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Authors: Aleksandar Hemon and John K. Cox

PSALM 44

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PSALM 44

DANILO KI
Š

Preface by Aleksandar Hemon

Translated and with an Afterword
by John K. Cox

The Attic
Garden, Ashes
Early Sorrows
Hourglass
A Tomb for Boris Davidovich
The Encyclopedia of the Dead
Homo Poeticus: Essays and Interviews
The Lute and the Scars

Let me start with a complaint: What is absent from much of contemporary fiction, which in the USA is conceived of as middle-to-highbrow entertainment, is the ethical import of literature. As it is, the word fiction largely stands for (deliberately) made-up narratives aiming to entertain the culturally enlightened reader. Literature, on the other hand, is nothing if not continuous ethical and aesthetical engagement with human experience and history; one reads/writes literature in order to confront the hard questions of human existence; entertainment might not be applicable. While the word fiction equally applies to
The DaVinci Code
and
Remembrance of Things Past
, only one of those is literature; the other one is trash. (

Do not argue that all values are relative: there is a hierarchy of values,

Ki
š
wrote in his

Advice to a Young Writer.

) American populism of the knee-jerk variety requires cringing at the thought of literature (and, for that matter, at any thought that is not confirming what is already agreed to be true), because it is

what is the word flung about by the humble sons of the one percent?

elitist. (Ki
š

s advice:

Do not write for an elite that does not exist: you are the elite.

) But literature is inherently democratic, as it is the way for everyone and anyone who can read to enter the difficult and vast field of
everything
that comes under humanity.

Do not write for

the average reader,


Ki
š
wrote to the Young Writer,

all readers are average.

In the home of the brave, literature has been damaged, perhaps irreparably, by the systematic avoidance of difficulty, by the cultural laziness that spreads like brain-infecting flu out of the sunny realm of eternal, unconditional entertainment. Bullied by the cryptofascist, consumerist resistance to public thought

or thinking in public

American literature tends to avoid uncomfortable weight: the weight of tradition; the weight of civic and historical responsibility; the weight of language, which needs to be ceaselessly reinvented and reevaluated. The ethical fiascoes of the Bush era in perpetuity unfettered, the catastrophic wars and the insidious fantasies that prepared them and maintain them, the widespread collapse of the notion of a socially-responsible government and the related (reality-based) democracy, the rabid xenophobia indistinguishable from the socially-acceptable practices of American Patriotism, the mind-crushing lies reproducing the belief that capitalism is the best thing ever

all have been pretty much ignored in our contemporary fiction. Not many American authors know how to confront the history we

re living in; few attempt to, even fewer dare to claim an ethically/aesthetically-de-fined system of thought that would demand from the reader to engage with the difficulties of the early twenty-first century.

The reason for writing from a confrontational position would be less in the necessity for social engagement (

At the mention of

engaged literature

be silent as a fish: leave it to the professors,

Ki
š
advised) than in the fact that recent history ought to be seen as a fertile creative ground, as an ethical and aesthetical opportunity, a chance to loosen the unstimulating grip of epiphanic psychological realism. Much of American literature has been paralyzed, producing nary a novel that would fundamentally

ethically, aesthetically

question and take apart the
Matrix
-like reality of what is commonly referred to as America. We need a literature that would do the difficult work of finding meaning beyond what is offered as self-evident (

Do not believe in statistics, figures, or public statements: reality is what the naked eye cannot see.

) and counter the steady production of systemic oblivion. It might turn out to be difficult; we might have to learn how to do it from writers like Danilo Ki
š
. As it is now, there seems to be a consensus that any whiff of difficulty coming from the contemporary novel would result in the already depleted literary readership retreating deeper into the mindless territories of Iron Men and the many shades of gray.

The greatness of Ki
š

s work lies in his unflinching willingness to confront and (re)imagine the horrors of history as experienced by human beings. The aim of his work is not to bear witness (

Have no mission,

Ki
š
advises.

Beware of people with missions.

) but to reconfirm the value of individual experience; he is not merely reporting on the state of individual humanity, rather, he recreates it in language, thereby reestablishing its sovereignty, without which the very project of literature is inconceivable.

His relation with

or, rather, his position within

history was defined by his traumatic personal experience: as a child he witnessed the Novi Sad massacre in the winter of 1942 (to which frequently returns in his work,
Psalm 44
included), when Hungarian fascists slaughtered a large number of Jews and Serbs; his family was persecuted and spent the war displaced in Hungary; his father disappeared in Auschwitz. But his engagement is just as intensely intellectual: the question of how one could (and why one would) write novels after Auschwitz and Kolyma (the Stalinist camp) was a burning one for him throughout his working life. (

Should anyone tell you Kolyma was different from Auschwitz,

he told the Young Writer,

tell him to go to hell.

) He, of course, kept on writing, but the perpetual doubt about the purpose of writing required a continuous reevaluation of the ethical and aesthetical foundations of literature.

Each of his books has a distinctly different structure, but his quest was not for an abstractly perfect literary form. What he kept looking for was
any form at all
that could match and contain the intensity, fragmentariness, intellectual weight, and troubling connotations of modern history, as well as the sheer pain and sorrow it has generated. If Ki
š
was a postmodernist, it was out of painful necessity. His inclination to construct difficult narrative structures was not a consequence of his highfalutin whimsy but rather of a deeply held conviction that he needed to (re)discover and (re) deploy narrative techniques (

Study the thought of others, then reject it,

he instructed the Young Writer) that could match the horrific intricacies of the twentieth century and his personal experience in it. Thus his masterpieces
Garden, Ashes
and
Hourglass
(both, with
Early Sorrows
, part of a novelistic family cycle or, per Ki
š
,

the family circus

) have a perishing father at the absent center, but are constructed markedly differently. Both novels could be described as

experimental

in the lazy cant of critics baffled by any form outside the cramped confines of psychological realism, but
Garden, Ashes
harkens back to Bruno Schulz and his prophetically mad father, while
Hourglass
is structured as an interrogation, featuring, in one of the most heartbreaking structural devices in the twentieth-century literature, a letter Ki
š

s father sent to the family before he was deported to Auschwitz.

Ki
š

s ethical/aesthetical system (there is no dissociation between ethics and aesthetics in his mind) is founded on the axiomatic value of individual sovereignty. That sovereignty is universal

every human being is entitled to it

and is continuously and brutally violated by history. Thus the uniqueness of his father

s experience, including his particular path to ovens of Auschwitz, is exactly related to the uniqueness of the forms Ki
š
reinvents to restore his father

s invaluable life, destroyed by those who did not believe in the sanctity of individual sovereignty.

Ki
š
wrote
Psalm 44
at the age of twenty-five, in less than a month, in order to submit it to the contest of the Association of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia. He had come across a newspaper story about a young couple revisiting a camp where their child was born and decided to write about it; he could do it, because he

could accept a somewhat unusual plot as factual.

He was writing at the same time his novel
The Attic
, which was entirely different in form and spirit. The two short books would be published in the same volume in Belgrade in 1962.

The mastery of Ki
š

s structural

and therefore aesthetical

choices at such a young age is most impressive. The young man

s creative confidence is sharply evident in his undertaking a narrative project that

a) takes place in a death camp;

b) focuses on women, one of whom has given birth in the camp;

c) exhibits near-arrogant familiarity with the history of European thought, its ethical decline and collapse included;

d) is mostly set in the few hours before an escape attempt;

e) refuses to avoid the moral and structural challenges inherent in the situation.

Psalm 44
thus augured the arrival of a major talent, even if few could see that Ki
š
would be among the twentieth century

s essential writers. One shudders to think what masterpieces

in addition to, at least,
A Tomb for Boris Davidovich
;
Garden, Ashes
;
Hourglass
; and
The Encyclopedia of the Dead

Ki
š
would have produced had he not been stricken by cancer at the age of fifty-four. The Nobel Prize committee had already been circling around him and, had he not died, his great works would have been available to a much larger number of readers, influencing young writers all across the globe.

One of the ways to diagnose the greatness of a literary work is to identify the moments or details that stop you in your tracks and demand to be thought through, forcing you to adjust your readerly expectations. Those are the moments that might make the work difficult, necessarily countering the page-turning consumerist instincts. Great works effectively train you how to read them, generating a thought process that might well extend beyond reading the book.
Psalm 44
, slight though it may be, is rife with such mind-stopping instances. Take Maks, the
ü
bersurvivor, the genocide superhero,

a devilishly clever fellow,

the belief in whom seems to have been induced by the utter hopelessness of the camp. Or the directness of naming the Mengele-like camp

scientist

Dr. Nietzsche, bringing up in one brazen move a whole set of ethical questions about

science

and its role in the extermination of European Jewry, as well as about the complicity of philosophy in the Nazis

apocalyptic reconstitution of history. Or the wet concreteness of diapers for Jan, a child born in the camp, whose mother, Marija, is drying them against her body. Or Marija

s obsessive thinking about the sheet she takes from Polya, the dying woman, as she is trying to decide at what point Polya will no longer need it. Or Marija

s memories of the Novi Sad massacre, which Ki
š
conveys in a few terrifying details, so that the terror is as fully experienced as it can be in a work of literature.

All those moments are contained by a structure that deliberately slows down time. The main temporal framework of the novel is delimited by the few hours before Marija and her fellow inmate attempt a courageous escape from the camp, as the cannons of the Allied forces are thundering in the distance; within those few hours much is recollected, no tranquility whatsoever available. Ki
š
writes in long, convoluted crypto-Proustian sentences, which allow him to follow closely Marija

s thoughts, thus making each terrible and hopeful moment count.

Ki
š

s ethical ambition is even more impressive than his aesthetical/technical repertoire or the brilliance of his details. As someone who has taught creative writing classes and has often dealt with works teeming with ailing grandparents, suburban boredom, and college-love breakups, I long for a student who would write with Ki
š
ian intellectual and moral confidence, or, at least, urgency. I long for a young American writer who would, like Ki
š
, in his or her first book, present the case that literature is capable of processing the most difficult human experiences, be they personal or historical

it is one of the few tools (and, for some of us, the only one) we have to get a handle on life and history. Writing fiction can be taught and practiced, but what cannot be taught and practiced is ethical courage.

If you cannot say the truth,

Ki
š
advised the Young Writer,

say nothing.

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