Book Review: The Lute and the Scars, by Danilo Kiš

A remarkable collection of stories about creative life under the shadow of political trauma, now in English for the first time

TVR Books | Meredith Castile | November 2012

Witness to an Imagined World

Literary rumor holds that Danilo Kiš was due to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1989. Instead, he died of lung cancer, at fifty-four. Had he been awarded the prize, surely the stories in The Lute and the Scars would have been translated long ago from their original Serbo-Croatian. As it is, they have only now been published in English, in a superb translation by John K. Cox.

One of Kiš’s most notable influences, Jorge Luis Borges, argued that the short story could achieve the impact of a novel in just a few pages. This idea of the "condensed novel" can be seen in each of the seven stories in The Lute and the Scars. But as Adam Thirlwell observes in the book’s introduction, Kiš, unlike Borges, wrote in relation to the horrors of the last half of the twentieth century: "The entropic centre of his electric fictions is the century’s twin death camps: the camps of the Nazi régime, and the camps of the Soviet régime."

Kiš’s biography reads like one of his dark, minimalist fictions: His father lost to Birkenau, his own life was spared by a precautionary baptism. Then followed war-related displacement, literary politics in Tito’s Yugoslavia, and finally premature death in Paris.

The stories of The Lute and the Scars date from Kiš’s Parisian years, ranging in their composition from 1980 to 1986. None was published in his lifetime. Kiš wrote two of them for his collection The Encyclopedia of the Dead, then presumably deemed their "autobiographical, nonfictional character" too stylistically divergent from that collection’s overall tone (as one editor has argued). Thus it happened that the astonishingly polished stories of The Lute and the Scars went unpublished, only to be transcribed from manuscript, sometimes even pieced together from various drafts, by editors after his death.

The editors’ detailed textual notes too read like a Kišian story. For Kiš, like Borges, tells stories about texts and how they are used in the world. (In one story in The Lute and the Scars, a rabbi plagiarises part of a funeral oratory from the outdated jacket of the deceased’s novel.) Throughout his oeuvre, Kiš places himself in relation to what he once described as "maniacal insisting on a document, witnessing, fact, quote."

The collection’s opening piece, "The Stateless One," demonstrates a characteristically Kišian interest in fictional source materials, with references to (nonexistent) photographs and quotations from a biography ("The eyewitness accounts of the last period of his life are contradictory…").

The documentary style is complicated by the story’s protagonist, Egon von Németh, who is modeled on the historical figure Ödön von Horváth, the playwright who fled from Nazi Austria to Amsterdam, where a fortune teller told him something extraordinary would befall him in Paris. Two months later, in Paris, a falling tree branch struck him dead. Kiš’s story ends with "a sudden blow" as inscrutably evocative to the reader without context as the original blow must have been to the lamented von Horváth.

In the mid-’80s Kiš claimed to have spent the past several years seeking to move beyond politics in his work. He had weathered a ferocious political maelstrom after the 1976 publication of his anti-totalitarian story cycle A Tomb for Boris Davidovich. He wanted to move into new artistic territory.

But The Lute and the Scars does not do away with politics. Rather, it draws them into the creative sphere. A central question animates the collection: How does political trauma, whether immediate or removed, affect the creative process?

In "The Poet," an elderly man writes and posts a sonnet against the totalitarianism of Titoist Yugoslavia. During his subsequent year of political detainment, his captor demands that he perfect the poem, writing version after version. The final copy wins the man release. Faced with the end of the writing life that prison forced upon him, he makes a stunning choice...

In the intimate and largely autobiographical "Jurij Golec," Kiš evokes the story of his friend Piotr Rawicz, a writer and concentration camp survivor. Arguably the best story of the collection, it captures a warmth not always present in Kiš’s earlier works. In one memorable scene, the story’s narrator finds himself invited to an intimate dinner given by an eccentric patron of the arts, Mme d’Orsetti. A mere novelist, he is surprised to be given the seat of honour above the likes of the fashion designer Armani and the widow of a prince.

Late in the evening, Mme d’Orsetti rises from the rug where she has been rocking, "barely perceptibly, to the rhythm of music from the gramophone (Rameau, Brahms, Vivaldi)," and beckons him to an ornate bed. While she pours him a brimming vodka, she tells him, "Your friend Jurij Golec has committed suicide. I wanted you to dine in peace first. Now I shall leave you alone. If you feel the need to talk with someone, d’Orsetti is at your disposal." The home of art and savoir vivre cushioning the despair of subjection and death: such is the fierce tenderness of a Kišian world.

A similar spirit animates the collection’s eponymous story, in which the young narrator, a writer, boards with a Russian émigré couple in Belgrade. The deaf husband still plays his lute; the wife bears mysterious scars from her Soviet past. On a mission to find the wife’s sister back in Moscow, the young writer learns the stark facts from a dying stranger. Asked to elaborate, the stranger replies, "What is there to tell you? There are lives that it turns out weren’t worth living. We lived as if we were dead. Farewell."

The conviction that one has nothing worth telling – such is the blackest despair Kiš imagines. And resists. To the benighted history inscribed in The Lute and the Scars, he proffers a luminous response: his work.

The Lute and the Scars

by Danilo Kiš. Trans. John K. Cox.

Dalkey Archive Press, Campaign,

Dublin, London (2012)

pp. 137


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