To convey the magical consternation, lyrical mayhem, structural pyrotechnics, dithyrambic drunkenness of Danilo Kis` stories approaches the impossible. Few writers manage to confuse, baffle and simultaneously illuminate and enrapture their readers as does this sadly underappreciated Serbian genius of letters. While the least problematic border crossing into Danilo-land is with his excellent collection of short fiction, `Encyclopedia of the Dead,` his novel, `garden ashes,` ultimately rewards the dogged hunter of enriching literary experiences.
The story of `garden, ashes` is straightforward enough: a young boy in 1940`s Hungary recounts the ominous days before the Second World War and more precisely, the Holocaust, arrived on his family's doorstep. Andreas Scham, second child of a doting Montenegrin mother and eccentric Jewish father unravels his family narrative as gypsy-like, they ramble from hamlet to hamlet in the Serbian Hungarian borderlands in an attempt to keep one step ahead of the increasingly virulent anti-Semitic authorities of Admiral Horthy`s Hungary. Like in other Kis works (notably the `Hourglass`), the specter of the Holocaust is never directly addressed but hovers over the narrative like a vulture over carrion. Instead, `garden, ashes` is one boy's attempt to understand and eventually come to love a father as distant and terrifying as some god and as ridiculously pitiful as some circus clown. That we know where Andreas` journey will ultimately end makes the narrative all the more powerful.
Andreas Scham approaches his father with a mixture of awe and fear for Eduard Scham is one singular character. Half-village drunkard, half-village philosopher, Eduard Scham roams the local taverns for weeks on end frightening the denizens with his brilliant soliloquies and boisterous singing. When not in a pub, Eduard spends his nights traversing the local forest in pantheistic commune with the trees and flowers. Eduard Scham's singular achievement outside of his progeny is his monumental tome,` Bus, Ship, Rail and Air Travel Guide,` which he has been revising in various editions over the years. In it, Mr. Scham hopes to illuminate the world to its global interconnectedness by showing the infinitesimal connections between place and travel mode.
Needless to say, Andreas` father is something of an oddball to his fellow villagers and family alike. Despite having to retrieve his father from ditches, meadows and front yards after nights of carousing, Andreas is nonetheless captivated by his enigmatic father. Moreover, Eduard`s stature in his son`s eyes grows as a result of his `heroic` confrontations with local authorities. One of `garden`s` most poignant and humorous scenes in when Eduard is accosted by local villagers, in particular by members of its fascist vigilante group, The Village Christian Youth. Frightened that Mr. Scham's Pan-like romps in the local woods are a secret cover for illicit communications with Allied bombers, the thugs plan a lynch party. In order to thwart their brutish plan, Mr. Scham launches into one of his usual soliloquies on how such mob violence would actually fulfill his deepest desires. He would become the first and founding martyr of his new creed. "Gentlemen, carry out your plan as soon as possible...enthrone by your act the first saint and martyr of the Religion of the Future." Not only does Eduard`s sophisticated rhetoric go right over the heads of the yokels, his oratory is tapped out with a little jig as he fights back an attack of fear-provoked incontinency.
While scenes of such pathos and dark humor occur throughout `garden, ashes,` its deadly serious theme is never forgotten. Yet, actual references to the Holocaust and all its incomprehensible and nefarious machinery are all but left out. Auschwitz is mentioned only once by name as is an oblique word about cattle cars, but there are no gas chambers, crematoriums, selection lines, sadistic guards here. Instead, Kis sails a subtler tack, and thereby makes the impending abomination all the more foreboding and terrifying. It lurks above every page like some dark cloud.
For example, when the local Jews are given notice to collect their belongings and head for specified staging areas, everything is treated as normal. One of Eduard`s neighbors, the wealthy shopkeeper, Mr. Rhinewine, has carts packed with everything from a steel sink to his entire assortment of farm animals. Kis makes a darkly irreverent comparison with Noah`s situation but for many of the Holocaust`s victims, `death camp` was beyond the pale of imagination. Orders to gather one`s belongings and move into ghettoes and assembly areas seemed innocuous enough. Eduard, the clown philosopher, shows rare insight into the tragedy looming on the horizon. Asked by Mr. Rhinewine where his belongings are, he responds with the prophetic,"Omnia mea mecum porto!" All I have is with me.
While dark humor and even darker irony make `garden, ashes` hard to put down, its real treat lies in its language. William Hannaher`s translation is simply delightful. It captures the constant flow and lyrical melody of Kis` miraculous prose. In fact, to call Kis` wordcraft, `prose` is misleading. Like `Hourglass,` `garden, ashes` is really one giant narrative poem with lyrical interludes on every page. Every other sentence contains delectable metaphors and witty allusions much like those found in the work of Kis` idol, Borges.
That said though, reading Kis` prose can be a mind-boggling and draining task. Often times I felt lost among the metaphorical jungle and struggled to recapture the narrative thread. In fact, `garden, ashes` doesn`t really have a narrative thread per say; instead, it is just like its true author, Andreas Scham, would have it: a collection of dream-like anecdotes and rediscovered memories strung together by a boy searching for his father. Those who dare to join Andreas on his journey will not be disappointed.