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A Tomb for Boris Davidovich by Danilo Kiš
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it was amazing

I took a brief time out half-way through reading William T. Vollmann’s monumental 800-page National Book Award-winning novel about the Eastern Front in WWII, Europe Central (2005), to read a less-weighty but no less impressive collection of short stories by Danilo Kiš, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich. Kiš (1935-1989) was a Serbian writer who lost his father to the Nazi death camps and wrote with a heightened sense of the insanity of totalitarian ideology (both German National Socialism and Soviet Communism) and anti-Semitism.

Kiš’s stories are masterful portraits of psyches twisted and adrift across the European landscape of the first half of the 20th century. (With one detour, a harrowing tale titled “Dogs and Books” about a 12th century religious pogrom, which Kiš clearly intended to parallel Stalin’s 1930s Moscow Trials.) At least one story, “The Mechanical Lions,” verges on a kind of dark slapstick, with a Soviet bureaucrat—needing to woo a visiting French communist critical of the persecution of priests—tasked with temporarily converting a cathedral back into a house of worship after it had been confiscated and transformed into a brewery and an atheist museum following the revolution.

Comrade Pyasnikov demanded that the poster with the slogan RELIGION IS THE OPIATE OF THE PEOPLE be removed and promptly replaced by another with a somewhat more metaphysical sound: LONG LIVE THE SUN, DOWN WITH THE NIGHT … Under my personal supervision a hundred and twenty prisoners from the nearby regional prison camp carried out another restoration of the church, in less than four hours.

There are several editions of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich. My preference (I own two) is by far the 2001 Dalkey Archive reprint with its essential introduction by the great Russian poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky, and, in particular for my interests of the moment, a new afterword by William T. Vollmann. Not only does Vollmann count Kiš’s story collection as a formative influence, but he would later dedicate Europe Central to him:

This book is dedicated to the memory of Danilo Kiš, whose masterpiece A Tomb of Boris Davidovich kept me company for many years while I was preparing to write this book.

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Quotes Bob Liked

Danilo Kiš
“Witnessing the blind fury of this mob and seeing them kill before my eyes the Jews who refused to be converted (some out of faith, and others from that pride which can sometimes be perilous), I answered that I would rather be converted than killed, since, in spite of everything, the temporary agony of being is more valuable than the ultimate void of nothingness.”
Danilo Kiš, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich

Danilo Kiš
“Even a stone would talk if you broke its teeth.”
Danilo Kiš, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich

Reading Progress

Started Reading
September 1, 2013 – Finished Reading
September 27, 2013 – Shelved

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