Even without such clarifying collisions with its raw, unadorned progenitors in the real world, Kiš’s prose at its best creates a nimbus of the ideal – it is generated, exhaled, by the perfection of his style – which he sets against the dark materials of his novels and stories. One source of the impulse to write about Kiš was my fascination with the effects he achieved by working out his unflinching themes in such wrought and artful language. To write a biography of so transparently autobiographical a writer could seem an odd undertaking: a painstaking labour to decipher what is perfectly obvious or, even worse, irrelevant. For Kiš is the opposite of those writers who disguise the real-life originals of characters or events in their fiction—and whose biographers can therefore usefully, or at least amusingly, detect and map the connections. The interest, for Kiš and for his readers, was not who underlay his characters, but how they were changed by being “transposed” (a key verb in his critical vocabulary) into fiction. Asked about the resemblances between the family in his novel Garden, Ashes and his own family, Kiš said “I am convinced that it is me, that it’s my father, my mother, my sister—that they are us as we should have been” if history had not crushed them. The candour of that statement, with none of the coyness or showing-off that mar most interviews with writers, was characteristic.
In homage to Kiš’s exuberant formal inventiveness, Thompson has structured his biography not in linear, historical fashion, but as a text about a text: a series of commentaries on a single short piece that Kiš once published, called “Birth Certificate”. As usual with Kiš, however, this birth certificate is no such thing: it is a miniature autobiography that freely moves between fact and the fantastical, deliberately embellishing and appropriating stories for thematic effect. Some readers of Thompson’s biography, therefore, might perhaps prefer a more traditional, less zigzagging form. There are moments when it causes problems of comprehension, when, faced with pile-ups of parentheses, the reader is sent forwards or backwards to other chapters for explanation. But in the end, this essayistic method is powerfully convincing. This is partly due to Thompson’s research: he has visited all the deadbeat Central European villages, recorded interviews with Kiš’s café companions. But there is also a deeper reason. Kiš’s own “Birth Certificate” is a text constantly buckling with small repressions, trying to give form to the various traumas that made up his life. It is an acrobatics of raw and precarious sprezzatura. Just as there is also a single, larger repression: this text is weighted towards his childhood, the period which furnished him with his fiction’s material. His life after he leaves university is hardly mentioned – which means that this birth certificate silently deletes the mess of literary politics in Belgrade in the 1970s and 80s that Kiš had to negotiate – and which conditioned his career. “Birth Certificate”, after all, was written in Paris – where Kiš lived from 1979 in self-imposed exile. That exile was a trauma of a different kind. And so Thompson’s method of close readings, commenting on Kiš’s sentences, clause by clause, becomes a delicate way of illuminating these various repressions and deletions – Kiš’s oblique approaches to catastrophe.