Danilo Kiš, Early Sorrows (1969); Psalm 44 (1962)
September 2, 2012 § Leave a comment
What’s that? There isn’t any such street? Oh, but there must be, sir. Memories can’t possibly be so misleading.
Yes, before the war… There was a school on the corner and an artesian well in front of the school. I hope you don’t think I’m making it all up. I started out in that school; I went to kindergarten there. The teacher’s name was Miss Fanny. I can show you a picture of the whole class: that’s Miss Fanny, our teacher, and yes, the boy sitting next to her is me, Andreas Sam; then my sister Anna and Freddy Fuchs, the leader of our gang… Yes, it all comes back to me now, sir. The street must have been called Bem Street, because I was a member of the famous Bem Boys gang led by Freddy Fuchs (also known as Beanpole), a German or Volksdeutscher, as they were called in those days… Fantastic! Without our little talk I’d never have remembered the street’s name. Bem was a famous Polish general. From the forties. Does that ring a bell? Bem? Bem Street?… Oh, I see. How could you remember if you didn’t live here before the war. Though you might at least know if there’s a street lined with chestnut trees. They would bloom in spring and make the whole street smell a bit sickly, heavy, except after a rain, when the scent of the chestnut blossoms merged with the ozone and drifted all over the neighborhood.
But I have been going on, haven’t I? I’ll have to ask someone else who remembers it from before the war, when it was called Bem Street and lined with chestnut trees. (p. 15-16, Early Sorrows)
For tens of millions of European youth, World War II created a discontinuity point; there was before the war and after the war, with the during being understood more by its apparent breaks with either than by anything in common with either period. In several of Serbian writer Danilo Kiš’s fictions, “before the war” carries the sense of foreboding that goes far beyond the inconveniences that most of his age cohort suffered. For him, the war was a calamity that he revisited in two of his earlier fictions, 1962’s Psalm 44 and 1969’s Early Sorrows.
Psalm 44, one of Kiš’s two earliest novels (the other being The Attic, also published in 1962), is the more direct of the books reviewed here. Kiš utilizes some of the imagery from the titular psalm, such as the references to the mocking of nations, the pitiful byword by which the Jews became known, as like the psalm’s sheep they were led to the slaughter. Psalm 44 was a deeply autobiographical novel, as the events narrated resemble closely what Kiš experienced as a child: the massacre at Novi Sad, the forced expulsion of the Jews and those who had married Jews, the 1944 rounding up of his Jewish father (while Kiš’s own life was saved by his baptism into the Eastern Orthodox faith) and subsequent death at Auschwitz. In his later fictions, “the war” came to symbolize the real and metaphorical separation of the youth Kiš from the older, more troubled adult version.
In Psalm 44, these troubles are much more transparent. The images are raw, visceral, as the author pours so much of his own experiences into this short novel. But as the story of Jakob and Marija (based on Kiš’s parents) unfolds, Kiš’s narrative struggles at times to capture the full-borne intensity of their time at Auschwitz. No, that actually is not correct. If anything, in passages such as the one quoted below, the intensity becomes overwhelming, making it difficult to perceive the other themes that Kiš wants to explore: the faith in the midst of deceit; love surrounded by hate; kindness that is almost suffocated by cruelty. Here is part of Marija’s experiences as she tries to navigate through one of the camps and encounters another:
…in a gesture of despair he simply took the short pipe out of his mouth and she saw the way his austere gaze grew blurry and faded under his spectacles in their steel frame and then focused onto a painful, desperate decision (precisely, by the way, in the way she had foreseen this happening) until a speech burst out of him all at once flowing like water so that even now she was still wondering why he had spoken with so much intensity which had ensured that despite everything she remembered all of it, and which also meant that she must have really understood it all long beforehand: – “It is not the hatred of Negroes of Irish or of Jews that is at issue here, and it’s thus not an ethnic or racial or national collective or group that is at issue but rather it is simply human intolerance that is searching for a pretext in skin color or in customs or in anything else that is different from what is generally found in a given setting; it is the inherent and deeply rooted human passion (if not nature, which would perhaps be more exact and which is perhaps the most accurate means of description but I will not concede that to anyone not even to myself and least of all to you), the passion, that is, for mistreating and humiliating the person who otherwise is happily referred to as your neighbor; or else (most precisely of all perhaps): it is the atavism of the horde and of the animal that seeks to overpower and annihilate all other species and all other creatures and to establish dominion and that triumphs for the most ordinary and egotistical reasons (but not the reason you probably thought of right away I mean the so-called survival of the fittest) (that they also teach in schools supported by examples from biology and zoology) and to which one can give no other name than refined atavism, and it is something completely different and more beastly than any natural selection that is incidentally to be found to the same degree in humans as among animals; because if the struggle for the survival of our species were the only thing at stake here then injustice crime and violence would not be tolerated or would at least no be tolerated in the name of specific racist national principles and prejudices and people wouldn’t say A Negro or A Jewish child was killed but instead would say only A CHILD WAS KILLED and idiotic questions would not be posed about skin color or religion which help people reduce culpability or shed it altogether;… (p. 81-82)
By itself, this passage captures the heartache, anger, and even the breakdown of normal “rules” within its labyrinthine, pages-long sentence. Yet it is strangely unfocused when viewed within the context of the story itself. This is not the outpouring of Marija or Jakob, but instead the venting of another. While it eloquently captures a certain mood, it does so at the expense of the greater story. Psalm 44 is a brilliantly flawed novel. It foreshadows several of Kiš’s later themes regarding human life and their fallible societies and governments, but the prose here is too scattershot to distill these into more potent forms.
Yet by the time that Kiš wrote Early Sorrows, he had learned how to create simple yet effective scenes that did not distract readers from the themes he wanted to explore. Over the course of the interconnected stories, we see young Andreas Sam go from the carefree boy who is hired out to look after a rich neighbor’s cattle to a youth devastated by the war. We see this change, not just in Andreas, but also in companions such as Anna and Andy and Júlia, among others. The stories are short yet contain a bitterly-sharp edge. “Seranade for Anna” is barely two pages in length, but notice the juxtaposition of words and images in its first paragraphs:
I heard some noise under the window and thought they’d come to kill my father.
But then a violin called everything into question and calmed my fears. The person playing the violin under our window was no virtuoso, but he was clearly taken with my sister Anna. The violin had an all but human voice. Someone head over heels in love with the stars and my sister was singing shyly, but trying to make his voice sound as deep and virile as possible.
There is the impending horror of possible murder, but also the presence of adolescent love, with its attendant expressions through violin and masked voice. Scenes/stories such as this do not detract from Early Sorrows‘ devastating conclusion, but they instead enhance it because we are made more sensitive to the characters’ lives and travails. The horror of World War II and the Holocaust is not just the deaths and tortures of millions; taken by themselves, the numbers (5 million? 6 million? 9 million?) become as impersonal as the widely-imagined mass killings. Yet a deeper look shows the conflicted passions of youth, of the denied dreams and the horror of realizing that those with whom you had grown up were the ones carrying out the orders of expulsion, transportation, or even execution. This book works much better than its predecessor because Kiš utilizes a deceptively simpler voice to convey the profundity of the horrors that unfolded “during the war.” The callowness of the earlier chapters/stories has given way to something that is troubling and by us seeing this change through the points of views of the youth, we feel more involved in the story and thus ultimately we have invested so much that by the book’s end, we are devastated to see how “The Boy and the Dog” concludes. It captures in miniature a universality of emotion and response that it helps those who did not directly experience the horrors that Kiš did to understand just a bit more how childhood can represent our innocence and our fall from it. That perhaps sums up not just Early Sorrows, but much of Psalms 44 as well.