Danilo Kis

Borges: Influence and References

Danilo Kis

By Milan M. Cirkovic

Danilo Kis was a Jewish Serbian-Hungarian author and poet whose untimely death in 1990 left tragically unfinished one of the most complex literary oeuvres to emerge from Central and Eastern Europe. The influence of Borges runs very strong in his work, from the early Garden, Ashes to his masterpiece, a collection of stories entitled The Encyclopedia of the Dead. Indeed, Kis once remarked (in "A Lecture in Anatomy") that the literary genre known as the short story could be divided into two epochs: before Borges and After Borges. I have listed some of his more prominently Borgesian works below:

A Garret
Kis' first published work, A Garret is a semi-autobiographical tale which delves into the themes of love and maturity with a profoundly touching power and grace. Its style is multi-faceted -- Kis is permanently shrouded in a fog formed from a mixture of real experiences and experiences pulled from works of literature, and the reader is never sure whether he is reading about the real life of the protagonist or something he read, reflected and refracted through his mind and bent on his obsessive love for the unreachable Euridika. This unusual style peaks during a carnival, where a meeting between Hans Kastorp and Claudia Shosha is taken verbatim from Thomas Mann's Der Zauberberg! The recontextualization of this meeting gives it a greatly enriched meeting -- shades of "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote!"

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich
This great anti-Stalinist book incorporates several Borgesian ideas, the most visible one being the inclusion of authentic medieval protocol on the workings of the Inquisition in the southern France among the stories dealing with persecutions in Stalinist concentration camps. Careful reading reveals many quite unbelievable similarities between the title story and the medieval one, showing perhaps that the Babelian library is indeed periodical as the old wizard imagined. . . . Some similarities with A Universal History of Infamy may be detected too, although A Tomb is written with a grim power which significantly outweighs the relaxed style of the early Borges.

The Encyclopedia of the Dead
All the stories in this collection reveal the influence of Borges, especially the title story and "The Book of Kings and Fools," a story that began its life as an essay. In the title story, a female protagonist visits an imaginary library famous for its "Encyclopedia of the Dead," a work which contains the complete biographies of every dead human since the dawn of history. Trying to discover the truth about her father, she peruses the large, detailed pages of the Encyclopedia. Finding hundreds of documents diligently gathered by the mysterious authors, she discovers a completely new world -- a world which is actually the real world of troubled post-war intellectuals in unhappy Eastern and Southern Europe. Remarkable in its blending of documentary style and emotional depth, this story is one of Kis's best. In "The Book of Kings and Fools," which is meticulously based on historical fact, we see a book really changing the world. Although this concept is familiar from "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," here it is removed from the linguistic and metaphysical world placed in a historical -- and horrifying -- perspective. In a sense, these stories are the strongest critique of Borges's "purity" -- a critique stronger still for coming from the pen of so attested a "Borgesian."

In several essay collections (some of them published in book form only after his death), mainly "A Lecture in Anatomy" and "Homo Poeticus," Kis showed the same magnificent versatility and richness which we find in Borges's essays, whether he is discussing vastness of known space, contemporary poetry, or the suicidal temptation of any writer. In a sense, Kis enlarges the scope of his topics beyond that of Borges -- not only is literature placed under investigation, but also political history, which is seen as something akin to a sort of cancerous tissue. Especially forceful is Kis' elaboration of the Borgesian concept of the tree of literature and its many ramifications, as presented in "A Lecture in Anatomy," probably one of the most insightful and poetic descriptions of modern literature ever written.

Milan M. Cirkovic
Dept. of Physics & Astronomy
SUNY at Stony Brook,
Stony Brook, NY 11794-3800

Additional Information

Danilo Kis Home Page -- Exceptional site about Kis, with unpublished texts, audio, biography and a complete bibliography. (Serbian)

Über Danilo Kis -- A small German site on Kis. (German)

Selected Works of Danilo Kis

Early Sorrows : (For Children and Sensitive Readers)
Danilo Kis, Michael Heim (Translator) / Hardcover / Published 1998
Our Price: $14.96 ~ You Save: $4.99 (25%)

The Encyclopedia of the Dead (European Classics)
Danilo Kis, Michael Henry Heim (Translator) / Paperback / Published 1997
Our Price: $14.41 ~ You Save: $2.54 (15%)

Garden, Ashes (A Harvest Book)
Danilo Kis, et al / Paperback / Published 1994
Our Price: $9.31 ~ You Save: $1.64 (15%)

Homo Poeticus: Essays and Interviews
Danilo Kis, Susan Sontag (Editor) / Hardcover / Published 1995
Our Price: $25.00

Hourglass (European Classics)
Danilo Kis, Ralph Manheim (Translator) / Paperback / Published 1997
Our Price: $14.36 ~ You Save: $3.59 (20%) (Back Ordered)

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich: A Novel
Danilo Kis, Duska Mikic-Mitchell (Translator) / Paperback / Published 1991

Danilo Kis / Published 1987
(Hard to Find)

Return to Borges Influence