Maybe Aleksandar Hemon is on to something in his introduction to Psalm 44 when he exclaims that writers today are not telling enough truly difficult stories. Taboo subjects are only occasionally integrated into novels, and when this does happen, off-limit themes are too often utilized to serve the progression of a lighter, more palatable plot. Jonathan Safran Foer's perhaps-too-soon novel Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close comes to mind: revolving around the 9/11 tragedy, Foer's novel is steeped in sadness but eventually morphs into a heartwarming story with a memorable cast of characters. Readers are introduced to his novel by way of our shared horrific history, only to walk away with something entirely different.
There is something admirable about approaching a deeply wounded story in this way: perhaps this helps us as readers cope and engage with the unacceptable when accepting is not so easy an option. But Hemon suggests that this is a timid attempt at facing tragedy. They may be difficult, or just completely unenjoyable to read, but where are the stories that confront the darkness, wallow in it, and reinforce how miserable life can actually be?
Serbian author Danilo Kiš (1935-1989) steps up to this challenge, and with devastating results. As Hemon describes, "The greatness of Kiš's work lies in his unflinching willingness to confront and (re)imagine the horrors of history as experienced by human beings. The aim of his work is not to bear witness...but to reconfirm the value of individual experience." Kiš jabs his quill into a hornet's nest of difficult plots and stands strong against the history that buzzes after him.
Psalm 44, Kiš's second novel, was written when Kiš was only twenty-five. That may seem staggeringly young, but at this time Kiš was old enough to lose his father and much of his family in Nazi concentration camps. Psalm 44 tells the story of Marija, a new mother who tries to escape a camp with her infant son and meet up with her husband on the outside. Marija's plight is rendered uninhibitedly (and almost maliciously) by Kiš: Much of the story takes place in a single room, crammed full of women who are on polar opposite ends of their life-lines. Kiš focuses his eye equally on the women who are relentlessly menstruating as he does those women dying on the floor. Life and death consume these women: "It didn't seem to [Marija] that she could think of anything else or do anything else, not until whatever it was came out, whatever it was concerning herself and those three other women, for little Erzika Kon had been among them at first, Erzika Kon who had earlier, one night, hurled herself at the wire and fallen, riddled with bullets, forgetting everything, because that's what death is, To forget everything, she thought..." Marija's infant son Jan rests nearby as she tries to dry his diapers using only the warmth of her own body.
Occasionally, Kiš utilizes these characters to purge some jarring, over-wrought polemic, but most of the novel's success comes from Kiš's ability to write without a specific timeline. Marija, stuck waiting for a signal from Maks, drifts backwards through her memories by way of astonishingly hazy, captivating prose. Flashbacks occasionally flash further back, to her childhood and the moment she first learned what "Für Juden Verboten" meant.
With the exception of the occasional heavy-handed literary aggression, Kiš drifts through Marija's history in Psalm 44 with remarkable capability. Kiš writes with a Proust-like command of memory, but with a venomous cant that's so rare to find in literature these days. By burrowing into the darkest corners of the human condition, Kiš achieves something remarkable with his prose: despite the acidity of a novel like Psalm 44, it's obvious that this is a book (and an author) that will greatly influence the canon.