Sunday, October 17, 2010

Aimless Reading: The K's, Part 15 (Danilo Kiš)


garden, ashes
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Kiš, Danilo
garden, ashes


Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books. The book had been recommended to me by two Balkan poets who visited Buffalo in, I think, 2005 or 6, Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinović and Slovenian poet Aleš Debeljak.

At the time, I was just beginning to read novels for pleasure again after not having read a single one in at least ten years. I was reading Paul Celan pretty intently and this fit right in, with its compressed poetic rendering of a future artist's childhood during the holocaust.

My memory is mostly of the incredible detail with which he rendered objects, as seen in the excerpt below, which opens the book.

from garden, ashes

Late in the morning on summer days, my mother would come into the room softly, carrying that tray of hers. The tray was beginning to lose its thin nickelized glaze. Along the edges where its level surface bent upward slightly to form a raised rim, traces of its former splendor were still present in flaky patches of nickel that looked like tin foil pressed out under the fingernails. The narrow, flat rim ended in an oval trough that bent downward and was banged in and misshapen. Tiny decorative protuberances – a whole chain of little metallic grapes – had been impressed on the upper edge of the rim. Anyone holding the tray (usually my mother) was bound to feel at least three or four of these semicylindrical protuberances, like Braille letters, under the flesh of the thumb. Right there, around those grapes, ringlike layers of grease had collected, barely visible, like shadows cast by little cupolas. These small rings, the color of dirt under fingernails were the remnants of coffee grounds, cod-liver oil, honey sherbet. Thin crescents on the smooth, shiny surface of the tray showed where glasses had just been removed. Without opening my eyes, I knew from the crystal tinkling of teaspoons against glasses that my mother had set down the tray for a moment and was moving toward the window, the picture of determination, to push the dark curtain aside. Then the room would come aglow in the dazzling light of the morning, and I would shut my eyes tightly as the spectrum alternated from yellow to blue to red. On her tray, with her jar of honey and her bottle of cod-liver oil, my mother carried to us the amber hues of sunny days, thick concentrates full of intoxicating aromas. The little jars and glasses were just samples, specimens of the new lands at which the foolish barge of our days would be putting ashore on those summer mornings. Fresh water glistened in the glass, and we would drink it down expertly, in tiny sips, clucking like experienced tasters. We would sometimes express dissatisfaction by grimacing and coughing: the water was tasteless, greasy like rainwater, and full of autumnal sediment, while the honey had lost its color and turned thick and turbid, showing the first signs of crystallization. On rainy days, cloudy and gloomy, our fingerprints would stay on the teaspoon handle. Then, sad and disappointed, hating to get up, we would back under the covers to sleep through a day that had started out badly.

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