Geoff's Reviews > Garden, Ashes

Garden, Ashes by Danilo Kiš
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Sep 21, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites

I don’t know if I am totally comfortable with liking a book such as Garden, Ashes as much as I do. The historical facts behind it’s necessity of being are too terrible, and it brings up the question, at least in my mind, as to why I enjoy these particular types of books so much. The type of books I mean are early to mid-twentieth century literary memoirs from Eastern Europe and Russia; and if they are memoirs of a childhood, or a gulag, or the front, it is all the more strangely alluring, and I’m not sure if the reasons behind my fascination with this genre are pure. But is “enjoy” even the right word to use here? Maybe it’s more like I am comforted by them (but how does a deluge bring about comfort?), or that they give me the hopeful thought that art often embodies the better nature of humanity, the ability to sustain itself through tragedy, that it is works of art (books, films, discussions, monuments) that are the truly lasting echoes of a disaster- they resound a bit longer than the disaster itself and perhaps better inform the future. Regardless, one only can wish that these books never had to come into being.

The world did not end with the Holocaust, but it surely made it a lot tougher to forgive humanity its sins, to see us as something possessing an inherent good. Danilo Kiš’s father vanished, presumably into Auschwitz, sometime in the middle of World War II, when the writer was 9 years old. He was a Jew, Kiš’s mother was Christian, so she and Danilo were spared that specific fate; they were dealt a grim one nonetheless. Garden, Ashes is a fictional account of a parallel event, though the Holocaust is never directly mentioned. Through the perspective of a child growing into an adolescent, World War II in Eastern Europe takes on the qualities of a Biblical epic, or a mythical fantasia, or a series of morbid absurdities and caricatures, constant motion, hunger, and destitution. Garden, Ashes always inhabits the perspective of Andi Scham, but is also a portrait of his eccentric, messianic, disturbed father Eduard Scham (really the most unforgettable character I’ve encountered in literature in a long time), also of his sister and his mother, relatives and coevals caught in the flood of events that subsumed the Jewish population of Eastern Europe in the middle of the last century. However, a reader going into this book looking for a Holocaust memoir, or a WWII epic, or even a literal historical perspective on the time period will be confounded. The world of Garden, Ashes is Andi Scham’s world; personalized, rendered, mythologized, fragmented as memories of childhood are. The reader is disoriented when Andi is disoriented, the reader sees the events of pogroms and intermittent fleeing and poverty and war with the naivete and narrow discernment of someone not yet quite acclimated to his perceptions. Another way to say it is that Andi Scham’s perceptions are not yet prejudiced, his interpretations not yet made logical and sterile by the clockwork mechanisms of adulthood. The war to him is the doldrums, but a spectacle, and his quixotic visions and memories comprise the book.

Kiš focuses on objects, magnifying them in his descriptions, revitalizing their interaction with their world. A Singer sewing machine, a dirty tray, a painting of an angel, a dog, a book, more than inhabit a living space; they have consequences of their own. Their dissolution is also the dissolution of their world:

”...a spool from which the thread unwinds, as thick as a cord, magnified and therefore difficult to recognize, like the letter S, giving the illusion of spider legs. The emblem is painted a golden yellow, like a nobleman’s coat of arms, and so are the arabesques on the lacquered head of the machine. They are peeling here and there and the gilt drops off in thin, delicate flakes. The wooden base has also begun to peel, especially along the edges. First it blisters from temperature changes and dampness, then it begins to wrinkle and split like diseased fingernails. A small brass emblem, elliptical like a medallion, yellow and shiny, is attached to the slender neck of the machine with two toothed screws. The same spider-spool is on the emblem, but much clearer because of its reduced dimensions. The words “The Singer Manfg. Co.- Trade Mark” appear in bas-relief on all sides, as though the machine were a coin. When I pressed the treadle, the machine hummed like a lyre.”

Notice the qualities of degradation of the sewing machine- temperature changes, dampness, age- evidence of poverty. It is a lyre covered in spiders and webs, with teeth, a machine of wonder and danger, and a symbol- later you realize the Singer is what the children’s only clothes are made on, altered throwaways, and that after Eduard Scham disappears, sewing is the activity that occupies the desperate widow. A particularly heartbreaking scene unfolds when the family, after one of their numerous “trips” (flights from the war, from pogroms), returns to their former dwelling to find the objects, so wonderfully described earlier by Andi’s wandering thoughts, in ruin and decay and abandon. One of the imminent devices of this novel is the use of object description as scene setting, as narrative. Things are reduced to the immediate, as they often are in a child’s eyes. Andi’s first sexual and religious experiences are told in a kind of fairy tale style, a Garden of Eden encounter and the vengeful God, and everything luminous and positive (as in the description of the sewing machine) is entwined with something dangerous and dark, something eating away at the stability of each object and moment.

At the center of all of this is the portrait of Andi’s father- monomaniacal, prophetic, apocalyptic Eduard Scham. A book is at the center of his madness. What began with a simple question “How can one travel to Nicaragua?”, develops into an obsession. His Bus, Ship, Rail, and Air Travel Guide, a massive “timetable” of arrivals and departures into and out of every city in the world, by every means of transportation, began as an honest attempt at something like a travel guide, but becomes a historical-philosophical jeremiad, as well as the continuing evidence of Eduard Scham’s disconnection with reality. In its third edition it has become a treatise on Eduard’s personal pantheism, world-philosophy, and theosophical rantings overflowing with inserts, digressions, and rambling, endless end notes. He is hounded and persecuted wherever he goes, thought a madman and a spy by the inhabitants of the towns they settle in (mainly due to his days-long wanderings through the countryside, subsisting on eggs found in bird’s nests, grass, nettles and water from creeks; his filthy, soiled clothing; his messianic, vitriolic rants in local pubs), and ostracized by his relatives. Yet there is a sweetness in Eduard, like a multi-colored eggshell contained in the bramble of a nest, and in the end one has to admit that his apocalyptic prophesies were proven true.

“There are people,” my father continued, “who are born to be unhappy and to make others unhappy, who are the victims of celestial intrigues incomprehensible to us, guinea pigs for the celestial machinery, rebels allotted the part of a rebel yet born- by the cruel logic of the celestial comedy- with their wings clipped. They are titans without the power of titans, dwarf-titans whose only greatness was given them in the form of a rigid dose of sensitivity that dissolves their trifling strength like alcohol. They follow their star, their sick sensibility, borne along by titanic plans and intentions, but then break like waves against the rocky banks of triviality. The height of the cruelty allotted them in lucidity, that awareness of their own limitations, that sick capacity for dissociation. I look at myself in the role forced on me by the heavens and by fate, conscious of my role at all times yet at the same time unable to resist it with the force of logic or will... Fortunately, as I said, this role is coming to an end...”

It is very easy to read into Eduard the fate of the entire Jewish population of Europe in WWII- pursued, vilified, accosted, criminalized, and finally vanished. And all of his titanic plans of unifying the motion and philosophies of the world in a single “timetable” vanish too.

The family lives on, hungry, desperate, alone, wandering. But the luminosity of Andi’s perceptions is maintained. His particularly sensitive nature reacts. He writes his first poem. Thus art is born from tragedy, as a coping mechanism, as a retreat, as a kind of redemption for the world of the survivors, as an ark to maintain and restore meaning after a deluge.
29 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Garden, Ashes.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

08/06/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Adam (new) - added it

Adam Floridia Sounds like a very interesting read. I await a detailed review :0)

message 2: by Eric (new) - added it

Eric Me too!

Geoff You're quite welcome, Mariel. This was the first Kis I read, and I immediately fell head over heels in love with him. I have The Encyclopedia of the Dead on my shelf that I'm going to get to soon. A Tomb for Boris Davidovich was amazing as well, really brutal, but amazing. I recommend Garden, Ashes to everyone I know who is into books, and so few actually read it. It is very close to my heart.

message 4: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell Wow, good review!

message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

that quote about Eduard makes this a must-read

Geoff Thanks guys! Yes, a must read. Like I mentioned to Mariel, I tell everyone I know to read this book, and not many actually end up doing so. I hope you do! Kiš is a great writer who deserves more readers...

knig I couldn’t fathom a better tribute to this novel than your review. I just finished it today so its colours are still buzzing in my head. Having posted my own mittel review of this mitteleuropa connoissance (pun totally intended. I was diabolically mittel-middling-mediocre mindfulnotness), I checked to see what Google-Gaia had to say about it. I was particularly struck by Hamon’s take on the opening:

‘Opening a novel with a beaten-up tray loaded with details is the exact opposite of the God-like point of view of the "great-novel" openings: say, a Dickensian description of the city; or Tolstoy’s great generalizations about happy and unhappy families; or Bellow’s immediate invasion of Herzog’s mind. Many a novel opens with a peal of self-importance, which Kis systematically ignores, always opting for the barely visible. What is even more astonishing is that Garden, Ashes is a novel about the Holocaust—we enter the apocalyptic stage with the tray in our hands. By insisting on the material and the particular on the tray, along with giving the narrative voice to a boy, Andi Scham, Kis instantly dismisses the ambition of explaining the Holocaust—the most we can hope for is experiencing it, our experience admittedly limited to the barely visible, but all the more true because of that’

I also noted the tray opening very strongly, although not precisely in Hamon’s terms. In any event, that was the only other original take I came across apart from GR, so thought I would mention it.

Geoff Thanks so much Knig-o-lass, yes, this book struck me on so many levels. I'm really happy to see other people finding it. Hamon's take on the opening is a brilliant observation. That was something that definitely struck me- not that image specifically to that degree- but that idea of the barely visible, and how Kis keeps the events surrounding Andi totally rooted in his perception; that as an adolescent the images of the world falling apart around him are necessarily abstracted, somewhat ambiguous, and strangely understood. I saw it as the Holocaust filtered through the myth making of adolescence.

Szplug This is just a perfect review, Geoff. Not only have you wonderfully captured its essence, but that you also highlighted the following:
“There are people,” my father continued, “who are born to be unhappy and to make others unhappy...
shows how we were both struck by the strength of that particular passage. I'm going with great minds thinking alike, and all that portends from that...

Geoff Chris wrote: "This is just a perfect review, Geoff. Not only have you wonderfully captured its essence, but that you also highlighted the following:

“There are people,” my father continued, “who are born to b..."

Yes! I noticed that too when reading your review. It is an especially striking passage... I love that this book is getting some attention round these parts. And thanks for the kind words!

message 11: by Lady Cormac (new) - added it

Lady Cormac Thank you for this review. Now I want to read "Garden, ashes" :)

back to top