Danilo Kis was born in 1935 in what was then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and died less than a month before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. According to literary rumor, Kis was expected to win the Nobel Prize for Literature the year of his death. Before he died, he made a list of advice for young writers.
Born to a Jewish father and a Montenegrin mother in the Serbian city of Subotica, Danilo Kis witnessed the worst of twentieth century Europe. As a young child he survived a massacre of Jews and Serbs in Novi Sad, while his own father died at Auschwitz.
His most famous book, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, describes seven individuals whose lives are ultimately erased by various forms of totalitarianism. It was criticized by the literary puritans of 1970s communist Yugoslavia, and he was falsely charged with plagiarism and subjected to a lengthy show trial.
Kis also lived long enough to glimpse the rise of Slobodan Milosevic and the reemergence of nationalism in Europe, which he despised. “Nationalism”, he wrote in The Anatomy Lesson, “thrives on relativism. It admits no universal values – aesthetic, ethical, etc… its only values are relative.”
Doubt reigning ideologies and the princes.
Keep away from the princes.
Be careful not to contaminate your speech with the language of ideologies.
Believe that you are mightier than the generals, but do not measure your strength with them.
Believe that you are weaker than the generals, but do not measure your strength with them.
Do not believe in Utopian projects, except in those you are creating yourself.
Be equally bitter towards the princes as you are towards the crowds.
Have a clear conscience regarding the privileges that your writer’s trade provides.
Do not mix the curse of your profession with class oppression.
Do not get obsessed with the urgency of history and do not believe in the metaphor about the trains of history.
Do not board, therefore, “the trains of history,” for it is nothing but a silly metaphor.
Always keep in mind: “he who hits the bull’s eye, misses everything else.”
Do not write pieces about the countries you visited as a tourist; do not write pieces at all, you are not a journalist.
Do not believe in statistics, in numbers, in public statements: reality is that which cannot be seen with the naked eye.
Do not visit factories, kolkhoz, workplaces: progress is that which cannot be seen with the naked eye.
Do not practice economics, sociology, psychoanalysis.
Do not follow eastern philosophies, Zen Buddhism etc; you have better things to do.
Be aware that fantasy is fabrication’s sister, and therefore dangerous.
Associate with no one: the writer is always alone.
Do not trust those who maintain that ours is the worst of all worlds.
Do not trust prophets, you are the prophet.
Do not be a prophet, your weapon is doubt.
Have a peaceful conscience: the princes do not affect you because you are a prince.
Have a peaceful conscience: the miners do not affect you because you are a miner.
Keep in mind that the thing you did not say in the newspapers is not gone forever.
Do not write according to the order of the day.
Do not play all your cards on the moment, you will repent it.
Do not play all your cards on eternity either, you will repent doing this as well.
Be discontent with your destiny, only fools are content with theirs.
Be content with your destiny, for you have been chosen.
Seek no moral justification for traitors.
Stay clear from “absolute righteousness.”
Stay clear from false analogies.
Trust in those who pay a great price for their inconsistencies.
Do not trust in those who pay a great price for their inconsistencies.
Do not promote the relativism of all values: there is a hierarchy to all values.
Accept the awards awarded by the princes with indifference, but do nothing to deserve them.
Believe that the language of your writing is the best language of all, for you have no other language.
Believe that the language of your writing is the worst language of all, although you would not replace it for any other.
Do not be servile, because the princes will employ you as their doorman.
Do not be arrogant, because you will look like the princes’ doorman.
Do not allow them to convince you that your writing is useless to society.
Do not think that your writing can be considered “useful to society.”
Do not think that you yourself are a useful member of society.
Do not allow them to convince you, because of that, that you are a social parasite.
Believe that your sonnet is more valuable than the speeches of politicians and princes.
Have an opinion on everything.
Do not say your opinion on everything.
For you, your words cost you nothing.
Your words are the most precious thing.
Do not represent your nation, for whom else could your represent but yourself!
Do not be the opposition, for you stand not across the princess, you are down below.
Do not stand next to government and the princes, you are above them.
Fight social injustice, but don’t make it into a manifesto.
Do not allow the fight against social injustice to lead you astray from your path.
Become familiar with the thoughts of others, and discard them afterwards.
Do not create a political program, do not create any kind of program: you create from the magma and the chaos of the universe.
Beware of those who offer final solutions.
Do not be a writer minority of the minorities.
As soon as some society begins calling you its own, question what you are doing.
Do not write for the “average reader:” all readers are average.
Do not write for the elite, there is no elite; you are the elite.
Do not contemplate death, and do not forget you are mortal.
Do not believe in the immortality of a writer, that is nonsense taught by teachers.
Do not be tragically serious, for that is comical.
Do not be a comedian, because the boyar are used to being entertained by them.
Do not be a fool of the court.
Do not believe that the writers are the “mankind’s conscience:” you’ve seen too many sons of bitches.
Do not let them persuade you that you are nobody: you’ve already seen that the boyar are afraid of the poets.
Never follow an idea to the death, and persuade no one to die.
Do not be a coward, and despise cowards.
Do not forget that bravery commands a high price.
Do not write for holidays and jubilees.
Do not write laudations, because you are going to repent it.
Do not write obituaries for the heroes of the nation, because you are going to repent it.
If you cannot pronounce the truth – stay quiet.
Beware the half-truths.
When everyone around you is celebrating, there is no reason for you to take part.
Do no favors for the princes and the boyar.
Seek no favors from the princes and the boyar.
Do not be tolerant out of politeness.
Do not require justice from everyone: “do not argue with a fool.”
Do not allow them to persuade you that all of us have equally valid opinions, and that there is no accounting for tastes.
“When both participants in a discussion are wrong, it does not mean they are both right.” (Popper)
“Allowing that the other one is right does not protect us from a greater danger: allowing that perhaps everyone else is right.” (Idem)
Do not discuss with fools about things they have heard from you for the first time.
Do not be on a mission.
Beware of those who have a mission.
Do not believe in “scientific opinion”.
Do not believe in intuition.
Beware of cynicism, even your own.
Stay clear of ideological gatherings and quotations.
Have the courage to say that Aragorn’s poem in Gepeua’s honor is blasphemy.
Do not allow them to convince you that both Sartre and Camus were right in their polemic.
Do not believe in automated writing and “conscious unconsciousness” – you strive after clarity.
Reject all literary schools that are imposed upon you.
When “socialist realism” is mentioned, you leave the conversation.
On the topic of “socially engaged literature” you are as quiet as a fish: you leave that to the teachers.
You tell the one who is comparing concentration camps with Sante (Dante?) to go and take a walk.
You tell the one who claims that Kolyma was worse than Auschwitz to go to hell.
As for the one claiming that only fleas were being exterminated in Auschwitz – same procedure as above.
Segui il carro e lascia dir le genti. (“Follow your own road, and let the people talk” – Dante).
Translation via Filip Simunovic.
Photo credit: Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis