The Encyclopedia of the Dead by Danilo Kiš

Despite my fairly rubbish memory, I think I can recall where I stumbled across mention of this book! A while back, I discovered that Penguin had issued a series back in the 1970s/1980s entitled ‘Writers from the Other Europe’. I was intrigued by many of the titles, one of which was “A Tomb for Boris Davidovich” by Danilo Kiš; and on researching his books, “The Encyclopedia of the Dead” popped up and sounded fascinating so I put it on my wishlist. It’s languished there until my recent attack of book-token-spending, when my local Waterstones had a copy; and as it’s short and appealed at the moment, I ended up reading it quite quickly.

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First, some words about Kiš: “Danilo Kiš (22 February 1935 – 15 October 1989) was a Serbian novelist, short story writer and poet who wrote in Serbo-Croatian, member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. Kiš was influenced by Bruno Schulz, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, Ivo Andrić and Miroslav Krleža, among other authors. His most famous works include A Tomb for Boris Davidovich and The Encyclopedia of the Dead.”

“Encyclopedia” is a slim collection of short stories and it was Kiš’ final work, published initially in 1983. It contains nine pieces: “Simon Magus”, “Last Respects”, “The Encyclopedia of the Dead”, “The Legend of the Sleepers”, “The Mirror of the Unknown”, “The Story of the Master and the Disciple”, “To Die for One’s Country Is Glorious”, “The Book of Kings and Fools” and “Red Stamps with Lenin’s Picture”. Each is fascinating in its own way and they cover a variety of different topics, from ancient legends retold (“Magus”, “Sleepers”), through fantasies and myth (“Mirror”, “Master”), to more realistic texts (“Die”, “Last”) and finally to works dealing with words and the influence they can have (“Encyclopedia”, “Book”, “Stamps”).

When a lie is repeated long enough, people start believing it. Because people need faith.

All are dramatic and effective, all take the story in directions the reader wouldn’t necessarily expect, and all are multi-layered. The most powerful is probably the title story, based on a dream related by Kiš’ then wife, which tells of a woman scholar who spends the night unexpectedly in the Royal Library of Sweden. Here she stumbles upon the titular book (in reality several rooms!), which holds details of all the lives ever lived – the ordinary lives, that is, the ones not recorded anywhere else. The woman spends the night discovering and reliving all the experiences of her recently deceased father’s life, in vivid detail, as the Encyclopedia seems to have the ability to make these events almost real.

After all … nothing in the history of mankind is ever repeated, things that at first glance seem the same are scarcely even similar; each individual is a star unto himself, everything happens always and never, all things repeat themselves endlessly and unrepeatably.

Obsessions with lost texts runs through many of the stories, especially “Kings and Fools” and “Lenin Stamp”. The former in particular is a complex history of the making of a book which is based on the notorious volume “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, showing how easily we can be duped by words and how much the human race loves conspiracy theories. “Stamp” is a wonderfully clever piece which takes the form of a letter written by an unnamed women concerning the apparently lost letters of Yiddish poet Mendel Osipovich. Addressing to his biographer, the woman throws scorn on all the bizarre literary theories which have been created about Osipovich’s work whilst revealing the real background to his poetry and life. It’s a brilliant commentary on the tendency of critics to over-interpret a writer’s work and read the most ridiculous things into it.

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In fact, words and storytelling and their effects are a running theme in the tales, as well as the lives of ordinary people and how they are so often not recorded and taken for granted. In particular, in the title story the symbolism is clear, referencing all those unnamed victims lost during the 20th century to war and tyranny (and this is still relevant today with all the ongoing wars and violence in our world).

“Encyclopedia” was a memorable and fascinating read, and would definitely benefit from a second visit – the stories are full of allusion and references, and very thought-provoking. There’s a useful introduction by Mark Thompson, who revised the original translation by Michael Henry Heim; as well as an afterword by the author himself, giving context for each story. Kiš is a dazzling storyteller and I’ll definitely be looking out for more of his work.

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