work – including those by Borges, James Joyce and Karl Śtajner – and this allowed a group of other Yugoslav writers to argue that the book could not claim to be original in its own right.

These early unfounded criticisms of the book quickly snowballed and the resulting back and forth from the two sides (one side for Kiš and one side against him) was as close to an all out literary war as it gets. Imagine all the major literary critics in the UK being pushed into two opposing camps and then hurling comment pieces at each other, ratcheting up the attack with each article, over a period of many months. This is essentially what the publication of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich generated following its publication in Yugoslavia. (If you’re interested in the details of the case then there is no better account – in English – than the one given by Serge Shishkoff in his essay, “Košava in a Coffee Pot”: The Danilo Kiš Affair.)

Whilst it’s true that writers Kiš made use of in the book were not quoted or referenced in a traditional way, they were alluded to throughout the text. It is a technique that has a long legacy in literature – and is entirely valid. Kiš wrote articles explaining his literary methods and denouncing his critics in brilliantly damning one-liners. Then in 1978 he published a collection of essays on the subject called The Anatomy Lesson.

When the case finally had its day in court Kiš was victorious yet the fall out of the scandal would dog him for the rest of his days and lead him to exile himself in Paris from 1979. Some believe that it even had an impact on his health – leading indirectly to his early death in 1989.

Kis by typewriter

More than meets the eye

There had, of course, been a great deal more behind the scandal than the simple charge of plagiarism.

Yugoslavia was a small country, where jealousy and rivalry was rife, especially among small cultural cliques. Kiš’s star was rising, both at home and internationally, and this kind of success could get you the wrong kind of attention.

His writing also bore the hallmarks of modernism and experimentalism, it blurred fact and fiction – and it was unlike most of the work being published in his home country at that time. This was frowned upon by a number of his contemporaries in Yugoslavia.

Furthermore, Kiš’s opaque views regarding communism were controversial – and indeed dangerous – in a state where people towed the party line (even if Yugoslavia was not as hostile a place for artists as its Soviet neighbours, it was still unwise to be critical of the regime or of communism in general).

Overtly the stories criticise Stalinism, demonstrating the ways that it devours anyone who stands in its way, even its own supporters, and highlighting in particular the inhumanity of the gulags (where many Kiš’s characters end up). This by itself was no crime in Tito’s Yugoslavia, which split from Soviets in 1948.

The horror of the Soviet gulag is at the heart of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich

Below the surface, however, the stories are critical of something more insidious than Stalinism. Each tale warns us about the perils of totalitarian rule – irrespective of its political leanings – and warns us of the danger of signing up unquestioningly to an all consuming ideology – whether that ideology is Nazism, Stalinism or Communism, political or religious.

So even though the stories didn’t touch on the politics of SFRY directly, at the time they were still suspected of having a political agenda – and of being antagonistic to the ruling authority.

In many ways the critics were right to be suspicious but not necessarily for the reasons that they cited. Whilst Kiš’s work features the politics of the time, it is not political – in that the author is not pushing a political agenda on his reader. Quite the opposite, Kiš’s interest was not really in questions of a political nature but in much wider questions regarding human nature and our understanding of humanity. His critics missed the point of his work by some mark, but it’s quite likely his actual intent was equally unwelcome.

Kiš and Faber

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich Faber front cover
The front cover of Faber’s 1985 edition

Today, the once infamous case of Boris Davidovich is consigned to the dustbin of Cold War history, forgotten by many in the former Yugoslav states and basically unheard of outside of them. Furthermore, Kiš and his work remains little known to the modern reader (although Kiš’s cause was improved considerably last year by the well-received publication by Penguin of another of his short story collections, The Encyclopedia of the Dead).

Robert McCrum, Faber’s then editor-in-chief, read fragments from Garden, Ashes (an earlier novel by Kiš) in The New Yorker in the early 80s and ‘was struck by the incredible brevity and the distinctiveness [of the writing].’

On discovering the rights for A Tomb for Boris Davidovich were available, McCrum acquired them. ‘Then, for two or three years we had a great time publishing him. At that point he wasn’t the figure he is now, he was, extraordinarily, quite obscure really.’

McCrum considers Kiš one of the ‘modern masters’, something echoed by British novelist Adam Thirlwell, who has called Kiš ‘one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century’. Both men consider A Tomb for Boris Davidovich one of his masterpieces.

In his TLS review of Mark Thompson’s biography of Kiš, Birth Certificate (2013), Thirlwell laments the fact that so few British readers know of Kiš, calling it ‘morally and aesthetically, a scandal’.

Danilo Kis
Faber’s edition of Garden, Ashes

McCrum feels that this is in part because Kiš’s oeuvre is quite small and the publishing of his books was scattered among different publishers, over an uneven period of time. He was also the victim of bad timing: he died just a year before the war broke out in Yugoslavia and put his home country in the international spotlight.

McCrum met Kiš once, in Paris, when he was already dying from lung cancer. ‘His English was quite basic and my French was rusty,’ he explains, ‘so it was hard to communicate but he was a delightful guy, really sweet. Then he died and there was no more work – just posterity. It’s very sad.’

Unlike his Faber stablemate, Milan Kundera, Kiš was never a bestseller in the UK and reviews at the time were respectful but not widespread. ‘He was always a bit more like a well kept secret,’ McCrum explains. ‘He was the one you turned to when you’d gorged on other writers from Eastern Europe.’

A place for Kiš today

The overwhelmingly positive response from reviewers to Penguin’s recent edition of The Encyclopedia of the Dead, suggests that there is a renewed appetite for Kiš’s work – and a place for him in the canon of great twentieth century literature.

KisPerhaps in the case of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, more so than with The Encyclopedia of the Dead, there’s an argument that, with its Stalinist narrative, it has less relevance for the modern reader than it might have had when it was first published. Yet this would do Kiš and this book an unforgivable disservice.

To be sure, the subject matter speaks of Kiš’s own time and its preoccupations but this does not turn the book into the very same kind of historical document that the author uses so adeptly to create its narrative.

As the novelist William T. Vollman writes in his afterword to the 2001 US edition of the book, ‘As representatives of the various human types and motives which can be marshaled by a given ideology, Kiš’s characters are inexhaustibly memorable. Indeed, they’re universal.’

And it’s not only the characters that are memorable. The writing is unforgettable too. Take “The Knife with the Rosewood Handle”, the first story in the collection, in which there is a short scene depicting a young woman and suspected informant being murdered by one of her comrades:

Running downstream, Miksha crossed the trestle and reached the other side as the howl of a steam engine and the humming of the rails announced a train’s arrival from afar. The girl lay in the mire by the bank among the knobby stalks of water willows. Breathing heavily, she tried to straighten up, but no longer to escape. As he plunged his short Bukovina knife with the rosewood handle into her breast, Miksha, sweaty and gasping, could barely make out a word or two from the quivering, muffled, choking onrush of syllables that reached him through the slush, blood and screams. His stabs were quick now, inflicted with self-righteous hate which gave his arm impetus. Through the clacking of the train wheels and the muffled thunder of the iron trestle, the girl began, before the death rattle, to speak – in Romanian, in Polish, in Ukrainian, in Yiddish, as if her death were only the consequence of some great and fatal misunderstanding rooted in the Babylonian confusion of language.

The scene is jaw-dropping, both because of its violence and its beauty. Of course, it doesn’t end well for the murderer either. It doesn’t really end well for anyone.

These are stories that make you think, and think again. Stories that emotionally floor you. Stories that leave you breathless and wanting more. Stories that make you consider the nature of history itself.

Anniversary aside, there is something uncomfortably timely about reading Kiš’s work today. Kiš’s Europe is one of isolated nations, suspicious of each other and often politically at odds. It is a dangerous, unfriendly place, and no one is truly safe.

Still, one mustn’t make the mistake of getting too caught up with the politics; after all for Kiš himself it was less about the politics and more about the people – and it was always about the writing.

Buy A Tomb for Boris Davidovich by Danilo Kiš. 

Main photo, copyright: Ulf Andersen/