‘Red Stamps with Lenin’s Picture’ by Danilo Kiš, translated by Michael Henry Heim

Yugoslavian writer Danilo Kiš used documentary forms to challenge the truth of official papers and sacred texts. I love him for this. ‘Red Stamps with Lenin’s Picture’ is classic Kišean obfuscation in that every word suffers from its elusive nature, and conspiracies wait to bloom between events and signs. Subtitled “Song of Songs, 8:6,” the story doesn’t actually include the text of the epigraph. Instead, Kiš alludes to it. Allusion is central to what he called  his “metaphysical fiction.”

Structured as an epistolary addressed to the biographer of Yiddish poet Mendel Osipovitch, the speaker tells the lecturer that she is writing in response to a question he posed to the audience at a recent lecture, namely: “What has become of Mendel Osipovitch’s correspondence?”

According to the speaker, the person who holds the key to this mystery was sitting at the public lecture, among those “who, in fact come only to forget, for a moment, their own loneliness, filled, as it is, with thoughts of death, or simply to see another human being.” Alone, the speaker is surrounded by her memories, and her memories “are people, like a huge graveyard.” (Like his speaker, Kiš remains on intimate terms with the dead. Fragments of dialogue can be traced back to things the author said in essays or interviews.)

The letter-writer sanctifies objects by mentioning them— a kid glove, a black velvet ribbon, the bones of old poems—a lush orchestration of details connecting Catallus to “variations on the theme of bedbugs.” One reads Kiš for the devastating cadence of his sentences: “I remember the description of a tree, a simile, in which the crickets beneath a hotel window in the Crimea chirp like wristwatches being wound, the etymology of the name, of a city, the interpretation of a nightmare.”

One senses his kinship with Lev Shestov in the deployment of metaphysical estrangement, as when “the two events merged into a single image.” The poet is prophet in Kiš; the speaker admits this when she says “since poets speak as prophets, the poem about cannibalist stars became prophetic: our lives, sir, commingled cannibalistically.” There is a love affair that the speaker needs to disclose, an epistolary beneath the willows of red Lenin stamps. Unlike the “arch-materialist Diderot” who urged lovers to be buried side-by-side, the speaker won’t rest at the side of her beloved forever. She will not be “carried away by such fantasies.” And yet:

“The past lives on in us; we cannot blot it out. Since dreams are an image of the other world and proof of its existence, we shall meet in dreams: she kneels by the stove, feeding it with damp wood, or calls to me in a horse voice. I wake up and switch on the light. Pain and remorse slowly turn into the melancholy joy of memories.”

After lambasting the literalism of literary critics, the story ends in a provocative irresolution. But the story doesn’t ever really end for Kiš. See, the book includes a section of end-notes, a piece titled ‘Postscript’ in which Kiš is the speaker who describes ‘Red Stamps’ as “pure fiction,” despite its extensive use of quotations. With no separation between references, ‘Postscript’ flows from one tale to the next exegetically, resembling apocryphal appendage, or an interpretive lens. The authors’ words are italicized, and the quotations are the stable, unitalicized text. For example:

“‘When a writer calls his work a romance,’ Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, ‘it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material.’ Needless to say, the statement applies perfectly to the short story as well.”

If Kiš doesn’t provide a citation for this Hawthorne quote. (Perhaps Hawthorne only says this for the postscript?) Quotation turns the official statements into part of the fiction Kiš tells. As for ‘Red Stamps,’ Kiš referencing the “arch-materialist Diderot,” the author informs the reader that this character derives “doubtless from the following letter which i discovered thanks to Madame Elisabeth de Fontenay”:

“People who have loved each other in life, and asked to be buried, side-by-side or not, perhaps, so mad, as is generally supposed. Perhaps their ashes press together, commingle, and unite… What do I know? Perhaps they have not lost all feeling, all memory of their original state; perhaps a remnant of warmth and life continues to smolder in them. Oh, Sophie, if I might still hope to touch you, feel you, unite with you, merge with you, when we are no more, if there were a law of affinity between our elements, if we were destined to form a single being, if in the train of centuries, I were meant to become one with you, if the molecules of your moldering leather had the power to sister and move about, and go in search of your molecules, dispersed in nature! Leave me this wild fancy; it is so dear to me, it would insure me an eternity in you and with you.”

This letter, of course, is uncited. It is also the final paragraph of the p. s., the last statement in Kiš’s unforgettable book.

First published in Enciklopedija mrtvih, 1983. First published in translation in The Encyclopedia of the Dead, FSG/Faber, 1989. New editions from Northwestern University Press, 1997 and Penguin Modern Classics, 2015, in a new translation.

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