Serbian Classics has published a long-awaited English translation of Danilo Kis’s first novel, Mansarda. Kis, one of the most critically praised writers from the former Yugoslavia, made his reputation with the novels Garden, Ashes and Hourglass. A collection of short stories centered around the Stalinist purges of the ‘30s, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, caused him a great deal of trouble from the Yugoslav government, which was very vigilant about the slightest criticism of the Titoist regime. This is an irony that Kis probably appreciated since Stalin and Tito were great political enemies. Mansarda, however, is a different kind of novel which is more introspective and less political than his later works.
Mansarda seems very much like a first novel with the bohemian protagonist Orpheus, a thin stand in for Kis himself, experimenting with a variety of styles to tell his story of a self- conscious young artist struggling to find his place in the world. “Mansarda” means “a small attic loft,” and this is where most of the important action takes place. In keeping with the novel’s themes, the loft is decorated with symbols and artwork from Greek mythology. Orpheus shares the loft with his best friend and alter ego, affectionately dubbed “Billy Wise Ass” but later revealed to have the more common name Igor. The loft functions as a boy’s clubhouse crossed with a creative womb as Orpheus and Igor debate art, philosophy, poetry, and love.
The object of Orpheus’s affection is the beautiful Eurydice, who remains elusive. To clear his mind, Orpheus travels to the mythical Bay of Dolphins to gain knowledge from the natives about their rather extreme mating rituals. Males have to slash their wrists to prove their love for their mates which reflects Orpheus’s almost suicidal desire for Eurydice. His immature desire reveals a madonna/whore complex; later, Eurydice literally works as a pornographic model.
More than a love story, Mansarda is also about the creative process and an artist’s quest for authenticity. Orpheus seems to be aware of the limits of the traditional narrative. Indeed, Kis has Orpheus express himself using many different forms including poetry, music (the lute features prominently), mythology, and even menu items from an inn he and Billy Wise Ass own. He puts dialogue from Thomas Mann’s novel Der Zauberberg into his characters’ mouths. There are stories within stories, poems within poems, and a story with more than one telling. In the first version, a sailor merely finishes his meal at Orpheus’s inn and leaves; during the second and more interesting one, he accidentally shoots himself with the “house pistol.”
Inevitably, the novel collapses in on itself, as Orpheus is revealed at the end to be the author of Mansarda. This move into meta-fiction makes sense since this is Kis’s first novel; by pulling back from the narrative, Kis allows the reader into the mind of an artist at work. Orpheus’s variety of storytelling techniques are dazzling and represent a young mind trying to incorporate much of its precocious learning into a first novel. It can also represent the polygot nature of Kis’s homeland. Kis grew up in Vojvodina which is the most diverse province in the former Yugoslavia.
Mansarda is an excellent book. Kis writes in a simple and clear style which highlights his complex and rich ideas. The introduction by John K. Cox helpfully places Kis within the wider context of twentieth-century European literature, and the footnotes explain some of the more esoteric details. One caveat: Cox does not provide a translation for the extensive verbatim passages from Thomas Mann’s novel. Even though this is an intellectual novel, Kis never takes himself too seriously. There are many puns and witty asides that serve to puncture Orpheus’s self-importance. Some feminists might be upset with Kis’s portrayal of women because they are merely stage props in Orpheus’s mind. Orpheus even physically assaults a lower class woman, and it is played off lightly. That criticism aside, this book is highly recommended for both general readers and those interested in filling out their collection of Kis’s works.