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Forty years ago this month, a slight-looking volume of stories was published in the state now referred to as the former Yugoslavia. The book was published to some success: the critics were won over and it sold in good numbers.
There was nothing in June that would suggest that this book would go on to cause one of the most lengthy and bitter literary battles in twentieth century Europe. He deployed this method to even greater effect in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich. The stories are mini biographies, neat and concise. Each tell the story of an individual devoted to a political ideology, primarily the type of communism purported by Stalin and the regimes of the Soviet states, and who go on to be murdered by the very same ideology in which they believe.
At the time it was audibly praised by the likes of Susan Sontag and in later years, writers such as William T.
Vollman and Aleksandar Hemon have championed it. Imagine all the major literary critics in the UK being pushed into two opposing camps and then hurling comment pieces at each other, ratcheting up the attack with each article, over a period of many months.
This is essentially what the publication of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich generated following its publication in Yugoslavia. It is a technique that has a long legacy in literature — and is entirely valid. Then in he published a collection of essays on the subject called The Anatomy Lesson. Some believe that it even had an impact on his health — leading indirectly to his early death in There had, of course, been a great deal more behind the scandal than the simple charge of plagiarism.
Yugoslavia was a small country, where jealousy and rivalry was rife, especially among small cultural cliques. His writing also bore the hallmarks of modernism and experimentalism, it blurred fact and fiction — and it was unlike most of the work being published in his home country at that time.
This was frowned upon by a number of his contemporaries in Yugoslavia. Below the surface, however, the stories are critical of something more insidious than Stalinism. Each tale warns us about the perils of totalitarian rule — irrespective of its political leanings — and warns us of the danger of signing up unquestioningly to an all consuming ideology — whether that ideology is Nazism, Stalinism or Communism, political or religious.
In many ways the critics were right to be suspicious but not necessarily for the reasons that they cited. Today, the once infamous case of Boris Davidovich is consigned to the dustbin of Cold War history, forgotten by many in the former Yugoslav states and basically unheard of outside of them. Both men consider A Tomb for Boris Davidovich one of his masterpieces.
He was also the victim of bad timing: he died just a year before the war broke out in Yugoslavia and put his home country in the international spotlight. Then he died and there was no more work — just posterity. As the novelist William T. The writing is unforgettable too. The girl lay in the mire by the bank among the knobby stalks of water willows.
Breathing heavily, she tried to straighten up, but no longer to escape. As he plunged his short Bukovina knife with the rosewood handle into her breast, Miksha, sweaty and gasping, could barely make out a word or two from the quivering, muffled, choking onrush of syllables that reached him through the slush, blood and screams.
His stabs were quick now, inflicted with self-righteous hate which gave his arm impetus. Through the clacking of the train wheels and the muffled thunder of the iron trestle, the girl began, before the death rattle, to speak — in Romanian, in Polish, in Ukrainian, in Yiddish, as if her death were only the consequence of some great and fatal misunderstanding rooted in the Babylonian confusion of language.
The scene is jaw-dropping, both because of its violence and its beauty. These are stories that make you think, and think again. Stories that emotionally floor you. Stories that leave you breathless and wanting more. Stories that make you consider the nature of history itself. It is a dangerous, unfriendly place, and no one is truly safe. Sign up for free to get first access to tickets. Free to join. The perks. Sign up. Already a Member?
Sign in here. More than meets the eye There had, of course, been a great deal more behind the scandal than the simple charge of plagiarism. The horror of the Soviet gulag is at the heart of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich Below the surface, however, the stories are critical of something more insidious than Stalinism.
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A Tomb for Boris Davidovich
In seven short stories about revolutionaries, Danilo Kis explores the dark and terrible underbelly of the Revolution, its betrayals and deceits and its destruction of its own. Set against a common background of prisons and labor camps and interrogations, in and around the Russian Revolution and Stalin's purges, the stories describe protagonists crushed by totalitarian "justice", sometimes blindly and sometimes with malice, and forced to betray themselves and others. Kis' stories have something of the feel of biographies, with references to real or imaginary sources or the absence thereof , and everything in them is based on historical figures and events. The little details Kis marshalls are particularly compelling and the stories, though they sometimes appear unstructured, are artfully put together. Despite the loose coupling — the stories are linked by incidental references to characters — the overall collection also forms a coherent work.
Faction or Fiction in 'A Tomb for Boris Davidovich': The Literary Affair
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Danilo Kis was born on February 22, in Subotica, a small town north of Serb. He moved to Hungary during World War 2. He attended the University of Belgrade where he studied General and Comparative Literature and graduated in He wrote for the Vidici Magazine. He wrote novels, essays and poetry.