Garden, Ashes

Danilo Kis

translated from the Serbo-Croatian by William J. Hannaher
Dalkey Archive Press 2003 [1965]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004
Told from the perspective of Andi Scham, a young child in Hungary during the Second World War, Garden, Ashes is largely autobiographical — Danilo Kis' own father was a Hungarian Jew who died in Auschwitz in 1944. While its portrait of a fallen-on-hard-times middle class family in wartime Hungary is compelling in its detail, however, the most striking elements of Garden, Ashes are more universal.

Andi's story contains intense, powerful evocations of childhood fear, wonder and excitement: the discovery of death, the mystery of sleep, train travel, reliving the Bible stories, a precocious love for a girl, intense hunger, and more. The shadows over his family are always there, but the exuberance of childhood is stronger and the mood is not at all gloomy. Kis' prose is richly detailed — with extended descriptions of ordinary items such as a tray or a sewing machine used to good effect — and the English translation is often close to poetry.

"My mother flips the light switch. The checkered oilcloth glistens on the table, and I reach to touch it: still a little slippery from grease, and the cuts here and there darkened by now, looking like healed scars. The moisture on the ceiling has given form to a giant who has become our good spirit, the guardian of our house: full-bearded like the prophets of the Hebrews, he holds in his right hand the tablets, in his left our lamp with porcelain shade that resembles an upside-down spittoon — a comparison taken literally by flies."

Interwoven with Andi's story is that of his father Eduard; here the narrator's perspective combines later knowledge with childhood fantasies and myths. The family's poverty results from Eduard's obsession with the Bus, Ship, Rail, and Air Travel Guide, which turns what was originally a borderline commercial enterprise into a polymathic delving into minutiae, complete with routes to Nicaragua. Proud and acerbic, he soon wears out the welcome of relatives and his family ends up moving around the country. Eduard is always going away, sometimes for weeks at a time, but he maintains some elements of respectability even when wandering the woods and living as a tramp — and his eloquence is capable of charming free drinks from barmaids or calming a lynch mob.

It's not clear which of Eduard's many departures is his last, but one day he goes away never to return. And there are other episodes which touch on the fate of the Hungarian Jews: a mob outside the door one evening, Jewish neighbours packing their belongings into carts, a visit to a holding centre... Their end is not described, however, or even understood by the narrator: Garden, Ashes is a novel not about the Holocaust but about one small story on its edge, about a childhood and the loss of a father.

August 2004

External links:
- buy from or
- review and links at the Complete Review
- details at Dalkey Archive Press
Related reviews:
- Danilo Kis - A Tomb for Boris Davidovich
- books about Eastern Europe + Eastern European history
- more Serbo-Croatian literature
- books published by Dalkey Archive Press
%T Garden, Ashes
%A Kis, Danilo
%M Serbo-Croatian
%F Hannaher, William J.
%I Dalkey Archive Press
%D 2003 [1965]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 156478326X
%P 170pp