The collapse of the USSR was the best thing that ever happened to American and western European opera houses. In a parallel fashion, the fall of the walls between East and West has enabled us to 'discover' a wealth of literature - some of it suppressed previously - of unexpected brilliance. Yugoslavian writer Danilo Kis (1935-1989) is a prime example.
"Garden, Ashes" is anything but a 'novel' in the usual English-literature sense. Even the most perspicacious reader will be hard pressed to assemble a plot from it, or to impose any chronology on it. The jumble of childhood memories, the syntax of dreams, the exciting confusion of an old photo album in which the pictures have fallen out of order and lost their labels -- those are the compositional rules of Garden, Ashes. Yes, it's possible to declare, on the book cover, that Kis has written a semi-autobiographical tale of his childhood in World War II Yugoslavia, with his demented father and family, and at times the child narrator reveals his age - nine, eleven - and attaches names to his people, his own being Andi Scham. Yes, the family is oddly endangered, forced to flee, afflicted with poverty and hunger. But no, this is not another Holocaust tale, or if it is, the boy Andi didn't experience it as such. For him, it was an adventure toward a heroic deed, the mastery of Death, the ability to control and indefinitely postpone Death - his own death, of course - through fantasy and fantastical redefinition of all perceptions. Don't expect to be able to articulate where the boy Andi emerged as the Author Danilo; they are simultaneous. Memory for both is the shadow of onrushing Death. Eleven-year-old Andi already mourns for the past he will remember when he sits down to write as thirty-year-old Kis; near the end of the book, he says: "And so, gradually and quite unconsciously, my mother poisoned me with her reminiscences, nurturing in me a passion for old photographs and mementos, for soot and patina. A victim of this sentimental education, I yearned along with her for the days that would never come back, for ethereal journeys and faded landscapes..." Soot and patina! That's a succinct description of the 'affect' of this lovely, agonizing meditation on a boy's realization of mortality, of the sluggish brevity of life.
I have no idea how splendid Kis's prose may be in his native language, but in this translation by William Hannaher it comes out as lyric poetry as fine as that of Nabokov or McEwan. Read it aloud to yourself, if you have the time. Trust me, death and starvation notwithstanding, this is an exhilarating book, a paean to vivid perceptions.