Birth Certificate: The Story of Danilo Kis


Danilo Kis (1935–89) was a Yugoslav novelist, essayist, poet, and translator whose work generated storms of controversy in his homeland but today holds classic status. Kis was championed by prominent literary figures around the world, including Joseph Brodsky, Susan Sontag, Milan Kundera, Philip Roth, Nadine Gordimer, and Salman Rushdie. As more of his works become available in translation, they are prized by an international readership drawn to Kis's innovative brilliance as a storyteller and to his profound ...

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Danilo Kis (1935–89) was a Yugoslav novelist, essayist, poet, and translator whose work generated storms of controversy in his homeland but today holds classic status. Kis was championed by prominent literary figures around the world, including Joseph Brodsky, Susan Sontag, Milan Kundera, Philip Roth, Nadine Gordimer, and Salman Rushdie. As more of his works become available in translation, they are prized by an international readership drawn to Kis's innovative brilliance as a storyteller and to his profound meditation on history, culture, and the human condition at the end of the twentieth century.

A subtle analysis of a rich and varied body of writing, Birth Certificate is also a careful and sensitive telling of a life that experienced some of the last century's greatest cruelties. Kis's father was a Hungarian Jew, his mother a Montenegrin of Orthodox faith. The father disappeared into the Holocaust and the son—cosmopolitan, anticommunist, and passionately opposed to the myth-drenched nationalisms of his native lands—grew up chafing against the hypocrisies of Titoism. His writing broke with the epic mode, pioneered modernist techniques in his language, fulminated against literary kitsch, and sketched out a literary heritage "with no Sun as its Center and Tyrant." Joyce and Borges were influences on his writing, which nevertheless is stunningly original. The best known of his works are Garden, Ashes; The Encyclopedia of the Dead; Hourglass; The Anatomy Lesson; and A Tomb for Boris Davidovich.

Over the course of nearly two decades, Mark Thompson studied Kis's papers and interviewed his family members, friends, and admirers. His intimate understanding of the writer’s life and his sure grasp of the region’s history inform his revelatory readings of Kis’s individual works.More than an appreciation of an important literary and cultural figure, this book is also a compelling guide to the destructive policies which would, shortly after Kis’s death, generate the worst violence in Europe since World War II. Thompson’s book pays tribute to Kis’s experimentalism by being itself experimental in form. It is patterned as a series of commentaries on a short autobiographical text that Kis called "Birth Certificate." This unusual structure adds to the interest and intrigue of the book, and is appropriate for treating so autobiographical a writer who believed that literary meaning is always deeply shaped by other texts.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
With Thompson’s exhilarating feat of biography and literary criticism, English readers can finally gain an introduction to the cerebral and experimental works of Yugoslavian poet, novelist, and playwright Danilo Kis. Born in 1935, Kis came of age following WWII and the death of his father and other family members in concentration camps. With the rise of Tito’s dictatorship, Kis became a staunch antinationalist and anticommunist, an intellectual cosmopolitan who pioneered modernist prose experiments that were gently critical of Yugoslavian society and that turned Kis into a controversial figure. As his international reputation grew, Kis was championed by prominent authors such as Salman Rushdie and Susan Sontag, and was a contender for the Nobel Prize before his death in 1989. Appropriately for its subject, Thompson’s biography has an experimental flavor, structured as an extended gloss to a short autobiographical essay written by Kis. The biographical commentary is punctuated with extended “interludes” that offer interpretations of Kis’s most famous works, which include A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, The Anatomy Lesson, and The Encyclopedia of the Dead. Thompson (The White War), a graceful writer and storyteller in his own right, restores Kis to his rightful place in the pantheon of 20th-century writers in a biography that should appeal to any reader interested in contemporary world literature. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
"In Birth Certificate, Mark Thompson explores, with perseverance and an exquisite sense for detail, the rich and complex world of the great man and great writer, Danilo Kis, with passion, respect, and loyalty to its subject."—Dusan Makavejev, director of WR: Mysteries of the Organism and Montenegro

"Mark Thompson's erudite and engaging study is a biography and a literary exploration imbued with the formal playfulness that Danilo Kis loved. Clearly the product of an enduring personal obsession, this Birth Certificate is a fitting and long overdue English memorial to a great writer."—Vesna Goldsworthy, author of Chernobyl Strawberries and Inventing Ruritania

"Mark Thompson's creative procedure is unexpected: taking on his journey only one document, a sort of literary visa—Kis's short text, "Birth Certificate"—he treats it as hypertext, linking not only to Kis’s own work but to cultural history, regional studies, politics, geography, mentalite, etc. Opening new semantic boxes one after another, Thompson’s reading of this great European writer becomes excitingly rich."—Dubravka Ugresic, author of The Culture of Lies and Thank You for Not Reading

"Mark Thompson has settled our collective debt to Danilo Kis, the great Central European writer, who belonged to many cultures and traditions and whose life was itself literature. Nuanced, wise, and poetic, Birth Certificate just might reawaken interest in Kis, whose story is paradigmatic and important as a signpost in contemporary chaos."—Ivo Banac, Yale University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801448881
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 3/19/2013
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 1,426,435
  • Product dimensions: 7.20 (w) x 10.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Thompson is the author of A Paper House: The Ending of Yugoslavia, Forging War: The Media in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Hercegovina, and The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915–1919. He lives in Oxford.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Great and Invisible
Birth Certificate (A Short Autobiography) by Danilo Kiš

1. Birth Certificate (A Short Autobiography)
2. My father
3. came into the world
4. in western Hungary
5. and was educated at the commercial college . . .
6. the birthplace of a certain Mr Virág . . .
7. by the grace
8. of Mr Joyce . . .

First Interlude—The Garret (1962)

9. I believe it was the liberal policy . . .
10. together with a desire for integration . . .
11. Many details of the family chronicle . . .
12. Among my ancestors on my mother's side . . .
13. The ethnographic rarity I represent . . .
14. In 1939, in my fourth year . . .
15. my parents had me baptised . . .
16. This saved my life.
17. I lived until my thirteenth year . . .

Second Interlude—Garden, Ashes (1965)

18. I worked as a servant for rich peasants . . .
19. The 'troubling dissimilarity' that Freud calls . . .

Third Interlude—Early Sorrows (1969)

20. in my ninth year I wrote my first poems . . .
21. From my mother I inherited a propensity . . .

Fourth Interlude—Hourglass (1972)

22. And it was not without significance . . .
23. My mother read novels until her twentieth year . . .
24. In 1947 we were repatriated by the Red Cross . . .
25. Immediately after we arrived . . .
26. I had to wait a year or two . . .
27. For two years I learned violin . . .
28. At the secondary school I continued to write . . .
29. We were taught Russian by White Army officers . . .

Fifth Interlude—A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (1976)

30. From the Gymnasium I entered the University . . .

Sixth Interlude—The Anatomy Lesson (1978)

31. As a lector for Serbo-Croatian . . .
32. For the last few years I have been living in Paris . . .

Seventh Interlude—The Encyclopaedia of the Dead (1983)

33 (1983)


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