Garden, Ashes Paperback – Oct 1 2003
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"Let us not mince words here: Danilo Kis's Garden, Ashes is an unmitigated masterpiece, surely not just one of the best books about the Holocaust, but one of the greatest books of the past century."--Aleksandar Hemon, from the introduction
About the Author
Aleksandar Hemon is the author of "The Lazarus Project, "which was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and three books of short stories: "The Question of Bruno"; "Nowhere Man", which was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and "Love and Obstacles". He was the recipient of a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship and a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation. He lives in Chicago.
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"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.
In writing this story, Kis endows Andreas with "...a sick hypersensitivity" that "turned everything into a memory, too quickly: sometimes one day was enough, or an interval of a few hours, or a routine change of place, for an everyday event with a lyrical value that I did not sense at the time, to become suddenly adorned with a radiant echo..."
Meanwhile, Edward, Andreas's father, has this to say about himself. "There are people... who are born unhappy and to make other unhappy...They are titans without the power of titans, dwarf-titans whose only greatness was given them in the form of a rigid dose of sensitivity that dissolves their trifling strength...They follow their star, their sick sensibility, borne along by titanic plans and intentions, but then break like waves against the rocky banks of triviality. The height of cruelty allotted them in lucidity..."
To explore the interaction between this hypersensitive and impressionable boy and this amazing yet doomed father, Kis basically follows an ordinary developmental timeline. Here, Andreas discusses with his amazing lyricism such ordinary boyhood issues as his mother, childish sexuality, biblical stories, and the interaction of his extended family. At the same time, Andreas begins and ends his narration with his fear of death. Death, he initially hopes to outwit or outrun. But he is eventually able to manage his fear through narrative and literature and seems to breakout when he is able to tell his mother, "I have written a poem."
Andreas and his father are vivid and memorable characters. Even so, this fascinating novel, which presents the perceptions of an intense and brilliant child, is almost allegorical in style. GARDEN, ASHES is fine work but not recommended to anyone looking for plot-driven fiction.
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.
The metes and bounds of the printed page do not confine the novel, which spills and sprawls everywhere. It is wonderfully Promethean. As told by Kis, everyday events from the life of his family (surnamed Scham, in the novel) become the stuff of myth, or, at the very least, fairy tale. Prosaic details are keenly observed and creatively woven into an often dream-like narrative. (A recurring theme is the confounding of dreaming and sleep, life and death.) There are many crafty metaphors. There is a brilliant ten-page retelling of the Old Testament story through the ten plagues of Egypt. And there are encyclopedic lists, one of "ologies" of pre-War Mitteleuropa (an excerpt: "irrationalistic studies, studies in Judeophobia, juridical studies, Lamarckian, lexicographical, lexicological, literary, Machist, magical, magnetic, martyrological, Marxist, Masonic") and another of the goods being piled on a cart of a Jewish family being relocated to the ghetto (an excerpt: "silverware chests lined with red cloth, like those cases designed to hold dueling pistols; an upright piano, a violin case like a small child's sarcophagus, bundles of documents, family portraits in baroque frames lifted out of their dusty repose and deprived of their eternal verticality").
Still, amidst the swirling visions, dreams, and fantasies of GARDEN, ASHES, what stands out most for me are the realistic snapshots of Central European life just before the events of World War II swept it all away, such as this description of a provincial railway station café, where the Scham family awaits a train: "It was a late summer afternoon, and flies swooped back and forth, intoxicated by their own flight and the heat. The room smelled of goulash and floor wax. A celesta stood in the corner, covered with cloth like a casket. Flypaper swayed back and forth, gently and lazily, measuring out the minutes. The bottles on the shelves were taking their siesta, crammed with the sun's rays and their own weight, like flower buds or artillery shells."
Kis wrote the novel in Serbo-Croatian. Translation into English must have been especially daunting, but William J. Hannaher pulled it off brilliantly. I have added GARDEN, ASHES to my list of books I hope to re-read some day, which is my highest accolade for a book.