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The Attic

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THE ATTIC

DANILO KI
Š

TRANSLATED AND WITH
AN INTRODUCTION
BY JOHN K. COX

Psalm 44
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

Danilo Ki
š
was born on February 22, 1935 in the northern Serbian city of Subotica. This city, known in Hungarian as Szabadka, has long been a crossroads of cultures; it lies in the northern part of the region known as Vojvodina, on the great plains that characterize central Hungary and lap over into eastern Croatia and western Transylvania as well. It has been a polyglot border town since the end of the Habsburg Empire in 1918. In Subotica and throughout the Vojvodina one would have noted in the interwar period the presence of Slovak, Ruthenian, German, Jewish, and Croatian minorities as well as the larger Hungarian and Serbian populations. This region, arguably the most diverse in all of the former Yugoslavia, was also home to two small, little-known population groups: the
Š
okci and the more numerous Bunjevci, who are Roman Catholic by tradition and are generally held, on the basis of their dialects, to be Slavic (possibly Croatian) settlers from points south and east.

Ki
š

s father was named Eduard Ki
š
, a Hungarian Jew who worked for the Yugoslav railway company. Ki
š

s mother, born Milica Dragi
ć
evi
ć
, was a Montenegrin Serb by nationality and an Orthodox Christian by religious affiliation. Eduard died in the Holocaust in 1944. Ki
š
and his mother and sister spent the war in Hungary, returning to Montenegro in Titoist Yugoslavia in 1947. Ki
š
went to school in Cetinje and university in Belgrade. He taught at several universities in France in the 1960s and 1970s. After defending his works and his approach to the art of writing in several rounds of literary and political polemics within Yugoslavia, he took up more or less permanent residence in France in the 1980s. He won several significant literary awards during his life, and passed away on October 15, 1989. He is buried in Belgrade.

Yugoslavia

s lifespan in the twentieth century encompassed all the major developments in European history from the end of World War I to the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The country existed as a (variously defined) union of six constituent republics from 1918 to 1991, and Ki
š

s life fell squarely into the heart of this time period. Royal Yugoslavia had a troubled existence before the Second World War, and the wartime experiences of Ki
š

s family personally, as well as his country as a whole

foreign occupation, the Holocaust, a brutal civil war

represented a sharp escalation of those troubles. The second, or socialist, Yugoslavia also began with a time of considerable pain and violence, as the communist leader Josip Broz Tito settled accounts with ideological foes and potential oppositionists through massacres, purges, and stifling cultural and political policies.

By the mid-1950s, however, Yugoslavia had evolved to a new stage, and it was in a much different cultural milieu that Ki
š
started his literary career. Belgrade had always been the metropole of South Slavic culture; one can assert this without disparaging the significant cultural achievements of other cities in the region, such as Zagreb, Sarajevo, and Ljubljana, which lacked Belgrade

s broad-shouldered bluster and the intellectual autonomy that came with political independence. Belgrade was first the capital of the independent state of Serbia and then of both Yugoslavias.

Belgrade was recovering from the various atrocities visited upon it first by Nazi and then communist rule by the time Ki
š
wrote his first novel,
Mansarda
(which, translated here as
The Attic
, might also be titled
The Garret
or
The Loft
in English). And, at least as importantly, Yugoslavia too was recovering. After Tito

s epoch-making split with Stalin in 1948, Yugoslavia developed its own

third path

of maverick socialism that soon left the arts a considerable amount of room to maneuver. By 1960, the hidebound dictates of socialist realism were largely dead; artistic controversies did still crop up, often fueled by inter-republican rivalry and sometimes by the lingering taboo on criticism of Marshal Tito and the reputation of his anti-Nazi guerrilla forces, the Partisans, but Ki
š
was basically free to experiment with pan-European trends, taking his place beside older and internationally recognized Serbian writers, such as Ivo Andri
ć
, the 1961 Nobel laureate in literature, as well as the important voices from his own generation, such as Antonije Isakovi
ć
and Borislav Peki
ć
.

READING
THE ATTIC

The Attic
is the delightful story of a Belgrade bohemian nicknamed Orpheus. He is a writer and a lute player, a skirt-chaser and a philosopher, a dreamer and

probably

a perpetual student. The novel is set, rather vaguely, in the capital and coastal regions of Yugoslavia in the 1950s. As he is wrestling with his feelings for a young woman he calls Eurydice, Orpheus is also wrestling with his calling as an artist. Towering over Orpheus

s actual comings and goings and his not inconsiderable flights of fancy are the colossal, perpetual, neon-lit questions about ART: What is its relation to reality, and how should a person

s commitment to it affect his or her personal life?

Like Ki
š

s other prose works,
The Attic
is not complex in syntax or diction. But it does contain more humor than his other novels

humor that reminds one of his (as yet untranslated) short stories such as

An American Tale

or essays such as

Shakespeare and Sausages.

We come across a skeptical goldsmith in Chapter One, a lewd but erudite blotch of mold on the ceiling in Chapter Two, a riff on the perils of amateur translation in Chapter Three, an unusual payment in kind for English lessons proffered to the

sluts of the port

in Chapter Six, and so on. Indeed the entire book is shot through with wordplay manifested in nicknames and permutations on designations for food and drink and other consumer products. There are brief but bracing love scenes, the light decadence of barroom shenanigans, an encounter with a prostitute, and a lot of trading in stock literary and pop-culture references. Underscoring the youthful feel of the work

youthful for the protagonist as well as his real-life author

are the compendia of

big questions

and food for thought in the first two chapters. These are the issues, indeed, that teenagers and twenty-somethings in all cultures have to spend their time sorting out and, one hopes, answering.

Orpheus lives in an attic with Billy Wiseass (real name: Igor) in a large apartment building in Belgrade. The two young men philosophize and read and party and decorate their apartment in in the way of young, irrepressible intellectuals and city-dwellers. They are, in fact, coming to terms with

the meaning of life

and awakening (in the manner of one of those coming-of-age novels that literary critics call a
Bildungsroman
) to life

s possibilities and limitations and costs. Orpheus meets a young woman he really likes. He then takes off on an imaginary (or real?) trip to the South Seas where he gains new perspectives on courtship and European identity. He senses that he is walled in by his own egocentric perspectives and that
writing
about
other
people might prove to be his liberation. But he has a long row to hoe.

By Chapter Four, Orpheus is back in Belgrade, where we are treated to a dose of postmodernist discourse from the cleaning lady, who has fallen in thrall to Billy. But so has another, younger woman, whose accidental pregnancy serves to illustrate another strange dilemma of the postmodern writer. Ki
š
, it seems, just can

t leave the controls of meta-narration alone, for we then go skimming along a lengthy pastiche of Thomas Mann

s
The Magic Mountain
. Orpheus continues to be plagued by a real tension between art and love and also by a glaring inability to nail down his actual or proper role in managing either.

Always in search of new

takes

on reality, Orpheus and Billy open a pub and continue their meandering ways. Their decadence is really just sloppy self-discovery. Their indulgence becomes tempered by encounters with their emotional and physical limitations and their artistic needs. A great mystery or puzzle of life, perhaps
the
Ultimate Dilemma for the idealistic and the naive, is posed at the end of Chapter Seven and then again in the following chapter. Should one compromise with life? Or is it better to kill oneself than give in to

reality

? It is the same rigor and passion in Orpheus that makes it hard for him to decide between these two options that also makes it necessary for him to compromise with life. The reason for this is that his art will never find space to develop if he remains rigid and self-centered; his appetites will consume him if he adheres to a false consistency.

Then, in another bar with another friend, we find out that Orpheus is writing this story (in the form of a novel with the same title as the book we are reading) as he

s living it. Our unusual and rather casual hero finally takes note of the mottled variety of life around him

especially the misery of some of his neighbors in the apartment building. Images of girlish innocence and fragility at the end of the book hearken back to the early chapters, and Orpheus is ready for his new mission: he decides to

dismount from this star

and start to meet the world as it really is. He knows he can expect a rough ride, as the closing scene conveys to him. The same thing applies to Ki
š
himself, for whom the writing of this book can be seen as a kind of exercise in the development of an artistic credo. It is a blend of autobiography and mission statement.

One of the best summations of Ki
š

s style of writing is made by the American scholar Ilan Stavans, who notes that Ki
š
was

hyperdescriptive

in the manner of Bruno Schulz and

concise and astonishingly erudite

in the manner of Jorge Luis Borges.
1

The Attic
itself is the work of a young author. This is obvious not just because of its date of publication but because it is, to quote the Austrian critic Karl-Markus Gau
ß
,

a brash and tumultuous work

in which the author

demonstrates his jaunty reverence for the bohemian world

and

his rigorous ethic of detail.

2
This latter characteristic would prove enormously important in Ki
š

s later work, as would the nascent elements of postmodernism in
The Attic
.
3
The Serbian critic Petar Pijanovi
ć
has studied extensively the

quest for form

in the novel

that is, the meta-narration involving the blended character of Orpheus, who is both narrator and author.
4
Form is obviously something that Ki
š
was studying for himself through the writing of this work.

Reviewers and critics writing for English-speaking readers have barely commented on
The Attic
, since it has not been available in English until recently. But, in the eyes of this translator, the novel reads as a powerful statement of Ki
š

s nascent artistic credo at a crucial time in his artistic development. That is to say, it is difficult to ignore
The Attic

s apparent reflection of many contemporaneous developments in the author

s own life: the biographical elements of a bohemian
Bildungsroman
are quite prominent. A young storyteller at the time, a Balkan bard like his protagonist, Ki
š
too was finding his voice and formulating his credo, which is ultimately rooted in a strong sense of connectedness to other people. Some of Ki
š

s hallmark stylistic traits

such as the lists of
realia
, the learned (if miniature) digressions, the ironic humor

are already present in
The Attic
, although the crushing weight of history that envelops his later prose is absent. Rich in references to music, painting, philosophy, and gastronomy, as well as literature,
The Attic
is a laboratory of technique and the anvil of an artistic ethos

and, of course, a more than self-assured first novel in its own right. As a work of art,
The Attic
is at once a depiction of life in bohemian Belgrade, a register of stylistic devices and themes that would recur throughout Ki
š

s oeuvre, and an account of one young man

s quest to work out his approach to representation by balancing art, life, and text. Whether or not we read it as a

portrait of the artist as a young man,

The Attic
adds up to an admirable first novel, indeed.

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