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 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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About 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.
"How can one restore justice to Danilo Kis? That is the task for Kis's future reader - and one way to begin, now that this reader has Mark Thompson's comprehensive, erudite and stylish new biography, is to rehearse the basic outline of Kis's life and works.... [Thompson's] book is also remarkable for its attention to the detail of Kis's fiction. This is a great biography of the work as much as the life."--Adam Thirlwell "Times Literary Supplement"
"Mark Thompson's biography of Danilo Kis takes its cue from Hourglass... Thompson interrogates Kis's rather misleading autobiographical fragment, 'Birth Certificate, ' phrase by phrase, to generate an exemplary account of his life and works.... Thompson is more than equal to these tasks... I can hardly speak too highly of this biography. Its organization is impeccable: a great deal of information must be imparted to make Kis's circumstances clear, and this is done in relatively short chapters with impeccable lucidity and many helpful cross-references.... This is a fascinating and comprehensive introduction to the life and work of Danilo Kis and an excellent book in its own right."--Chris Miller "PN Review"
"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.... Thompson, 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."-- "Publishers Weekly"
""Yugoslav writer Danilo Kis 1935-1989 may not be well-known to American-Jewish readers, but this ambitious biography at least offers a context for understanding Kis's very real contributions to Jewish/Serbo-Croatian letters....Anyone interested in modern Eastern European literature, particularly the role of Jewish writers, will find this biography important reading."-Jewish Book Council"
"Even if I'm on the jury or the shortlist I deprecate literary prizes because they tend to endorse current tastes. This year, however, the Shannon Prize (which my university awards annually for the best work on an aspect of European culture) went to one of the most impressive, innovative, sensitive biographies I have ever read. Mark Thompson'sBirth Certificate(Cornell) conjures, daringly and deftly, the Montenegrin iconoclast, Danilo Kis, and the political environment he inhabited - Communist, nationalist, cruel, distasteful, and yet navigable by a writer of genius. Thompson builds his picture from fragments of a demolished world with unfailing command of the evidence and unflagging fidelity to a moral stance as challenging as uncompromising as Kis's own."--Felipe Fernandez-Armesto "Times Literary Supplement "Books of the Year""
"British writer Thompson pays homage to one of the 20th century's most innovative and difficult writers in the very form of this immense autobiography that simultaneously moonlights as an attempt to rekindle interest in Kis's work and as a cultural history of Jews in south central Europe... he ultimately succeeds brilliantly by using this patchwork approach to put Kis and his works into a wide range of contexts. Given that translations of Kis's work are vanishing from print, this study makes a compelling plea to reverse that trend. Summing Up: Recommended."-- "Choice"
"Birth Certificate: The Story of Danilo Kis by British historian Mark Thompson is a brilliant guide to the biography of the Serbian writer Danilo Kis.... This work serves as a hermeneutic key for interpreting Kis's writings through the prism of circumstances in his life. Birth Certificate may be considered as a collection of historical, literary and philosophical comments."-- "European History Quarterly"