Current Theme: Eastern Europe
Danilo Kis, a Yugoslavian author and a Jew, fluidly ties together a book of short stories that mournfully capture the reality of life under Communism in the first half of the twentieth century. I chose this book not because it gives us a cogent view of the country of Yugoslavia – it doesn’t . I chose Kis because of his contribution to Yugoslavian literature and to literature that give us historical context of the atrocity of Communism and its affect on those who lived under its rule, no matter what nationality. Most of the characters in this book are Jewish the terror of being a Jew is a given in these stories; these fictitious characters did nothing wrong, violated no law, except to be victims of an unspoken hatred of people who were “different”.
Kis himself was persecuted by the Yugoslavian literary machine when this was first published in 1976 in his own country. It created a horrible debate that debased him as a writer. I won’t go into detail about who accused him(only covered too well in Joseph Brodsky’s introduction which was written when Yugoslavia was still under Communist rule), I will
just say that literature with courage always has to prove itself through time. Only time can give it a place in history by either calmly leaving it behind or holding it up to the future as a worthy object for us to discover. Thankfully, history with all it’s twists and turns around truth has kept intact A Tomb for Boris Davidovich as an object worthy of our attention. Kis’ courage came from chronicling the tragedy created under Soviet rule even during a time when doing so would bring the same fate it brought to all of his characters – death. Suspicion and paranoia was the modus operandi and in the story “The Sow that Eats Her Farrow” show that it doesn’t matter what the truth is, suspicion is just cause enough for imprisonment. Take Verschoyle, and Irishman who ends up fighting for the Spanish Republic and the Revolution, only to be questioned for something that he whispered to a Soviet commander:
The true outcome of the six-day battle of words and arguments waged by the Irishman Gould Verschoyle and his two traveling companions will probably remain a secret to the contemporary researcher. It will also remain a psychological secret, and legally a most interesting one,whether it is possible for a ,an cornered by fear and despair to so sharpen his arguments and experience that he is able–without external pressure, without the use of force and torture–to throw into doubt all that has been developed through the many years of upbringing, lectures, habit, and training in the consciousness of the two other men. Then, perhaps, the decision of the high tribunal, which according to some loftier justice, had pronounced the same stern sentence (eight years of imprisonment) on each of the three participants in that long game of persuasion, might not seem entirely arbitrary. For even if it is believed that the two men succeeded,through dense and exhausting ideological polemics, in dispelling certain suspicions that had appeared in the head of Republican Verschoyle (suspicions with possible far-reaching consequences), there was a perfectly justified suspicion that the other two had also felt the fatal influence of certain counterarguments: in the merciless battle of equal opponents, as in a bloody cockfight, no one comes out unharmed,regardless of which one walks away with the empty glory of victory.
The idea of polemics and ideology figure prominently into the intellectual debate of Communism, but once it is translated into the cost of a human life, Ki is right: no on comes out unharmed.
The title story, “A Tomb for Boris Davidovich”, follows thel ife Boris Davidovich, or his alias throughout the story, B.D. Novsky. Reminiscent of Dos Equis’ ad campaign featuring the Most Interesting Man in the World, B.D. Novsky spends his life being sought, captured and escaping. During one particularly trying period when Novsky is older, he is being interrogated by a man called Fedukin and Kis puts in horrifying clarity and focus the life of a revolutionary:
Then followed long nights without days spent in solitary confinement in Suzdal Prison, in a damp stone-walled cell known as the “doghouse”, which had the major architectural advantage of making a man feel as if he were buried alive,so that he experienced his mortal being, in comparison with the eternity of stone and time, as a speck of dust in the ocean of timelessness. Novsky was already a man of failing health; the long years of hard labor and revolutionary zeal, which feeds on blood and glands, had weaken his lungs, kidneys, and joints. His body was now covered with boils,which would burst under the blows of rubber truncheons, oozing out his precious blood along with useless pus. Nevertheless, it seems that in contact with the stone of his living tomb, Novsky drew some metaphysical conclusions undoubtedly no much different from those suggesting the thought that man is only a speck of dust in the ocean of timelessness; but this also revealed to him another conclusion, which the architects of the “doghouse”could not have foreseen: nothing for nothing. The man who found in his heart this heretical and dangerous though, which speaks of the futility of one’s own being-in-time, finds himself, however, faced with another (final)dilemma: whether to accept transistorizes of this being-in-time for the sake of that precious and expensively acquired knowledge (which excludes any morality and therefore i smade in absolute freedom), or, for the sake of that same knowledge, to yield oneself to the embrace of nothingness.
Politics are difficult to mix into short stories because so much of history needs to be already understood or explained in a small amount of space that it cannot always give the proper perspective of the character. But Kis overcomes any difficulty and gives us haunting portraits of an ideological system and the people who try to survive within it, often meeting with failure. Courage, faith and ethics of help these characters believe that there is another way than the imposed way of a certain ideology and they sacrifice themselves and their beliefs in hopes of making it better for those that follow. This novel deserves to be read for it’s political and historical importance and understood for the suffering that it thinly veils.
By Danilo Kis
Translated byDuska Mikic-Mitchel
Foreword by Joseph Brodsky
Afterword by William T. Vollman