Apart from historians, theologians and philosophers, the main contributors to Holocaust literature so far have been survivors. Direct, first-person reports from the innermost circles of hell have had a profound impact on our consciousness, in large part because of the simple truthfulness of eyewitness narratives.
Faced with the stark testimonies of Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi and others, fiction writers understandably remained mute. William Styron and Isaac Bashevis Singer, for example, have been careful to restrict their exploration of the theme to specific characters whose mystery they keep intact.
Danilo Kis, the Yugoslav novelist who died last year at age 54, ventures into this sensitive territory by entering the mind of his principal character in "Hourglass." Identified only by his initials, E. S. is a railroad inspector living in the Vojvodina region of Yugoslavia. He is trying to get his pension reinstated by the Hungarian State Railways. Yet, for all his diligence, attempts to redress what on the surface appears to be a minor bureaucratic slip-up lead nowhere.
The year is 1942, and Yugoslavia is under Nazi occupation. The largely Hungarian-speaking province has been returned to Hungary as a reward for collaborating with Germany. That event was accompanied by one of the worst blood baths among ethnic minorities in modern history (a grim reminder as we watch Yugoslavia, Romania or the Soviet Union being torn apart by their minorities).
For a man who has kept to railroad schedules and regulations all his life, the chaos caused by civil and uncivil war is unbearable enough. But E. S. is also Jewish (of the sort who observes Easter with baked ham), and he is assailed by new prohibitions and restrictions on every side. His very assimilation poses the greatest danger, because he does not comprehend why he is being hunted.
In self-defense, E. S. buries his head in the sand. Still, the trivial memories and banal obsessions that fill his mind are punctuated by the reality of shortages; by news of neighbors being brutalized, disappearing and committing suicide; by the image of the disembodied brain of a well-known local surgeon lying on a street corner.
Gradually, E. S. loses control over this information flow. Evidence is being gathered about and from him. There are rapid-fire questions that E. S. must answer. The interrogation at times seems to be part of a lengthy criminal investigation--by whom, we are not told. There also are pages that purport to be from the diary of a madman, written in the first person, but it is not clear who that person is. Other sections, called "Travel Scenes," are purely objective descriptions, perhaps by the author or E. S., though we are never sure.
For example, this is the only description of the main character:
"How did E. S. see himself?
"Through the eyes of a dog, as through a biconvex lens or a curved mirror; the tip of his cane is elongated in perspective as far as the head-sized fist at the other end of the cane. In the same distorted perspective, the head-sized fist tapers into a long thin arm, which at shoulder level is thinner than the cane. Following this long, deformed arm from below, the eye perceives a tiny head, no larger than the fist."
Kis then uses this purportedly objective observation to enter his protagonist's inner world:
"What thought did fear inspire in him?
"The thought not only of possible mimicry but also of identification; that by changing the prescription of his glasses, he could become a dog."
No actual metamorphosis occurs, but the Kafkaesque quest for exactitude serves as the only thread to sanity. The vague Angst that E. S. feels is ludicrously inadequate to his situation. That may be Kis' point about modern man in general. But the chaos he depicts--the opposite of Kafka's inflexible order--seems less attributable to the evil that men do than to the deliberate fracturing Kis employs as a literary technique.
His book is a stylistic compound of modernist echoes and references, providing a happy hunting ground for academics and post-structuralist critics, who may read what they will into almost any paragraph. The average reader is left out in the cold, with a few footnotes provided by the distinguished translator, Ralph Manheim.
From his first appearance in print in 1976, Kis has been accused of excessive admiration, and even plagiarism, of a host of writers, Musil, Kafka, Joyce and Borges among them. Some of these attacks, such as by the Yugoslav Writers' Union, clearly were unfair and politically inspired. Yet one could wish that Kis had absorbed some deeper lessons from his literary models.
Kafka's world is terrifying because everything appears normal and coherent. The surface is familiar, even benign; turbulence is in the abyss below. In "Hourglass," Kis creates no new world but presents some old ones from historical and imaginative sources. He uses expressionistic effects, but to express little or nothing. He offers a mass of seemingly important and realistic detail, but in order to divert and obscure the larger context.
Finally, the author had an opportunity to create in E. S. an archetypal victim, a modern Everyman, through the imaginative act of inhabiting the mind of an ordinary railroad clerk under extraordinary circumstances. Kis provides an exhaustive inventory of this mind, in long lists that make use of exotic languages and currencies. Despite all this too-visible labor, E. S. remains a thoroughly uninteresting and shallow character, not somebody we are ready to accept as a universal symbol of ourselves, or of the millions lost in the Holocaust.
"It is a much more difficult and formidable task to relate a historical tragedy than to take part in it," Milovan Djilas wrote at the opening of his wartime memoirs. Kis may not have been aware of any such difficulty, or could be trying to express it. Or perhaps it is not time yet--out of respect for the survivors still among us--to treat the Holocaust as literary fiction.