Tomb For Boris Davidovich Paperback – Jul 1 1980
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"A portrait of a country and a people in turmoil, of how Communism both creates and devours its sons." -- Publishers Weekly
"An absolutely first-rate book, one of the best things I've ever seen on the whole experience of communism. . . ." -- Irving Howe
"Kis is one of the major writers of the second half of the century. . . . Kis preserves the honor of literature." -- Susan Sontag, Partisan Review --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
About the Author
William T. Vollmann is the author of seven novels, three collections of stories, and a seven-volume critique of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. He is also the author of Poor People, a worldwide examination of poverty through the eyes of the impoverished themselves; Riding Toward Everywhere, an examination of the train-hopping hobo lifestyle; and Imperial, a panoramic look at one of the poorest areas in America. He has won the PEN Center USA West Award for Fiction, a Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize and a Whiting Writers' Award. His journalism and fiction have been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, Spin and Granta. Vollmann lives in Sacramento, California. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Danilo Kis was born in Serbia in 1935 to a Hungarian Jewish father and Montenegrin Serbian mother. His father perished in the Holocaust. Kis died of cancer in 1990 at age 55. As noted in an excellent introduction by the writer, poet and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky, publication of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich in Yugoslavia in 1976 created a firestorm in Belgrade similar to the controversies that flared up when Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in the USSR during Khrushchev's thaw. The book was savaged by the Yugoslav writer's union. As Brodsky notes in one memorable line, "there are several topics an author may deal with which can jeopardize his well-being, and history is one of them". The controversy, standing alone, may justify reading Tomb for Boris Davidovich. I am pleased to report that these stories are so well-constructed and laden with meaning that it would be worth reading even if its publication had been greeted with equanimity by the apparatchiks that manned the Yugoslav writers' union.
The seven stories that comprise Danilo Kis' A Tomb for Boris Davidovich have a few elements in common. Each involves a protagonist from a different country, Ireland, Hungary, Rumania, Poland, or Russia. In effect, each protagonist comes from a nation or a group that participated in the Comintern (the Soviet led Third International that coordinated the worldwide activities of various Communist organizations established by Lenin in 1919). Each gets swept up in the machinations that swirled around the Soviet Union's Great Terror of the 1930s. Each ends up either dead or in the Gulag.
With one exception each of the stories takes places in the 1930s. The one exception, "Dogs and Books" is set in 14th-century France at the time of the inquisition. Although that story seems out of place, when one compares the structure and fact-pattern of this story to the title story of the book one can only be struck by the obvious similarities between the methods and mind-set of the inquisitors and the methods and mind-sets of the interrogator in the story Tomb for Boris Davidovich.
The title story is also jarring because it contains many of the same themes set out in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. In the context of a short story, the brevity and terseness of Kis' language makes the telling of the story considerably more powerful in some respects than Koestler's novel length telling of a similar tale. Even if a reader feels that Kis' story does not quite match Koestler's, the fact that the comparison can be made with a straight face is high praise.
Last, Tomb for Boris Davidovich should be of great interest to anyone interested in the work of the great Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges. The structure and theme of Tomb for Boris Davidovich was intended by Kis to be part of a literary polemic between Kis and Borges, specifically concerning the title of Borge's Universal History of Infamy. Kis discusses this literary exchange in one of his essays. In it he asserted that the universal infamies related by Borges were those of gangsters, pirates and highwaymen. Kis argues that as far as infamy was concerned, "infamy is when in the name of the idea of a better world for which whole generations have perished, in the name of a humanistic idea, you build camps and destroy both people and their most intimate drams of a better world."
In many respects, Tomb for Boris Davidovich may be considered as an exquisitely crafted attempt to construct a literary monument to those who died (perhaps naively and foolishly) and for whom bells never rang and for whom the widows have long since stopped weeping.
What was so incriminating in that book, that communist party simply had to make that move? When one starts to question revollution, when one starts to question necessity of one voice-one peolpe doctrine, when one sees in "fight of the oppressed" just a certain kind of tragedy, human misery that has been manifesting repeatedly through human existene, one must become "enemy of the state". And that has not changed up until today, nor it will. But that is the story for some other place and time.
There is much of J.L. Borges influence in this work, especially in the short stoy called "Dogs and books", but you mustn't think that this is Borgesian "collection" of stories. These work are much less artistic (whatever that means) and much more they resemble reality, life itself, than Borges work does.
By telling the story of seven individuals, the lived their life in a countries rich with political struggles, Danilo Kis draws excellent portrait oh human ability to endure, and even so, to somehow fail miserably and be forever gone from this world.
Why the four stars? I was hearing so much of this book, and when I finally read it, it somehow dissapointed me, probably was expecting to much, or maybe is just that, taht I have failed to grasp entire meaning of the novel. So, better to read it again :) If you looked for great writer from, Mid-Southern Europe, Kis is the one you could deffinitely start with.
This short book is physically frightening, nightmare material, and its power is all the more awful because it is authentically universal. It's not merely another indictment of the police state, of the slaughters committed by Lenin and Stalin, of the archipelago of terror that was "the Other Europe" for most of the 20th Century. That becomes totally explicit in the chapter entitled 'Dogs and Books', which transcribes the documentary reports of a forced conversion of Jews to Christianity in France in 1330, a perfect parallel gulag tragedy of torture and murder in the name of righteous certainty. The moral is clear: believers make good killers.
"A Tomb for Boris Davidovitch" is an series of interlocking capsule biographies of "revolutionaries" who are almost all slaughtered in their own cause by other revolutionaries of their own 'faith.' It is written with phosphorus flare intensity and such authenticity that the reader can't be bothered to wonder where 'facts' end and imagination begins. For once, the acclaim for a book from the "other Europe" is completely justified. This little book will outlast its time and place, and all of us.
As I said above, the universality of Danilo Kis's portrayal of ideological inhumanity is what raises his work beyond that of Solzhenitzyn and others. What happens in the seven tales of this book is unimaginably hideous but obviously real. My amazon avatar, Giordano Bruno, could testify: he was kidnapped and imprisoned in a cold stone dungeon in Rome for seven years; then he was given a final mock trial, tortured, sentenced to death. His jaw was nailed shut to prevent him from speaking to the crowds, and he was burned alive in the Campo dei Fiori.
Besides the chapter Kis devotes to the Inquisition, he might have included another about the Reign of Terror. I'd rush to read such a book about Danton and Robespierre, and the true believers in their purity of doctrine. But there's NO need to reach back before 1976, the year "A Tomb" was published in Yugoslavia; the cascading events of the Reagan-through-Bush II governments -- the post-Cold War moral catastrophes that have pinnacled in Guantanamo -- need the perspicacity and courage of an American Danilo Kis to depict them. It's impossible to read this book without reconfiguring its events around the CIA. The portrait of "the Father of the Country" that hung in the Church of Saint Sophia worn the same smirk of certainty as Oliver North or Dick Cheney.
In his native land this book caused an uproar as the stories pass themselves off as fact but in Kis' style fact and fiction, history and imagination blend for a common aesthetic goal. This he picked up from Borges and his use of "document" in fiction.
All this helps the book stand out as a superior work of literature without even getting to the political theme of revolution and the role of individuals in mass movements.
This edition is perfect with the intro by Brodsky and William T. Vollmann's afterword.
A must read for anyone.
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.