Words that transcend the evil of the Holocaust

Aleksandar Hemon is the author of the novels "Nowhere Man" and "The Question of Bruno" and teaches at Northwestern University.

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 also one of the greatest books of the last century. The fact that it went out of print is a sad testimony to the current American literary situation, but now it is back in all its splendor and sorrow.

Kis was born in 1935 (he died in 1989) in Subotica, a relatively prosperous town that was then in Yugoslavia, now in Serbia and Montenegro, close to the Hungarian border. This fact is relevant for the understanding of “Garden, Ashes,” as Subotica fell under Hungarian control with the German attack on Yugoslavia in April 1941. The position of Hungarian Jews, like Kis’s father, in the Holocaust was unique: Despite an occasional pogrom (such as the one in Novi Sad in 1942, to which references can be found in “Garden, Ashes,” as well as in “Hourglass” and “Psalm 44,” Kis’s other novels in his “family cycle”) and common anti-Semitism, the far-right regime of Adm. Miklos Horthy avoided full participation in the Final Solution until 1944, when Horthy was replaced by the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian Nazis. Soviet forces were rapidly advancing toward Budapest, and the Arrow Cross, with the help of the Germans, started shipping off Hungarian Jews to death camps. (Adolf Eichmann visited Budapest in 1944 to speed up the genocide.) Thus, the last trains arriving in Auschwitz consisted largely of Hungarian Jews. On one of those trains was Kis’s father.

Kis’s work is a supreme example of the tragic impossibility of separating the personal and the historical, particularly in the lives of people who cannot afford the illusion that history can be run as if it were a profitable corporation. Eduard Scham, the father in “Garden, Ashes,” ends up on the same train to Auschwitz as Kis’s father. One could easily, and lazily, conclude that the story of “Garden, Ashes,” the story of the tragic wanderings of the Scham family, is a concealed memoir, a confessional project intent on conveying how Kis may have “felt” as a “victim” of the Holocaust.


But what makes “Garden, Ashes” a masterpiece is that, rather than being merely personal and thus descriptive, it is profoundly transformative. That is to say, even if Kis starts from a personal space, the experience of the Holocaust is transformed into a literary experience; it is reconstituted as simultaneously personal, historical and literary. Of course, the Holocaust changed not only the way a person thought of himself or herself but also the way in which we think of literature, for the Holocaust was an unprecedented historical event, and nothing has been the same since, particularly literature. The form and the content of “Garden, Ashes” are also transformative, continually affecting each other until there is nothing but the organic unity of a literary experience.

If one is forced to declare what “Garden, Ashes” is about -- such declaration always violates a work of art -- one would have to say that it is about the relation between imagination and history, between poetry and genocide. To the well-known question of whether poetry is possible after the Holocaust, Kis answers a resounding “yes!” -- indeed, not just possible but inescapably necessary. But poetry-literature after the Holocaust is unavoidably transformed and transformative because it has to use imagination to understand the unimaginable and, to do this, it has to acknowledge the failure of imagination in the face of a horror as enormous as the Holocaust. One has to write with humility if one is to restore the possibility of human history and humanistic literature, starting, as it were, from scratch, from the smallest things.

Thus Kis opens “Garden, Ashes” with something small, with a tray, as though offering his enormous talent on it. The narrator’s mother carries the tray, with a jar of honey and a bottle of cod liver oil, along with “the amber hues of sunny days, thick concentrates full of intoxicating aromas.” Kis goes beyond the content and gives us a nearly microscopic description of the form of the tray, with “a raised rim” and flaky patches of nickel that look like “tin foil pressed out under fingernails.” There are “tiny decorative protuberances -- a whole chain of little metallic grapes” on the outer edge of the rim, which can be felt “like Braille letters, under the flesh of the thumb.” And around those grapes, “ringlike layers of grease had collected, barely visible, like shadows cast by little cupolas.”

The tray is tactile; the reader touches it with the mother of Andi, the narrator. Kis is never afraid to go from a small detail to an even smaller detail -- from the “grapes” to their tiny shadows. The realm of the barely visible is where Kis is most comfortable, but once he perceives it, he augments it: The tray is taking up the entire screen in the mind’s projection room. He achieves this by comparing the grease rings with cupola shadows, the comparison spanning from the infinitesimal to the humongous. At the same time, the emotional size of the tray is increased by upgrading the little jars and glasses to “specimens of the new lands at which the foolish barge of our days would be putting ashore.”

The patience with which Kis goes deeper into the tray, looking for a more precise detail, betokens his conviction that the exactness of the detail, as minuscule as it may be, opens doors into whole new worlds, an operation required if one is to employ imagination to comprehend history. By choosing a unique, specific detail, Kis implies that the world and human life consist of an infinite number of details and that the writer’s job is to uncover them, to expose them to the reader’s eye, particularly if he’s about to show that history infuses the smallest of human spaces, as there’s no escape from it.

Opening a novel with a beaten-up tray loaded with details is exactly the opposite of the godlike point of view of the “great novel” openings: say, a Dickensian description of the city, or Tolstoy’s great generalization about happy and unhappy families or Bellow’s immediate invasion of Herzog’s mind. Many a novel opens with a peal of self-importance, which Kis systematically ignores. “Garden, Ashes” is determinedly ungreat, for how can someone who has had the experience of the Holocaust ever be deluded into feeling important, let alone great? Amazingly, that is exactly what makes “Garden, Ashes” great, even if its seeming ungreatness made it disappear under the radar of the American literary establishment, which produces “great” books on a weekly basis.


What is even more astonishing is that, before we’re aware that the central event of “Garden, Ashes” is the Holocaust, we enter the apocalyptic stage with the tray in our hands. By insisting on the materiality of the tray and by giving the narrative voice to a boy, Andi, Kis instantly dismisses the ambition of explaining the Holocaust, as such ambition is bound to fail ignobly. The most we can hope for is to experience it vicariously, in language, with our experience being admittedly limited to the barely visible (but all the more transformative and therefore true because of that).

The Holocaust is an Apocalypse, a cosmic event, and Kis unabashedly covers the cosmic -- in the sense of all-inclusive -- end of human experience. Eduard Scham, Andi’s father, who will disappear in Auschwitz, is a crazy prophet or a prophetic madman. He gives ranting, messianic sermons to his befuddled family and uses a map of the sky to follow stars on his peregrinations. He works on the creation of the Bus, Ship, Rail and Air Travel Guide, which at some point goes well beyond its initial ambition of answering the question he poses to himself: “How can we travel to Nicaragua?” It becomes a cosmological compendium, a description of the universe that is to perish with him in Auschwitz, for which he collects literature “in the most diverse disciplines, in almost all European languages.”

Kis, ever a master of lists, conveys the magnitude of Eduard’s project by listing meticulously, in neat alphabetical order, about 200 disciplines he explored in writing his travel guide. Once the novel is raised to a cosmic-apocalyptic level, “the multitude of details that make up human life” that Kis has so patiently collected attains cosmic proportions and universal importance. The details are what the universe of “Garden, Ashes” -- the universe marked by genocide -- is made of. Kis is much like the contemporary physicist who needs to study matter at subatomic levels to understand how space came into being, while understanding, even if unwillingly, how an apocalypse can stem from “science.”

Kis’s sensibility is a materialist one: The world consists of material particles that are experienced by people in history, as transcendence went up in the air through the chimneys of Auschwitz. Hence he employs his detail to enter philosophical depths, to reach ontological conclusions. This requires even more, rather than less, precision -- the more abstract the thought, the more it has to be pinpointed by the specificity of the detail. In “Garden, Ashes,” for example, Andi suffers from insomnia, caused by the presence of death in his thoughts (and everywhere around him): “When I thought of death, and I thought of it as soon as darkness enveloped the room, the thought unwound itself, like a roll of black silk thrown from a fourth-floor window. No matter how hard I tried the thought inexorably unwound to the end, borne along by its own weight.”

Every time I read this passage I hear the fluttering of silk, the sound of the idea of death. The idea has been materialized: The black silk roll is the objective correlative of a death thought, evanescent and evasive though it may be. But Kis knows that to achieve this, the writing has to be absolutely precise: The death silk roll is thrown from the fourth floor, not the third floor or the fifth floor. (In the Serbo-Croatian original, the roll is thrown from the third floor, but that is because what is the first floor in the U.S. is the mezzanine in Europe -- the translator, to his credit, felt compelled to be just as precise as Kis.) There is, of course, no way of knowing what the difference in the roll unwinding would be if it were thrown from the third or the fifth floor, but by refusing to leave it open to negotiation, Kis suggests that he knows exactly what he is talking about, and who are we not to trust him? Clearly, we are in the hands of a master, confident in his own experience and competence as well as in the reader’s intelligence, a far cry from cowardly contemporary writing, ever fretting over the impatient, lazy reader.

I have taught “Garden, Ashes” to American students even though everything was set against it: a book, barely in print at the time, by an obscure Eastern European writer, dealing with the Holocaust, to which the students were trained to respond in a ready-made, cliched way (“Never again!” plus tolerance and respect for “other cultures” as the opposite of racism). On top of that, “Garden, Ashes” is a book that is easy to describe as demanding, a crippling epithet in American mainstream culture, which bends over backward to make the consumer-citizen happy and undisturbed.


But once I managed to convince them that demanding is not only OK but necessary, that history, the suffering of others, the need for communicating the incommunicable must be demanding, they could discover the beauty of Kis’s poetry, the force of his imagination, the power of his literature. They could learn that those who find the world undemanding are either idiots or backed by a vast, mindless military power or, as is the case now, both. And my students loved it. Let us, then, not mince words and get to the reading of “Garden, Ashes,” a masterpiece that teaches us how to face history with language. *