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the encyclopedia of the dead

For fans of the vertiginous fictions of Borges, the short story collection 'The Encyclopedia of the Dead' by Serbian writer Danilo Kiš is worth checking out. Kiš, greatly influenced by Borges, uses the same dense intertextuality and metaphysical themes, though tinged with a typical Balkan-style magical realism that is also found in Pavić.

In the title story, 'The Encyclopedia of the Dead', a woman tells of her discovery, in a library in Stockholm, of a vast encyclopedia containing the complete biographies of every dead human of the past centuries. (A premise which reminds of Borges' 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' as well as 'The Library of Babel'.)

The woman discovers the entry for her recently died father, and she spends a whole night reading about his life, frantically taking notes in order to "make a kind of summary of my father's life". In the Encyclopedia, every life is recorded in overwhelming, Proustian detail, of which all she can do is copy a few phrases and words. As she describes it, reading about her father as a young boy:

Nothing, as I have said, is lacking, nothing omitted, neither the condition of the road nor the hues of the sky, and the list of paterfamilias Marko's worldly possessions is complete to the last detail. Nothing has been forgotten, not even the names of the authors of old textbooks and primers full of well-meaning advice, cautionary tales, and biblical parables. Every period of life, every experience is recorded: every fish caught, every page read, the name of every plant the boy ever picked.

The rest of the story is on the one hand a reflection on the Encyclopedia, which, as the female narrator surmises, must be the stupendous project of some religious sect "whose democratic program stresses an egalitarian vision of the world of the dead." On the other hand, the story is that "summary of my father's life", a nostalgic though troubled tale of post-WWII life in Yugoslavia. This is where Kiš differs from Borges, who never bothered with much actual 'flesh and blood' storytelling, instead crystalizing his stories into 'pure' metaphysical parables. In 'The Encyclopedia of the Dead', it is the biographical story, and particularly all its daily details, which gives the overarching theme its poignancy.

After all - and this is what I consider the compilers' central message - nothing in the history of mankind is ever repeated, things that at first glance seem the same are scarcely even similar; each individual is a star unto himself, everything happens always and never, all things repeat themselves ad infinitum yet are unique. (That is why the authors of the majestic monument to diversity that is The Encyclopedia of the Dead stress the particular; that is why every human being is sacred to them.)

Though the story's final, horrific twist (which doesn't need to be revealed here) reveals the existence of the Encyclopedia - along with its promise of total, factual remembrance - to be an illusion, it brings out the basic human yearning to remember the past all the more starkly. Instead of making memory into an abstract and endless labyrinth, as Borges does, Kiš is concerned with the emotional charge of history as "the totality of ephemeral happenings".

See also: Borges' influence on Kiš at The Modern Word.


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