Danilo Kis was one of the great writers of fiction from the second half of the twentieth century. He would have been a more deserving Nobel Prize winner during the 1980s than half of the writers who actually received the award. THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE DEAD is the third book of his that I have read. It was well worth reading and I recommend it. But it takes a back seat to the two previous books of his that I read ("A Tomb for Boris Davidovich" and "Garden, Ashes"), which are both extraordinary works of fiction. That circumstance, perhaps unfairly, affects my assessment of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE DEAD.
This is a collection of nine short stories, ranging from seven to forty pages. As far as I can discern, there is no overarching theme, although the stories share a sufficient family resemblance to mark them as coming from the pen of the same writer. All, to varying degrees, have a dose of the fantastical. Some are very much in the mode of parables. Kis's penchants for lists and striking similes are often evident. A similarity to many of the tales of Borges is also evident, although in general I prefer Kis over Borges because of the former's greater humanism.
The title of the book is also the title of one of the stories, the best of the stories for that matter. In "The Encyclopedia of the Dead", the narrator spends a night in the Royal Library in Stockholm. She looks up her father in the one and only copy of the multi-volume "Encyclopedia of the Dead". One striking thing about the "Encyclopedia" is that the single precondition for inclusion is that the person in question cannot be listed in any other encyclopedia. Beyond that, "what makes the 'Encyclopedia' unique (apart from its being the only existing copy) is the way it depicts human relationships, encounters, landscapes--the multitude of details that make up a human life." In the case of the narrator's father, the Encyclopedia records every aspect and detail of his life. For example, concerning his wedding the text gives a list of the witnesses and guests, the name of the priest who officiated, the toasts and songs, the gifts and givers, the food and drink. But the Encyclopedia "is concerned with more than material goods: * * * it deals with spiritual matters, people's views of the world, of God, their doubts about the existence of the beyond, their moral standards." The import of the "Encyclopedia of the Dead" is that "nothing in the history of mankind is ever repeated, things that at first glance seem the same are scarcely even similar; each individual is a star unto himself, everything happens always and never, all things repeat themselves ad infinitum yet are unique." This contrasts with Borges, where (as in his "The Library of Babel") the individual and the particular are obliterated and lost to eternity in the seemingly infinite universe of details.
Two other stories from THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE DEAD warrant individual mention here. One, "The Book of Kings and Fools" is an elaborate account of a quasi-legendary book, "The Conspiracy, or the Roots of Disintegration of European Society". It soon becomes evident that "The Conspiracy" is a stand-in for "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion", and that Kis is telling about how a book of fantasy ended up having such vile real-world consequences. The other is "Red Stamps with Lenin's Picture", which is a love story of sorts, and probably, at bottom, a story of the love and devotion given Kis by his wife Mirjana, whom he treated rather shabbily.
Kis is an author well worth reading. If you begin with THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE DEAD, don't stop there. Go on to "A Tomb for Boris Davidovich" and "Garden, Ashes". And if they captivate you as much as they did me, you probably will also enjoy the unconventional biography of Kis by Mark Thompson, entitled "Birth Certificate: The Story of Danilo Kis".