Book review: Birth Certificate: The Story of Danilo Kiš, By Mark Thompson

This shape-shifting master from the faultlines of Europe found meaning in the chaos of war

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The Independent Culture

Why do we not read the novelist Danilo Kiš more? Part of the answer is that his provenance is not simple: he wrote in Serbo-Croatian, was born on that many-folded faultline of borders known as central Europe, and had, as Mark Thompson puts it, "multiple, unresolved identities": Hungarian by milieu, Yugoslavian by nationality, Jewish on his father's side but baptised Orthodox, which almost certainly saved his life when German divisions marched into Hungary in 1944 to enforce the extermination of Hungary's Jews.

These things certainly make him hard to nail down as a writer. But the other part of the answer is, I think, that for Kiš, as for many other central European writers (Kundera, Gombrowicz, Szymborska, Kertész), literary form meant, above all, the projection of meaning into chaos: the human chaos of two wars, invasion, occupation, totalitarian annihilation. We British, uninvaded and unoccupied, did not suffer history's shattering of our linear lives. So we continued to believe in linear storytelling forms. Central Europe had no such luck: it needed new forms, to experiment. It became the heir of Joycean modernism.

In Thompson's introduction to his invigorating biography of Kiš – a spirited interweaving of life, literary championing, and critical analysis – he describes him as "the writer who turned the Stalinist terror, the struggle against Nazism, and the Holocaust into great poetry", adding Kundera's judgment on him as "the only one who never sacrificed so much as a phrase of his books to political commonplaces". Yet Kiš's novels and short stories are not dry or difficult. They witness a continent's fate, foregrounding facts and documentary material – police files, railway timetables, birth certificates – to draw the reader into a more precise, imaginative relation with history.

Much of what Kiš wrote, particularly his novels Garden, Ashes (1965) and Hourglass (1972), is haunted by his troubled, alcoholic Jewish father, deported to Auschwitz in 1944, where he "disappeared". Kiš refused to say "died", or to follow his father beyond the camp's gates in his writing, although the impossibility of encompassing the Holocaust in art was "not so much moral as literary… how to speak of such things without lapsing into banality". You could not – fiction's paramount formal task – bring irony to bear on it.

When Thompson started writing his book, Kiš's work was all but out of print in English. The admirable Dalkey Archive Press has since re-translated five novels and story collections, among them his superb anti-totalitarian flush of stories, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich. Yet Kiš's consciousness, even in dramatising tyranny, always remained aesthetic and ethical, not political, for reasons he indicated in a posthumous essay collection, Homo Poeticus. "Literature... is the barrier against barbarism, and literature, even if it does not 'purify the senses'... serves a purpose: it gives some sense to the vanity of existence."

Kiš was short-lived (he died of lung cancer at 54, in 1989), but even in his compact body of work he is a benchmark for what literature achieved in the 20th century (and what politics failed to achieve). Once read, he is impossible to forget: a writer of unearthly beauty, a signpost that stands firm, a reminder of, as Thompson says, "the sovereignty of art against history's seductive and bullying righteousness". Thompson's own book, lovingly researched, stimulatingly constructed, subtly and passionately written, panoptically reflecting Kiš's contradictions, is a resurrection of (Kundera's words) a "great and invisible" talent.

Julian Evans's life of Norman Lewis, 'Semi-invisble Man', is published by Jonathan Cape