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Birth Certificate: The Story of Danilo Kis [Hardcover]

Mark Thompson
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 19, 2013 0801448883 978-0801448881 1

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


"How can one restore justice to Danilo Kiš? That is the task for Kiš'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 Kiš’s life and works. . . . [Thompson's] book is also remarkable for its attention to the detail of Kiš’s fiction. This is a great biography of the work as much as the life."—Adam Thirlwell, Times Literary Supplement (October 9, 2013)

"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 (October 2013)

"Mark Thompson's biography of Danilo Kiš takes its cue from Hourglass. . . Thompson interrogates Kiš’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 Kiš’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 Kiš and an excellent book in its own right."—Chris Miller, PN Review (April 2014)

"Mark Thompson's biography of Danilo Kiš is a beautifully written work of connoisseurship and homage."—Peter Craven, The Australian (April 2014)

"[An] invigorating biography of Kis—a spirited interweaving of life, literary championing, and critical analysis. . . . Thompson's book, lovingly researched, stimulatingly constructed, subtly and passionately written, panoptically reflecting Kis's contradictions, is a resurrection of (Kundera's words) a 'great and invisible' talent."—Julian Evans, The Independent (London)

"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 (17 December 2012)

"Yugoslav writer Danilo Kiš (1935-1989) may not be well-known to American-Jewish readers, but this ambitious biography at least offers a context for understanding Kiš'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

"This is the genre of biography transformed. Mark Thompson is equal to the great elusive task of creating the life of an unclassifiable genius, Danilo Kis."—Nadine Gordimer

"This is a fascinating biography: retracing the life of the great European writer Danilo Kis and rereading his prose has led to a volume that can be viewed as an indispensable—and very well written—book about the complex relationship between history and literature in Central and Eastern Europe. Mark Thompson's competence in this field is breathtaking."—Adam Zagajewski

"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

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.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 372 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press; 1 edition (March 19, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801448883
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801448881
  • Product Dimensions: 10.2 x 7.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #524,659 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I recently read "A Tomb for Boris Davidovich" by Danilo Kis. It was such a distinctive, powerful work that I had a strong urge to read more of his fiction and know more about him. Accordingly, I read his earlier novel, "Garden, Ashes", which is quite different in style from "Boris Davidovich" but equally memorable. "Boris Davidovich" tackles Stalinist totalitarianism and the Gulag, whereas "Garden, Ashes" deals with the Holocaust and the Nazi destruction of Central European civilization and culture. I have now gone on to read BIRTH CERTIFICATE, which is a biography of sorts of Danilo Kis (b. 1935, d. 1989), although it is to conventional biography what "Boris Davidovich" and "Garden, Ashes" are to conventional fiction.

Kis was born in Subotica, now in Serbia, to a Jewish (albeit non-observant) father of Hungarian nationality and a mother of the Eastern Orthodox faith from Montenegro. He was baptized into the Eastern Orthodox religion, which probably saved his life during an anti-Jewish pogrom in Novi Sad in 1942. His father and most of his father's family, however, died in Auschwitz in 1944. After the end of World War II, his mother took him and his sister to her hometown, Cetinje, Montenegro, which by then was part of Yugoslavia. Kis went to college in the 1950's in Belgrade, and for most of the remainder of his life he resided in either Belgrade or Paris.

The two defining political characteristics of Kis were that he was anti-communist and, perhaps even more unusual for the ethnic stew of Yugoslavia, he was anti-nationalist. As a writer, he recognized that "the literary and the literal were in contradiction", and he worried about how, in light of that, to convey in his fiction the truth in all its nuanced complexity.
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How to speak about the unspeakable? Kis's brilliant answer is a triumph of reconstruction along the lines of Borges and Kafka but without the abstraction of either. Thompson's book is superb--a must read for anyone wanting to approach an understanding of the 20th century.
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5.0 out of 5 stars serious study September 29, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
this is not only the story of Danilo Kis, but a story of Balkans in 20. century, result of serous research, thoroughly done
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