People Reading Kin

I’ve been very happy to see several positive reviews of Kin in the past few days since its official release.

Sarah McEachern’s piece in the LA Review of Books, “Entangled in Family: On Miljenko Jergović’s Kin and Semezdin Mehmedinović’s My Heart,” takes the title and the book’s biggest thematic thread as its main focus, with special emphasis on what it means to be from a place, especially one that no longer exists, and the limitations and possibilities of language. Her essay also takes a comparative approach by viewing Kin in relation to Celia Hawkesworth’s new translation of Mehmedinović’s 2017 novel.

The review just published at The Modern Novel relates a good deal of the book’s plot, including the relationships of the main characters and the core tragedy that links them together. It contains a couple of basic errors. A small one is a reference to the length in the final line, “The book is 800 pages long but I was not bored for a minute,” which makes its point twice over in a sense, since the book is actually 900 pages long (so they must be sailing by such that one doesn’t even notice the page count). A bigger one has to do with the book’s genre, which the reviewer refers to as “a family novel”; actually, the reviewer claims that the author calls the book “a family novel.” But this is the genre designation only for part two; the first part is called “a presentation,” part three “quartets,” part four “a report,” part five “inventories,” part six “fictions,” and the final part is “history, photographs.” These designations name the literary kind as a way of helping readers orient themselves. The book’s overall genre is always in question, which is why I was impressed by the focus in all three reviews on what sort of book this is and what sort of author Jergović is.

Duncan Stuart’s “Leskov Amongst the Tombstones: On Miljenko Jergović’s Kin,” published at Exit Only, takes on this topic directly:

One of the perplexities of Kin is how to classify it.  It has been referred to as an “epic”, a “saga”, a “family novel”, a “chronicle” and an “historical fiction.” Many of the sections in the chapter ‘Inventories’, however, read like essays.”

Stuart’s claim that in fact Jergović should be thought of first and foremost as a storyteller is a notion announced in the piece’s subtitle, “The Storyteller and the Legacy of Annihilation” and then made explicit:

[Walter] Benjamin says that Herodotus was “the first storyteller of the Greeks.” Herodotus’ task was, according to Hannah Arendt, to “save human deeds from the futility of oblivion.” This task of the storyteller, to at least save something temporarily from oblivion, to stave off forgetting a while longer, is how Jergović understands storytelling too.

This commitment to storytelling as an act of salvation, Stuart suggests, has a major consequence for reading:

This commitment to storytelling, to understanding Jergović as not a novelist but a storyteller, helps explain the repetitions and reintroductions of family members that pepper the book. For these repetitions invoke a sense that this is, more than anything, a collection of stories, to be read in any order.

This strikes me as a fine insight into Jergović’s writing, and I would add only two thoughts. First, the approach implies aspects of realism in an almost Tolstoyan sense: there are things that are true of life that literary conventions often omit or twist into other forms: you don’t introduce characters unless you’re going to do something with them; you don’t have two characters with the same name; you build to the set piece and give readers the set piece, etc. In other words, literature is neat but life is sloppy, so any commitment to realism requires that one toy with the conventions of literature. And second, in a somewhat different vein, the book performs its subject by telling stories in the manner that large families tell stories–with repetitions, variations, and a constant inventive impulse.

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