A TOMB FOR BORIS DAVIDOVICH explores the nightmarish lives of six characters--a tailor/butcher, an idealist, a communist party functionary, a murdered doctor, a revolutionary, and a mediocrity--in Stalin's Soviet Union. For each character, Kis creates a completely convincing short story, showing the brutality, arbitrary power, and weird logic of Stalin's police state, where a wasted life is nothing. Meanwhile, the seventh story in TOMB is the testimony of a Jewish scholar at an Inquisitional court in the 1300s. In the story's end note, Kis claims he found this testimony, another exploration of arbitrary brutality and twisted logic, in the Vatican Library.
Kis's achievement in TOMB is not easy to convey. There's some cynical humor in the book, especially as Kis tells the story of a cuckolding communist functionary who impersonates a priest. And, the story of a mediocre poet, who survived in Stalin's Russia while achieving a pathetic notoriety, actually ends with a LOL pun. But mostly, these stories are hair-raising demonstrations of brutality and capricious disaster and are completely persuasive. For this, I'm strangely grateful, since I'm a comfortable liberal American WASP (who grew up in the Midwest, no less). So, for me, the blasé systemic viciousness that's so real in these stories is--thank goodness--beyond my experience and even imagining. The content of TOMB is truly revelatory.
This book's title story, A TOMB FOR BORIS DAVIDOVICH, shows why the world still needs fiction. While Stalin's Soviet Union is hardly my subject, I have wondered about the show trials and their confessions. My question: Is torture the only reason innocent people cooperate in their executions? Well, in this story, Kis explores the intricate game that the interrogator and prisoner play, showing how ego and principle intertwine to create a bizarre yet logical pseudo legal process that offers oddly meaningful incentives to the condemned. It's fabulous work that animates otherwise incomprehensible history.
As an exploration and indictment of life in a totalitarian political system, I'd put TOMB on the same elite level as Nabokov's BEND SINISTER. It's not as elegant. But it's more brutal and just as powerful. Highly recommended.