There are two reasons for me to bring Danilo Kiš’s The Encyclopedia of the Dead into my scented library. First of all, his short stories were recommended by a Bois de Jasmin reader, Maja. Second, Kiš (pronounced as Kish) is a master at describing the intangible and the evanescent. Born in Subotica, Danube Banovina, Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Kiš (1935–1989) came from a family that he described as “an ethnographic rarity,” an artifact of the disappearing world–his father was of Hungarian Jewish origin, while his mother came from Montenegro. The lack of precision and neatly defined categories that mark the countries on the crossroads, the borderlands, are sometimes seen as problematic. But Kiš’s work, with its complex panoply of inspirations and traditions, shows that nebulous boundaries can produce many riches.
The Encyclopedia of the Dead, written in 1983, contains 9 stories. Kiš insisted that he was writing neither science fiction nor fantasy, placing himself in the magical realism tradition of Jorge Luis Borges. There are references to many different writers such as James Joyce, Bruno Schulz, Vladimir Nabokov, Ivo Andrić and Miroslav Krleža, but inspiration from Borges is the main leitmotif. Some stories answer Borges’s puzzles, others take up Borges’s challenges–“let us imagine that someone shows a story instead of telling it…” (Borges, “Averroës’ Search”).