From The Encyclopedia of the Dead
There’s a lovely sequence in Wayne Wang and Paul Auster’s 1995 film Smoke in which Auggie Wren (played by Harvey Keitel) shows the writer Paul Benjamin (played by William Hurt) a series of photo albums. Every day for more than a decade, at the same time every morning, Auggie has set up his camera at the same spot on a New York City corner and taken a photo. Paul flips through the albums cursorily, barely glancing at each snapshot, until Auggie tells him to slow down. “You’ll never get it if you don’t slow down.” Paul’s reaction is puzzlement: “They’re all the same.”
But the point of Auggie’s project (which is adapted from Auster’s novella Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story) is that despite surface similarities, every photo is different. “You’ve got your bright mornings and your dark mornings, you’ve got your summer light and your autumn light, you’ve got your weekdays and your weekends, you’ve got your people in overcoats and galoshes and you’ve got your T-shirts and shorts. Sometimes the same people, sometimes different ones. Sometimes the different ones become the same and the same ones disappear.” Which is why Paul needs to slow down: only then will he be able to appreciate the subtle distinctions in each individual photo.
What Auggie calls his “life’s work” is really an exercise in seeing, an ongoing attempt to document the minute quotidian details of life on his little corner in Brooklyn. It is also, and importantly, a record of people who would otherwise not have their lives commemorated in art; regular folk, working folk, everyday denizens of the neighbourhood who do not aspire to fame or notoriety, but who are nonetheless worthy of attention and recognition.
In this, Auggie’s photo series shares something in common with The Encyclopedia of the Dead, the staggering, multi-volume document at the heart of Danilo Kis’s understated story.
An unnamed woman travelling in Sweden is taken to a library where she is admitted into the labyrinth of rooms that house The Encyclopedia of the Dead: a sprawling, Borgesian work containing the details of everyone who has died since the year 1789. Or, not quite everyone: the encyclopedia does not contain entries for anyone famous enough to appear in any other reference book. The people whose lives are documented in The Encyclopedia of the Dead are ordinary, run of the mill citizens, people who lived and died in anonymity. Once such person is the woman’s father – identified in the story only as D.M. She spends an indeterminate period during the night reading the entry dedicated to him.
The Encyclopedia of the Dead is the last book Kis published before his death from cancer in 1989; the stories in the short volume serve as a distillation of the author’s attitudes toward literature and the politics of Eastern Europe. In the introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of the work, Mark Thompson quotes Aleksandr Hemon as suggesting, “The absolute value of the individual is the crucial premise of Kis’s poetics and also his politics.” This notion of the “absolute value of the individual,” so prevalent among artists and dissidents (who were often one and the same) living behind the Iron Curtain after the Second World War, finds its apotheosis in the fictional encyclopedia.
About “The Encyclopedia of the Dead,” Thompson writes:
Kis called the story a “condensed novel” about “an ordinary Yugoslav man.” It was an elegy for his country when it still had a decade to live. But it is also much more than this. The English critic Chris Miller hails the story as “a Borgesian fantasy, a celebration of life, a meta-fiction on the impossible ideal of fiction, and a political ideal.” … For Julia Creet, the story is about hypermnesia, “the dream of complete knowledge.” For historian Angus Calder, it “speaks for all the forgotten and anonymous dead” in twentieth-century Europe. The story feels as universal as that, while it takes its place in a strain of half-mystical Jewish writing about redemption by narrative.
These are grand interpretations and Kis’s story is capacious enough to encompass them, though the experience of reading the story feels like a deep immersion in the minute details of a fairly unexceptional life. (Auggie Wren’s suggestion is valid here as well: the best way a reader can approach this story is first by slowing down.)
One moment in the story can stand for the whole, as it elides both the personal and the political overtones in Kis’s writing. While reading about D.M.’s military service, the narrator notes her father’s first, distant glimpse of the Adriatic Sea, which he imagines as a pristine body of placid, untainted water. He holds this image with him for some 40 years until his family finally convinces him to take a vacation to the Adriatic, where he is dismayed by the pollution and the jellyfish. “That was the last time he went to the seaside for his summer holiday,” the narrator comments. “Now I know that something died in him then, like a dear friend – a distant dream, a distant illusion (if it were an illusion) that he had borne with him for forty years.”
The story’s subtitle is “A Whole Life,” and this is what the narrative presents to us: a vision of a life arrayed from birth to death and dominated by unremarkable, everyday details that nevertheless contain multitudes. At the end of the story, the narrator is revealed to have dreamt the encyclopedia, though that does not make it any less resonant for a reader. Like Auggie Wren’s photo albums, the encyclopedia – imaginative figment though it may be – offers a way to filter ordinary life through the revivifying and elevating lens of art in a way that both documents and honours it.