2005 saw the seventieth anniversary of the birth of Danilo Kiš. He died of lung cancer in 1989. I have several hundred photographs of him, and in the majority of them he has a cigarette in his hand. It’s quite possible he smoked till the very end. Though I may be wrong, because the last picture with a cigarette is from 1986. Reading his books, I can smell tobacco smoke. He was one of the great writers of the Serbian language, or, in those days still, the Serbo-Croatian language. Some even say he was the greatest.
In any case, a short while ago a conference devoted to his memory was held in Belgrade. I went.
Belgrade is an extraordinary city. We drove in from the northeast on a broad multi-lane highway across a bridge over the Danube. The city loomed on the horizon; it was starting to appear to us, but in some perverse way managed to postpone its own beginnings. Everything seemed in place, yet something was wrong. There are no billboards, said Krzysiek. He was sitting next to me in the car. He was right. There was nothing. We were entering a metropolis of two million people and on either side of the road there was grayness—grass, low-grade housing, sun-scorched bushes, and hardly any sign that we were coming into contemporary civilization. No billboards, no immense signs—there weren’t even any stores, showrooms, bathroom worlds, carpet kingdoms, no hypermarkets, no Ikeas, no Tescos, nothing. Belgrade was beginning without any ostentation. The air smelled of exhaust fumes from old Zastavas, Ladas, Yugos.
Once we crossed the bridge and were in the city things didn’t change much, except the traffic got worse and the buildings became taller. The same gray austerity prevailed, and the confusion intensified. On Kneza Miloša there was the skeleton of a multi-story building. You could see clearly where the bombs had passed through the floors one after another. Corroded reinforcing rods poked out of the shattered concrete. All around, everyday life was going on: cars were driving along, people were heading home from work. The street itself was quite elegant. It led toward the Parliament, and was lined by embassies. No one was doing anything about the ruin. Before the bombings the building had housed the general staff. Perhaps the Serbs had decided to leave it as a monument to Western barbarity. Right there in the embassy district, so the whole world should know.
The conference had been organized by the Center for Cultural Decontamination—a worthy non-governmental institution with a record of opposition to Milošević. In an empty hall a group of writers sat at a table, read texts about Danilo Kiš, and spoke of the significance his work held for them. The public sat on chairs in the hall. There were no more than twenty people. The whole event was watched over by the police. On the plain white walls there was an exhibition of photographs from Srebrenica. For example, long rows of identical coffins covered with green cloth. Or pits filled with a tangle of decomposing human bodies. That was why the police were guarding us. So nothing bad would happen either to us or to the exhibition. The famous “Srebrenica tape” had surfaced only a week or two before. Serbia was disquieted. Belgrade was once again unable to sleep. That was why a handful of writers and a handful of spectators was being protected by the police. Actually, in the evening, when the readings and roundtables were over and tables with food and wine were set up in the cool courtyard, the policemen mingled with the novelists, poets, and essayists, and everyone discreetly sipped a glass of wine or a beer together.
We read and spoke about Danilo Kiš amid photographs of hundreds of corpses and coffins. It was quite a natural setting in which to reflect on his writing. Undeserved death, people killed as victims of ideology, the perverseness of a history that feeds on human flesh—these were the themes he returned to obsessively. He devoted his books to them, and for them he invented a language of overwhelming power. It may be that, in dying of cancer in 1989, he was granted something in the nature of grace. He was spared what would come next. Had he lived he would have seen his own worst nightmares come true. Instead of his lungs failing him, he would probably have died from a failure of his heart, from a failure of his soul. But before that, as a full-blooded writer, he would have beautifully and pitilessly described that very death of his.
The last ten years of his life Kiš spent in Paris. His books were already well known both in Europe and in America. It can be said he was a world-famous writer. As he was leaving his homeland, it arranged a rather chilly farewell. His A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, published a year before his departure, was subjected to harsh criticism that had little to do with literary analysis: rather, it was based on politics and writerly envy. But when, a decade later, he was dying in Paris, he wanted to return to Yugoslavia. He—the child of a Hungarian Jewish father and a Montenegrin mother, a child who had lost his faith because he couldn’t understand how God could permit the endless suffering of his mother as she took three years to die of cancer—he wanted an Orthodox funeral and a burial in the cemetery in Belgrade. His wish was granted.
Belgrade is a strange city. A meeting aimed at honoring the memory of one of the greatest writers in the Serbian language is safeguarded by the Serbian police. Its participants feel a little like adherents of a forbidden cult meeting in the catacombs. Those sitting in the audience are mostly friends. On the walls are photographs of pits filled with human remains, but the presenters talk of the poetics, phonetics, and imagery of texts whose most important feature was precisely an account of the paranoia and depravity of a power that feeds on corpses and slaughter.