encyclopedia of the dead

Yugoslav author Danilo Kiŝ is celebrated for his opposition to authoritarianism, but his politics of the individual fail to offer real liberation, finds Dominic Alexander

Danilo Kiŝ, The Encyclopedia of the Dead, introduction by Mark Thompson (Penguin Classics 2015), xxiv, 167pp.

Danilo Kiŝ was a Yugoslav writer who produced a very particular sort of story; a type which stands apart from the usual span in which literature can be situated. Some stories are about the narrative, whatever their mix of serious or entertaining intent. Others are more concerned with characters as such, and often involve an attempt to represent reality, accurately or honestly, in literary form. A Kiŝ story seems to embody a different kind of intention. This is the kind of story that is the hero of its own event.

Yugoslavia produced a number of literary figures who achieved some acclaim in the West, including, for example, Ivo Andrić for The Bridge over the River Drina and Milorad Pavić for the Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel. Both of these are essentially reflections on the meaning of the long history of the country, and therefore of its possibilities and tragedies. The former is deeply realist, and the other is a highly experimental ‘novel’, a marvellous allegory set in the ninth-century steppe Empire of the Khazars. In both their highly different ways these works are embedded in particular places, and in imagined, but nonetheless very real, histories. The stories in The Encyclopedia of the Dead entirely lack this sense of being grounded in a particular country’s history, for all that they are usually taken to reflect a central European context. The stories are far more abstract, and yet also far more personal, at the same time, than those of the previous authors. They are rebel stories in one sense, but the question is not only what, precisely, is being rebelled against, but in what cause.

An act of literary iconoclasm opens the collection, with a re-working of the Christian legend of Simon Magus, the apocryphal Roman-era magician who attempted to buy the Apostle’s miraculous powers (‘simony’ became the sin of buying ecclesiastical office). At the centre of all versions of the story is the contest between Simon Magus, and the leader of the Apostles, Simon Peter, over who had the genuine connection to divine power. The Roman Emperor decrees a contest of the miraculous, so Simon Magus demonstrates his ability to fly. Simon Peter responds with a prayer to God, and the demons sustaining the magician in the air are duly banished. The deceiver with the false faith comes crashing to the earth and dies, Christianity vindicated.

Kiŝ wittily turns the legend on its head by making Simon Magus the hero, whose diatribe on ‘the horror of our earthly existence’ (p.13) causes him to rise up from the ground into the sky, although only after some comic earthbound flapping. Peter, who ‘did not believe in miracles other than those of faith’ finds his certainty that Christianity is the only truth shattered: ‘then the world was a mystery and faith an illusion, then his life had lost its foundation’ (pp.14-15). This challenge to dogmatic faith is the heroic work of the story, but Simon Magus is not spared his original fate. His flight to the clouds is ‘borne by doubt and human curiosity’ (p.15), and Peter’s prayer to God once again brings him crashing to the ground.

Kiŝ is not just blowing a raspberry at official Christianity, but makes reference to the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, which, in many quarters, is felt to represent an attractive path not taken by mainstream Christianity. Gnosticism can be interpreted as having been less hierarchical and less patriarchal than any of the established Churches. Magus’ companion, the allegorically named ‘Sophia’, is a prostitute whose name is that of Gnostic personification of God’s wisdom. Kiŝ is not wholly endorsing this alternative truth to official religion; Sophia flies wailing into the desert at her lover’s demise, or, in the second ending (for legends do come in many versions); ‘Her mortal body returned to the brothel, while her spirit moved on to a new illusion’ (p.21). Kiŝ refuses the illusion that anything has been achieved. The hero was abandoned, and the act of iconoclasm, the shattering of illusions, accomplishes nothing of permanence.

It may be suspected that the Church, of whichever variety, is not the true target of this tale. That the Apostles are introduced as preaching of ‘the perfection of the world’ (p.3) opens the obvious door to an allegory on communists, but it is not really Communist regimes that are being satirised here either. Instead, it is the very belief in salvation of either an earthly or spiritual kind which is in question. Simon offers ‘knowledge and the desert’ (p.3) in place of illusions. The only positive value endorsed is heterosexual sex; ‘Woman is the urn of bliss,’ Simon Magus declares (p.18). Thus, when all beliefs and certainties have been dispelled, the only truth left appears to be the protagonist’s own sexual desire.

There is no question that this is written with considerable stylistic accomplishment, and a distinctive exuberance, but the ‘moral’ is decidedly problematic. It becomes less of a stand against authoritarian belief systems, and more a notably male howl of existential despair. There is a layer of metaphor about Sophia’s brothel, but even so it is hard not to take it as a significantly offensive valuation of the woman. She is the provider of the only solace to the heroic man who lives without any of the false beliefs peddled by the likes of Simon Peter.

Kiŝ is not a writer to be pinned down, so it is possible the reader is meant to be turned against Simon Magus’ nihilism by the stark role given to Sophia. However, a similar theme appears in a subsequent story, which also turns inside out an ancient Christian legend. This one is the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, who in a time of persecution of Christians, are miraculously sent to sleep in a cave, awakening almost two centuries later to find their city now Christian. After the miracle is witnessed, the Sleepers die. Kiŝ’ version of the story is at once dream-like, and yet it also succeeds in making the miraculous seem prosaically physical at points, while maintaining an ambivalent monologue, which may, or may not, be a dying reverie.

In effect, Kiŝ’s sleeper does not wake up. He does however demonstrate a less than saintly concern with his earthly life, since the narrator’s mind keeps returning to his beloved; ‘he remembered sweet Priscia’s name and at once his body was flooded with bliss and the air with the scent of roses’ (p.78). Once again, the question comes down to the illusions of reality; ‘who can divide dream from reality, day from night, night from dawn, memory from illusion’ (p.78). So too, his Priscia is in fact ‘the image of two women merged by time and memory into one’ (p.60). The only truth, just as in ‘Simon Magus’, becomes the narrator’s clearly physical desire, this time for a woman who is so ambiguous, she may be two different women. Certainly neither have any reality beyond the name, and the man’s physical response to the memory of her.

As in ‘Simon Magus’, the fixed authority of Church legend is challenged through an existential scepticism, but it is notable that in both instances the only point of certainty is the individual nexus of physicality and consciousness. The evidence of a questionable sexual politics also mounts here; the women in the first two stories of the collection are prostitutes (and appreciated essentially as such), and in the third story of the Sleepers, the woman recedes out of reach as an identifiable person. It seems that the critique of authority launched by Kiŝ, who ‘came to personify liberal pluralist values’, we are told (p.ix), ends in a crisis of the possibility of knowledge, once received tradition or dogma has been debunked. Moreover, within that epistemological despair, the only reliable source of meaning is Simon Magus’ solipsistic assertion that ‘true communion comes from the commingling of man and woman’ (italics in original, p.18).

The issue of the truth of self and consciousness is then further complicated in the title story of the collection, ‘The Encyclopedia of the Dead’. This story actually has a female narrator, who is not at all sexual object, but lest it be thought the Kiŝ passes any kind of Bechdel test in this one, the whole story is really about the woman’s father, and her character is wholly eclipsed in the remembering of his life. Nonetheless, this is a deservedly acclaimed piece of writing, which takes the epistemological scepticism found in his other stories, and raises it to another level of entertaining cleverness.

The central conceit is that the narrator is introduced to an extraordinary library, which she had heard of before somewhere, whose volumes record the entire lives of all those people whose biographies are not otherwise known and recorded. Apparently, the fiction editor of the New Yorker thought that the ending, in which the experience is revealed to be a dream, should be changed to allow it the possibility of being real (p.xviii). Yet it is absolutely clear that the intention of the story required it to be a dream. Indeed that is signalled right from the start, where Kiŝ has the narrator say that days after her experience of the library, ‘I was still living in that far-off world as if in a dream’ (p.30).

The narrator spends her time in this library reading the story of her father’s life, but our knowledge of his biography is shown to be filtered through the process of recall right from the start. She ‘started skimming through the paragraphs’, afraid that she would not have time to read it all before her allotted time expired. Moreover, she ‘decided to copy out several of the most important passages and make a kind of summary of my father’s life’ (p.32). Thus this fantasy of the possibility of a total knowledge of a person’s life is immediately undercut by the practical limitations of one person’s time, and that individual’s judgement on what to read carefully, what to record, and so what to omit as less important. The story is not a wish fulfilment of complete knowledge, but rather a demonstration of its impossibility. Beneath the surface of the narrative, it follows the logic of the anxiety dream; something which appears to be reachable, recedes ever further from the dreamer’s grasp.

As the narrator tells us of her father’s life while reading the encyclopaedia, the perspective shifts about in an unreliable way. At points, it provides stretches of what can be taken as an objective, unfiltered record of all the facts of the man’s life. At others, it presents what could be the father’s own memory of his life; images of childhood are ‘reduced, so to speak, to ideographs’ (p.36). In yet other passages, it seems as if we are being presented rather more with the woman’s own memories or interpretations of her father’s life. This could all be taken as a failure of technique on the part of the writer, as if he was not able to be consistent in his presentation of the Encyclopedia’s tone or style.

However, Kiŝ is a highly controlled and deliberate writer, so the unsignalled shifts in perspective surely must be taken as fully intended, even as part of the unreliable nature of the narrator’s dream. What then should be made of ‘The Encyclopedia of the Dead’? The introduction quotes another Yugoslav writer, Aleksander Hemon, on the story as showing that the ‘absolute value of the individual is the crucial premise of Kiŝ’s poetics as also of his politics’ (p.xvii). Certainly, there is a melancholy celebration of a person’s life here, but what the story really hints at surely is the triumph of mortality over knowledge and memory. Even for the individual, life is something that passes beyond reach, such that the reality of childhood is replaced by ‘ideographs’, or the memory of unremarkable, repetitive time can be skated over, even by the all-knowing Encyclopedia as ‘monotonous years’ (p.40).

If Kiŝ’s politics were about the centrality of the individual, set against the powers who would control or crush him, the message is ultimately one of despair about the reality of this core individual, who must necessarily succumb to unknowability and death. Perhaps as a philosophical position, this is, in itself, a valid position to take. Yet it is only maintained in these stories through an effectively exclusive focus on one sort of individual; the man. The position of women is often marginal, or subsumed under male sexual desire, as for Sophia, the Magdalene-like prostitute in ‘Magus’, as in the ‘Sleepers’, or as in ‘Last Respects’, where the female character, already dead in the second paragraph, is celebrated thusly: ‘she was unique, inimitable, she was a harbour whore’ (p.27). Sexual violence is a recurring motif, as in ‘The Mirror of the Unknown’ (p.91) and ‘The Master and Disciple’ (p.98), where it marks the only female presence whatsoever. The champion of pluralism turns out to be more a purveyor of a certain sort of male monism.

This fault is not an accidental or incidental sexism, but reflects the individualist methodology itself. If the starting point is an exclusively individual perspective, then, by necessity, the reality of others is likely to be denied or obscured. For social reasons, this is a stance much more likely to be taken by male writers, and so the sexist perspective on display here follows as a natural consequence, as does the existential despair at the extinction of the ego. If, however, the existence of a person were to be taken as a social fact, and the individual as the creation of others, through the fabric of social relationships, then these problems can be, if not abolished, certainly transformed onto a quite different existential terrain.

In the end, however, it is not possible to ask an author to go where he is not prepared to venture, and Kiŝ remains the individualist rebel. Such a stance puts strict limitations on the possible politics of these stories. Kiŝ self-consciously indulges in elitism in ‘The Master and the Disciple’, where there appears to be authorial approval for the argument that ‘the difference between the Appearance of Substance and Substance is so imperceptible that only the wisest can detect it’ (p.99). The Gnosticism of ‘Simon Magus’ has reappeared here in even more explicit terms. It lies in parallel to a strain of contempt for the mass of people, most open in the story ‘Pro Patria Mori’ where a decidedly anti-democratic image appears: ‘The crowd was cheering Imperial justice, because the mob always cheers the victor’ (p.106).

For all that Kiŝ faced an oppressive authority in the shape of the post-war Yugoslav communist regime, there does not appear to be any real alternative to Stalinism or other authoritarianisms here. Kiŝ may well have opposed the range of state dogmas as the ‘ideology of nationalism, like the ideology of communism, is a story about a collective, never about an individual’ (p.xvii). It seems, nonetheless, that, like Magus opposed to Peter, his opposition depended simply upon a contrast of authority with the elite hero who can live without the illusions of dogma and myth. Yet, a politics of the individual, whose conclusion is to champion the male ego, its sexuality, and its exclusive gnosis, is to celebrate a very particular, and not very attractive, conception of freedom. This stance can do no more than scandalise authority; its act of rebellion can only become mired in its own egotistical limitations, and is certainly not the foundation of a real politics of liberation.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

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