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Remembering Danilo Kis

Oct 17th, 2008 | By | In Books, Weekend

Danilo Kis by Popovic
Portrait of Danilo Kis from the web site dedicated to him (in Serbian)

Danilo Kis Passed Away 19 Years Ago

Brilliant novelist, essayist and translator, one of Serbia’s best and most translated writers, Danilo Kis has passed away on October 15, 1989, in Paris. According to his will, he was buried in Belgrade, by the Serbian Orthodox burial rites.

Immensely gifted, Kis was born in 1935 in Subotica, northern Serbian town in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, to a Hungarian Jewish father and Serbian mother. His family house was brimming with fertile atmosphere of Judaism and Orthodox Christianity, a mixture of Hungarian and Serbian culture. He was a writer of vast energy and erudition, of richly layered cultural, historical and linguistic heritages seamlessly weaved into powerful human drama.

Of his Serbian/Jewish/Hungarian heritage, Kis wrote:

“Those two faiths … and the awareness of the dual belonging was like a shock, especially after the war. On the one hand, the epic tradition of the Serbian heroic ethos, passed on to me by my mother, along with the bitter Balkan reality, and on the other, a middle-European literature and decadent and baroque Hungarian poems. Into this mixture, made of clashes and contradictions, my Jewish being will get involved, not in a religious sense, but in the essentially cultural optics, as a researcher.”

A member of the Serbian Academy of Science and Art (SANU) and a recipient of the French Order of the Knight of Arts and Literature, Kis mirrored the strong influence of the highly multi-ethnic and multi-religious surroundings of his hometown and Serbia in general.

Danilo Kis
Danilo Kis, 1935-1989

Baptized into Serbian Orthodox Church in 1939, Kis was shaped as a writer by the German Nazi occupation and a devastating personal blow that affected his childhood and the rest of his life — passing of his father Eduard who was taken to Auschwitz in 1944, from which he never returned.

“The first poem I wrote — I had nine years then — had hunger for the subject, while the second, more or less at the same time, had the subject of love. There, that’s the scenario: agony, persecution, death.. is still the foundation of my work”, Kis wrote in The Bitter Residue of Experience.

After the war, in 1947, with the help of charity organization, Danilo, his mother Milica and sister Danica were given a house in Cetinje, where he finished high school in 1954. He graduated at the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade, in 1958, as the first graduate at Department of History of the World Literature, with Literary Theory. Two years later, he finished the post-graduate studies.

Kis’ first two novels “Mansarda” and “Psalm 44″ were published in 1962, by the Belgrade-based Kosmos, novel “Garden, Ashes” was published in 1965, collection of stories “Early Sorrows (For Children and Sensitive Readers)” in 1969.

For the novel published in 1972, “Hourglass”, Kis received NIN award which he returned several years later. One of his probably best crafted, masterfully written collection of stories “A Tomb for Boris Davidovich” was published in 1976. Kis’ polemics book “The Anatomy Lesson” was published in 1978.

He published his masterpiece, “Encyclopedia of the Dead”, collection of stories that crowned his work, in 1984. Already ill, he was translating Lautréamont, Verlaine, Queneau’s “Exercises in Style” and edits his early translations the same year. He was teaching Serbian language and literature in France, at the universities of Strasbourg, Lille and Bordeaux.

He was also a recipient of a number of national and international awards for his prose and poetry.

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