I was first introduced to the joys of what is probably termed “world” literature within the UK when I used to go into the bookshop at Winchester as a teenage schoolboy. I had an account there, for some reason, and I was able, if I did so responsibly, to spend my grandfather’s money on books. The books which caught my attention, which got me really reading, were the Picadors. With their perfect spines. Calvino, Brautigan, Pynchon, Marquez. Picador were, at that time, the publisher which opened the doorway to an international library. I still have many of those books, stashed away in boxes at my parents’ home. One day they will come out and strut their stuff again, perhaps.
I thought about Picador, reading Kis’ fractured novel/ short story collection. The more you read, the more you start to wonder about the editorial choices of publishing houses. This is not necessarily a criticism of Picador who did and still do a good job, but Kis is one of those authors whose work seems to have been crying out to be published and be better known, not just now but thirty years ago. This book was originally published in 1976. Solzhenitsyn garnered the prizes, justifiably so, for his immense works about the Soviet empire. But Kis’ book offers a drier, more measured corrective. Here he presents seven characters, from varied backgrounds, all of whom will founder on the rock of Stalinism. The seven characters all have their flaws as well as their virtues. All are stout adherents to the political philosophy which will ultimately destroy them. This fact lends an instant level of pathos to their stories. Furthermore, it means that Kis surgically unmasks the realities of Stalinism, something which in his native Serbia, like much of the rest of the world, was a truth people were still reluctant to face.
The absence of rancour in Kis’ prose and the obvious pleasure he takes in writing, ensure that this never feels like a judgmental book. It is a scalpel, rather than a hammer (or a sickle), making sly incisions in its subject’s flesh. Coming from a Communist state himself, the clarity of his thought would seem to suggest, (as perhaps in the early work of another Yugoslav, Kustirica), that Communism is a system which should not be entirely damned, if it can produce minds like this. The elegance of the links which hold the book together, the stories criss-crossing, implying a novel which is barely there, matches the beauty of the writing. It feels worthwhile quoting from the titular story, as this passage both sums up the premise of Kis’ book and also shows off his remarkable talent:
“The ancient Greeks had an admirable custom: for anyone who perished by fire, was swallowed by a volcano, buried by lava, torn to bits by beasts, devoured by sharks, or whose corpse was scattered by vultures in the desert, they built so-called cenotaphs, or empty tombs, in their homelands; for the body is only fire, water or earth, whereas the soul is the Alpha and Omega, to which a shrine should be erected.”
It is a mystery to me why this writer is not more widely known. Perhaps there is something ephemeral about his work. He lacks the great lumpen-novel to which greatness is so frequenly ascribed. But Kis demonstrates a subtlety and a rigour which denotes him as one of the finest chroniclers of that historical footnote, Eastern European Communism, as well as belonging to a vanguard, alongside the likes of Cortazar, for a new literature which is both more personal and more oblique. One where the voice of the author bristles, but whose stories resist the grand narrative arcs so frequently demanded by the Western literary tradition.