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Archive for the ‘  Yugoslavian Literature’ Category

I got Danilo Kiš’Garden, Ashes‘ a few days back. I was so excited about it, because it took me a long time to get this book, because Danilo Kiš’ books are hard to come by.

The narrator of the story is a boy called Andi Schaum. He tells us about his family, his mother, his sister, and his father. A significant part of the book is about his father. Through the book the family’s circumstances seem to be changing from good to bad to worse. And they are constantly moving from one place to another. In these circumstances, Andi describes his life and life around him and narrates his experiences while growing up.

This is the simplistic version of the plot. But this is not all what the book is about. The Holocaust looms large in the background, though it is only implied and hinted at and never explicitly mentioned, but we can feel its dark shadow throughout the book.

The book can be read as a coming-of-age story, a boy’s story about his father, a story about the Holocaust, or even as Danilo Kiš’ veiled memoir.

For me, the thing I loved the most about the book is this. Danilo Kiš’ prose sizzles throughout the book. In some places, there are beautiful sentences. But in other places, and these were my favourite parts, there were long passages of absolute beauty, which were almost Proustian in their depth and elegance. These were so pleasurable to read and gave me goosebumps. These passages continued till the end of the book – one of the last ones is a passage in which Andi and his mother light a lamp in the evening and start talking (I think) and it is magical. I waited for these long passages to arrive and when one of them arrived I read it slowly and immersed myself in it, and then contemplated on it for a while, and then went back and read it again. The book is slim at 170-pages, but that slimness contains such immeasurable, poetic beauty. I am sharing some of those passages below for your pleasure.

“I am sure that I will not be able to fall asleep that night. I have been lying awake long that it seems to me that dawn should already be at hand, so I lift my head to hear if the others are asleep or are just pretending, but then I sense that my head is drooping from tiredness and that I will not really be meeting the dawn awake. Yet there is no way for me to comprehend how sleep comes on all at once, without any effort of will or knowledge on my part, how I can fall asleep every night without catching hold of that instant when the angel of sleep, that great butterfly of night, swoops down to close my eyes with its wings. So I begin to set an ambush for that instant. I would have liked to catch hold of sleep at least once, just as I had been resolved to catch hold of death one day, to catch hold of the wings of the angel of sleep when it came for me, to grab it with two fingers like a butterfly after sneaking up on it from behind. I use precisely this metaphor because when I say “the angel of sleep” I am thinking – just as I was when I believed in the angel of sleep – of the moment when the waking state passes into the state of oblivion, for I long believed – and I think I was right – that this shift occurs all of a sudden, for – if the organism lulls itself to sleep over a long interval – consciousness has to sink all at once, like a stone. And yet I wanted to catch the angel of sleep in its insidious fortress…”

“Notes at the bottom of pages and all the ideograms – crosses, crescents, asterisks – were supplanted by whole pages of manuscript in a tight hand. Abbreviations became subchapters, subchapters became chapters. The original idea of a combined guidebook-baedeker had become just a tiny, provocatory reproductive cell that was dividing, like a primitive organism, in geometrical progression. In the end, all that remained of the ‘Bus, Ship, Rail, and Air Travel Guide’ was a shriveled cocoon, an ideogram, a bracket, an abbreviation here and there. In the meantime, the underlying text and marginalia and footnotes had absorbed this delicate, utilitarian, unstable structure that now stood almost invisible and wholly adjunct on the varicolored map of the world of essence, and this fabricated and abstract prototopic was represented only by the thin lines of meridians and parallels in the immense structure of some eight hundred pages, single-spaced. The text stubbornly, obstinately retained its original title as a travel guide, reflecting the sick confusion in my father’s mind : he actually believed that some publishers would be fooled by this obvious fraud and publish his chaotic compendium under the guise of an innocent timetable-travelogue.”

I loved ‘Garden, Ashes‘. It is one of my favourite books of the year. I’ve met only a few Danilo Kiš fans on the internet, but every one of them has raved about him. Though he was one of the literary stars during his lifetime, it is sad that he is less well-known today. I wish his books are more widely read.

Have you read ‘Garden, Ashes‘? What do you think about it?

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