Cornell, £24.95. Order at a discount from the Independent book shop

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

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing