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This review is taken from PN Review 214, Volume 40 Number 2, November - December 2013.

Dark Materials mark thompson, Birth Certificate: The Story of Danilo Kiš (Cornell University Press) £24.95

Mark Thompson's biography of Danilo Kiš takes its cue from Hourglass, a work often regarded as Kiš's masterpiece; just as the novel exploits the full panoply of modernist techniques to interrogate a semi-authentic letter, so Thompson interrogates Kiš's rather misleading autobiographical fragment, 'Birth Certificate', phrase by phrase, to generate an exemplary account of his life and works. The son of a Hungarian Jew and an Orthodox Montenegrin mother, brought up first in rural Hungary, then in Montenegro, completing his higher education in Belgrade, the young Kiš survived the Holocaust (his father and father's family did not) and the welter of mini-Holocausts within wartime Yugoslavia, going on to write in a language whose 'demise' he lived to see. His biographer must therefore have a thorough understanding of a European hinterland of great historical complexity in addition to a literary sensitivity and linguistic competence commensurate with the challenges of Kiš's remarkable oeuvre.

Thompson is more than equal to these tasks. If the burden of Kiš's oeuvre is to restore the uniqueness of individual life against its casual and arbitrary annihilation, it had, by the time of the late story 'The Encyclopaedia of the Dead', begun to shore biographical fragments, fictional or otherwise, against not merely the genocide in which his father had been sacrificed but the arbitrary annihilation necessarily implied by mortality. By adopting both Kiš's methods and his goal, Thompson makes of his account of the man's life and works something like an extension of them. But his inquiry into the dark and fissiparous materials of ...

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