Press release Jan Michalski Prize 2015
Montricher, 25th November 2015
The jury of the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature has awarded this year’s prize to the British historian Mark Thompson for Birth Certificate: The Story of Danilo Kiš. This book looks at the life and writing of Danilo Kiš, a Yugoslav novelist, essayist and poet. It restores Kiš to his essential position as one of the great European writers of the 20th century.
Birth Certificate: The Story of Danilo Kiš is not only a rich and sensitive biography of this important writer, but also a retelling of the complex history of the Balkans and Central Europe through the prism of his life. Comprehensive, erudite and illuminating, Mark Thompson’s book celebrates and resurrects a talent that Milan Kundera hailed as “great and invisible”.
Born in 1935 to a Hungarian Jewish father and a Montenegrin mother, in Subotica, on Yugoslavia’s borders with Hungary and Romania, and baptised in the Orthodox Church, Kiš had many identities. The remarkable story of his life reflects the violent fate of Central Europe in the 20th century: the Holocaust and concentration camps, the Second World War, resettlements, Communist rule, and the rise of nationalism. It also anticipated the collapse of Yugoslavia, two years after his death in 1989.
Cosmopolitan, anti-communist, but also anti-nationalist, Kiš insisted on the writer’s independence from ideology. A stylist of rare purity, and also a prolific translator from French, Russian and Hungarian into Serbo-Croatian, he was committed to the universality of literature. “Nationalism”, he wrote in The Anatomy Lesson, “thrives on relativism. It admits no universal values – aesthetic, ethical, etc. And because its only values are relative, it is a reactionary ideology.”
His books were playful in form, allowing multiple voices and multiple perspectives. Thompson’s biography echoes Kiš’ experimentalism by being itself unusual in structure. Thompson looks attentively, sentence by sentence, at Birth Certificate, a short autobiographical text written by Kiš. He illuminates each section’s background and history, comments on the text and explores additional documentary material, giving a vivid and nuanced portrait of a man, a writer and his times.
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