A Bitter Sediment Of Time

ANA ŠOMLO, fragment from book My Book World – Reading Diary, Pesic and sons, Belgrade, 2008 / ANA ŠOMLO, odlomak iz knjige "Moj svet knjiga – Dnevnik čitanja", Pešić i sinovi, Beograd, 2008


Literature corrects history in the way of presenting events or through its scientific approach by making it not only concrete, but much more than that, by liberating it from anonymity and endowing it with an overall human dimension

While half asleep I was watching the 2877-th episode of the TV soap opera "LIVING ONE'S LIFE" the ringing of the phone mixed with the air conditioning buzz. I decided to wait for the second ring to be sure that it is not Dorian (from the soap opera) calling his niece Blair (in this particular TV episode), but a call for me. The ring of my phone sounds exactly like that on TV. My thermometer shows the temperature close to 40 C. and I now believe that the phone call is for me. Yet, I didn't feel like getting up. It may be someone from the Agency, assuming that I have just arrived, or perhaps that I arrived from Odessa to Natanya long ago. They will be surprised when they realize that they cannot communicate in Russian with someone called ANA. I am waiting for the ringing to stop. This is not my phone number in Njegoseva Street in Belgrade and this is not a call from a friend inviting me to a cup of coffee or from someone informing me about the dress rehearsal in the Yugoslav Drama Theatre which I would probably enjoy. The phone does not stop ringing. Now I am sure that it is a call from the Association of Hungarian Immigrants inviting me to a social evening with music and entertainment they organize and on account of my family name they won't believe that I don't understand their language. I am totally wrong. This is Lily Zamir's voice. She is calling from Jerusalem. We haven't heard from each other for several years, but I still remember her voice and I am sure that my guess will be right – in the very first sentence she will mention Danilo Kish. And it happened. "Ana – said she – do you remember when you introduced me to Danilo Kish? You are the only person capable of translating into Serbian my Ph.D. thesis, because you have already seen the text, leafed through it and also written about it. After all, it is our commitment to Danilo Kish. Both mine and yours." We don't know whether someone in Belgrade will publish the thesis, but I already feel Danilo's questioning eyes looking at me while taking from the book shelf his GARDEN, ASHES, ANATOMY CLASS, THE TOMB… Back to the phone I say: "Listen, your thesis has 327 pages, its enormous work." But, judging by the ring of my voice Lily Zamir realizes that I simply cannot say NO. BETWEEN HISTORY AND FICTION – DANILO KISH AND HIS PROSE is the title of her Ph.D. thesis. I tell her that in my diary I have just jotted down some thoughts on history and truth, and that I have been engrossed in the topic for a whole month. "All the more so" – says Lily – and I was already busy clearing my desk and putting on it all kinds of dictionaries. There is no space for all books by Kish and I have to arrange them on the chairs all over the room. I'll need them because, I very well remember, there are many quotations in the thesis and I'll have to compare them with the original text.


Reading her Introduction I tried to reveal what really inspired the young literature professor at the Jerusalem University to select just the work of Danilo Kish for the topic of her Ph.D. thesis. "I have read the novel GARDEN, ASHES translated into Hebrew by Amacia Porat – says Lily Zamir in her Introduction – It was love at first sight, from the very first chapter. The landscapes described by Kish revived in me not only the memories of my childhood, but much more than that, I could see the horizons and smell the scents my parents used to talk about in their house. Actually, the pictures from Kish's imagination merged with the pictures my father used to visually depict for me. I got very excited and decided to read everything Kish had written. Unfortunately, in Israel I couldn't find a single of his books translated into Hebrew…" Lily Zamir's research brought her to Yugoslavia. She even started learning Serbian. She got as far as THE ANATOMY CLASS, HOMO POETICUS and ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE DEAD. She has read all his books, with the help of Dina Katan-Bencion, the translator of Kish's books into Hebrew. "I didn't have an insight into the critical works dealing with Danilo Kish and his literature but I had the honour to establish a personal contact with him, to consult him and on the ground of the thoughts he shared with me analyze and understand his literature." Once again I am struck by a most unusual coincidence. Namely, at the point in time when I tought I had closed a circle of history and literature a mere accident made me return to that topic (in spite of so many others). I go on reading: "The work of Danilo Kish moves between history and literature and represents a monument to the Jewish spirit of the Central Europe that no longer exists. This is also a kind of archeology of personal experience. Literature corrects history in the way of presenting events or through its scientific approach by making it not only concrete, but much more than that, by liberating it from anonymity and endowing it with an overall human dimension – as he told me during one of our talks in Belgrade, in the summer of 1989" – says Lily Zamir at the end of her Introduction.


I leaf through the BITTER SEDIMENT OF TIME – This is a collection of interviews with Kish, edited by Mirjana Miocinovic. My glance falls on the question asked by Boro Krivokapic: "What is your view on a whole range of different nationalisms showing their teeth from the historical frame of this century?" and his answer: "In the first place nationalism is a kind of paranoia. A collective and individual paranoia. As a collective paranoia it stems from envy and fear and is, above all, the result of a lost individual consciousness. If, within a social project, an individual is not able to "express" himself, or because a given social project does not suit him, does not encourage him in any way, or fetters him as an individual, in other words prevents him from reaching his entity, then the individual, at least apparently, sets himself a task of historical importance: the survival and prestige of his own nation, the preservation of tradition and the national sacred values in the sphere of philosophy, ethics, literature, folklore, etc. Under the pressure of this secret, semi-public or public mission N.N. becomes a man of action, a national tribune, an illusion of individualism. When we reduce him to that level, to his right level, after having separated him from his herd we find before us an individual without individualism, a nationalist…" Kish mentions Sartre's Jules, Jules who turns pale whenever someone mentions anything connected with England and the English. "Don't mention English tea in front of him because all those sitting round the table will start winking, making signs with their hands and pushing you with their legs, because Jules is very sensitive when it comes to anything English…". Just think of the kinds of tea that are no longer to our taste. Even the famous Russian tea is not our cup of tea any more. As for the English tea, we stopped drinking it long ago. Dog rose tea is our only choice available. Kish was clairvoyant. Like they were doing in the Middle ages at the Resava school for copying texts I could embark on a similar project and start copying the texts of Danilo Kish, the texts his literary father Edward Sam would be proud of and would pay him tribute by taking off his bowler, swinging his walking stick and bowing before his prophetic son.

July 2000


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