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Words that transcend the evil of the Holocaust

Garden, Ashes A Novel Danilo Kis Translated from the Serbo-Croatian by William J. Hannaher Dalkey Archive: 170 pp., $12.95 paper

October 19, 2003|Aleksandar Hemon | Aleksandar Hemon is the author of the novels "Nowhere Man" and "The Question of Bruno" and teaches at Northwestern University.

Let us not mince words here: Danilo Kis's "Garden, Ashes" is an unmitigated masterpiece, surely not just one of the best books about the Holocaust but also one of the greatest books of the last century. The fact that it went out of print is a sad testimony to the current American literary situation, but now it is back in all its splendor and sorrow.

Kis was born in 1935 (he died in 1989) in Subotica, a relatively prosperous town that was then in Yugoslavia, now in Serbia and Montenegro, close to the Hungarian border. This fact is relevant for the understanding of "Garden, Ashes," as Subotica fell under Hungarian control with the German attack on Yugoslavia in April 1941. The position of Hungarian Jews, like Kis's father, in the Holocaust was unique: Despite an occasional pogrom (such as the one in Novi Sad in 1942, to which references can be found in "Garden, Ashes," as well as in "Hourglass" and "Psalm 44," Kis's other novels in his "family cycle") and common anti-Semitism, the far-right regime of Adm. Miklos Horthy avoided full participation in the Final Solution until 1944, when Horthy was replaced by the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian Nazis. Soviet forces were rapidly advancing toward Budapest, and the Arrow Cross, with the help of the Germans, started shipping off Hungarian Jews to death camps. (Adolf Eichmann visited Budapest in 1944 to speed up the genocide.) Thus, the last trains arriving in Auschwitz consisted largely of Hungarian Jews. On one of those trains was Kis's father.

Kis's work is a supreme example of the tragic impossibility of separating the personal and the historical, particularly in the lives of people who cannot afford the illusion that history can be run as if it were a profitable corporation. Eduard Scham, the father in "Garden, Ashes," ends up on the same train to Auschwitz as Kis's father. One could easily, and lazily, conclude that the story of "Garden, Ashes," the story of the tragic wanderings of the Scham family, is a concealed memoir, a confessional project intent on conveying how Kis may have "felt" as a "victim" of the Holocaust.

But what makes "Garden, Ashes" a masterpiece is that, rather than being merely personal and thus descriptive, it is profoundly transformative. That is to say, even if Kis starts from a personal space, the experience of the Holocaust is transformed into a literary experience; it is reconstituted as simultaneously personal, historical and literary. Of course, the Holocaust changed not only the way a person thought of himself or herself but also the way in which we think of literature, for the Holocaust was an unprecedented historical event, and nothing has been the same since, particularly literature. The form and the content of "Garden, Ashes" are also transformative, continually affecting each other until there is nothing but the organic unity of a literary experience.

If one is forced to declare what "Garden, Ashes" is about -- such declaration always violates a work of art -- one would have to say that it is about the relation between imagination and history, between poetry and genocide. To the well-known question of whether poetry is possible after the Holocaust, Kis answers a resounding "yes!" -- indeed, not just possible but inescapably necessary. But poetry-literature after the Holocaust is unavoidably transformed and transformative because it has to use imagination to understand the unimaginable and, to do this, it has to acknowledge the failure of imagination in the face of a horror as enormous as the Holocaust. One has to write with humility if one is to restore the possibility of human history and humanistic literature, starting, as it were, from scratch, from the smallest things.

Thus Kis opens "Garden, Ashes" with something small, with a tray, as though offering his enormous talent on it. The narrator's mother carries the tray, with a jar of honey and a bottle of cod liver oil, along with "the amber hues of sunny days, thick concentrates full of intoxicating aromas." Kis goes beyond the content and gives us a nearly microscopic description of the form of the tray, with "a raised rim" and flaky patches of nickel that look like "tin foil pressed out under fingernails." There are "tiny decorative protuberances -- a whole chain of little metallic grapes" on the outer edge of the rim, which can be felt "like Braille letters, under the flesh of the thumb." And around those grapes, "ringlike layers of grease had collected, barely visible, like shadows cast by little cupolas."

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