by Danilo Kiš
"Some heavy blue autumn plums dropped onto the path from a shadowy tree whose branches jutted over a fence. I had never believed that such firm blue plums could exist in autumn. But back then we were so preoccupied with our embraces that we didn't pay any attention to things like that." (5)
This is a story about a young man in Belgrade named Orpheus. His name alone resonates both in a literary and in a mythical way, creating an interest in his story from the opening pages. It also helped that, as the translator wrote, he is "a writer and a lute-player," and "a philosopher, a dreamer and--probably--a perpetual student". Thus he is a man after my own heart. What followed the opening was a dream-like, somewhat picaresque tale of his experiences in Belgrade with his friends, neighbors and a young girl named Eurydice. He describes that he first met her during a period when "I was feverishly demanding answers from life, so I was caught up in myself". (10) One of the list of philosophical questions (Orpheus liked to make lists, not unlike a literary predecessor named Rabelais) that he was contemplating was, conveniently, "the question of love", which leads him into an attempt to describe Eurydice. Here is his attempt to describe her voice:
"The voice of a silver harp, of a viola with a mute, of a Renaissance lute, the voice of a Swedish guitar with thirteen strings, of Gothic organs or a miniature harpsichord, of a violin staccato or a guitar arpeggio in a minor key." (12) Did I mention the dream-like quality of the story?
Orpheus lives in an attic with his friend Igor and the episodes in his life are strikingly imaginative, providing a contrast with his encounters with other people who seem reality-bound in contrast. Early in the book he describes his attempts to protect his books from rats, but this episode like so many others could easily be a dream. It is not that he does not notice the world around him, for at one point he decides to meet the world as it really is; but this does not deter him from his primary aim. He plans with his friend Igor (also known as Billy Wiseass) to "dedicate ourselves to our studies" at a rented tavern in a small country town. ""Books are an invention. . . But we will gather around us all kinds of desperados (we especially like this word in those days) and listen to authentic stories, authentic life experiences. Only that will constitute the true school of life," Billy explained excitedly." (74)
Orpheus is writing a book called The Attic, as he tells his neighbor one morning. The neighbor replies that Orpheus should be careful not to ruin his eyesight with writing by candlelight. Rather he should write by daylight or at least accept the light bulb offered to him. Orpheus replies that "I write by candlelight . . . So that I create the right atmosphere." (108)
This is a novel written by candlelight and it is in the shadows that the world creeps into the life of young Orpheus. His real life is in his mind and it is as interesting and beautiful as any imagined world could ever be. His life is the artist's life and his world is the writer's world with lists of qualities, learned digressions, and a touch of irony. In all of this the literary allusions seem fitting, just as the book naturally becomes a bit of a miniature bildungsroman.
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