The Encyclopaedia of the Dead was the final work of fiction to be published in Danilo Kis’ lifetime (he died at the age of 54 in 1989); that it remains his most famous work can be perhaps ascribed to his early death, but it is a useful reminder in today’s debut-obsessed literary culture to allow writers to develop. Kis began as a realist but by the time of The Encyclopaedia of the Dead he had adopted a much more experimental style, influenced by Borges among others. This is particularly evident in the short stories of The Encyclopaedia of the Dead, though Kis’ work has a much greater political urgency and, however playful it may seem, feels firmly rooted in the realities of the Balkans.
The magnificent title story concerns the author being admitted to the Royal Library in Sweden and discovering a network of rooms, each accorded a particular letter of the alphabet. The rooms are, in fact, a vast encyclopaedia of lives. Instinctively he searches out the name of his recently deceased father:
“What makes the Encyclopaedia unique (apart from it being the only existing copy) is the way it depicts human encounters, relationships, landscapes – the multitude of details that make up a human life.”
What follows is a description of his father’s life based on the notes he makes from his reading of the Encyclopaedia. Frequently the notes and the Encyclopaedia are compared:
“Here, in my notebook, I have recorded only the word ‘Kraljevcani,’ but the Encyclopaedia devotes several dense paragraphs to this period, complete with names and dates.”
Later he talks about how “the Encyclopaedia immerses us in the atmosphere of the times.” The Encyclopaedia becomes a metaphor for literature, taking facts and adding detail and atmosphere. Not only is it a metaphor, however: Kis demonstrates the same power in his own writing as he turns the facts of his father’s life into a series of developed scenes, using his skill as a writer to enhance what he knows. Kis is also making a political point as The Encyclopaedia of the Dead contains the lives of ordinary people, those who go unrecorded by encyclopaedias; that there should be record of these lives, even an imaginary one, is a declaration of their importance.
For the other stories in this volume, Kis mines a rich vein of history and religion. In ‘Simon Magus’ he describes a stand-off between Simon and the disciple Peter:
“Miracles serve only as proof for the gullible, the multitude. They are nothing but a craze introduced by your miserable Jew, the one who ended on the cross.”
Despite this, Simon is needled into performing his own miracle. The story is in two parts, the second offering a different version to the first. This concern with interpretation runs through many of the stories. In ‘Pro Patria Mori’ a young man awaits his execution: is his calmness in the face of death a result of bravery or the belief that he will be granted a reprieve?
“The first, heroic, version was upheld and promulgated… by the sans-culottes and Jacobins; the second, according to which the young man hoped to the very end for some magical sleight of hand, was recorded by the official historians of the powerful Hapsburg dynasty top prevent the birth of a legend.”
In ‘Red Stamps with Lenin’s Head’, the inspiration for a poet’s work writes to a lecturer on the subject to reveal the ‘true’ meanings of his poetry:
“In the poem with the puzzling title ‘Stellar Cannibalism’, the ‘meeting of two stars, two beings,’ is by no means the product of a close collaboration of preconscious and subconscious activity… it is a poetic transposition of the electric shock which ran through Mendel Osipovich’s soul the moment our eyes met…”
Despite recurrent themes, Kis’ stories cover a wide range of subject matter and style: it would not be an exaggeration to say he displays a mastery of the form. Penguin are to be congratulated for bringing this volume back into print: the translation by Michael Henry Heim is from 1989 (which seems, unbelievably (or perhaps just incorrectly) to be that last time it was published in the UK) but has been revised, and is also introduced, by Mark Thompson, author of a recent biography of Kis. Given that Kis’ most well-regarded novel, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, is also out of print in the UK, it is to be hoped that more of Kis’ work will follow.