I recently chaired a panel entitled "Between Languages: Post-Yugoslav Writers in Diaspora". The convention was held in an extravagant resort on the Atlantic coast of Florida. Legend has it that during the 1920s, its eccentric founder used to walk around in his silk pajamas with a small monkey on one shoulder and a large parrot on the other. By the time we arrived, only the parrot collection was in evidence, their cages lining the entryway to the convention centre. Their repetitive screeches seemed quite symptomatic of the place academic discourse has fallen to in the past couple of decades.
It turned out that the only writers who responded to my call were those who had a hard time fitting into the horrors of the new Yugoslavia. Among them was David Albahari, whom we jokingly called the Canadian representative. David flew in a few hours before the local airports closed down in anticipation of Hurricane George. With the immensity of the potential disaster hanging over us, we met and talked for hours about the possibility that our hometown of Belgrade may soon become the target of NATO bombs. Our conversation bounced from depression to euphoria-happy that we were together, helpless that we could do nothing about yet another war in our former homeland. We concluded that we felt like members of a lost tribe, living between languages and cultures, neither here nor there. The hurricane gradually grew into a metaphor of the condition we found ourselves in during and after the Yugoslav breakup.
During the last decade, David Albahari, who was born in 1948, has become one of the leading writers from the place Philip Roth has named the "Other" Europe. The author of more than a dozen books in Serbian, Albahari has been the leader in establishing a new poetics of prose throughout the former Yugoslavia which, for lack of a better term, has been called "postmodern". Opis smrti (Description of Death) won the Ivo Andric Award for the best collection of short stories in Yugoslavia in 1982, and Mamac (The Bait) won the NIN Award for the best novel in 1996. His collection of short prose, Words are Something Else, was published in English in 1996 by Northwestern University Press in a series devoted to writers from East Central Europe, edited by Andrew Wachtel. His own English translation of his short novel, Tsing, was published in 1997 by Bayeux Arts of Calgary. His books have been translated into ten languages, and he himself has translated the work of contemporary writers, including S. Bellow, I.B. Singer, T. Pynchon, V.S. Naipul, and V. Nabokov. His recent trilogy of short novels-Snowman, Lure, and Dark-will soon be published in translation by most major European publishers. One feature common to all three short novels is the fact that their narrators are located somewhere in the Transatlantic North, struggling to find themselves in the snow and ice of the new world.
I began the interview by asking David how he and his family found themselves living in Calgary.
DA: My arrival in Canada was accidental, if we can speak of accidents at all. It came as a result of an invitation in June 1994 to give a lecture to students of Arts Journalism. There I met the people from the Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Writers Program who were just then searching for a foreign participant. I was invited to spend the 1994-95 school year at the University of Calgary as International Writer-in-Residence. I accepted this offer eagerly.
Maybe I would not have accepted it, despite the catastrophic economic and political situation in Yugoslavia, but being the president of the Yugoslav Jewish Community during the first three years of the war gave me a truly unique perspective on my country. During those years, I came to understand all the misery of inter-ethnic hatred and saw way too much human suffering. This scared me-I realized I would wither away and perish as a writer if I didn't distance myself from the horror. During those years, I thought about a temporary absence from Belgrade and my stay overseas was supposed to be temporary. It turned out that my life in Calgary became much more permanent than that.
TL: How would you characterize your present situation, between languages and cultures, immersed in a globalizing universe?
DA: My present situation is a blessing and a curse at the same time. It is a blessing because of the experiences offered by the new culture. The voluntary exile brought a different experience of life which all turned out to be very inspirational for me. Of course, the curse is in losing touch with one's native language while surrounded by English speakers, while at the same time knowing that one is getting a bit too old for mastering the nuances of the new idiom. I don't even want to consider writing prose in English, especially because I have been developing my own style in the native language. Josef Skvorecky is a good example of a writer in the same position, whose transition to writing in English was not necessary...
When I think about my position within the framework of contemporary Serbian literature, I realize that my physical absence from that literature is a bit of a personal gain for myself, and not the great loss I had anticipated. Suddenly, I have been liberated from the role I had created for myself there, a role I was later forced to play. Also, I have been freed from the "obligation" to write in ways which were expected of me. The burden of being a writer in the East European way has also been lifted off my back; this means that I no longer have to be engaged in political events, constantly striving to "serve my people"... On the other hand, I don't think that my position as writer in Serbia has been damaged in any way.
TL: Is it possible to specify your identity as a writer? Are you a Serbian writer? A Jewish writer? Or a post-Yugoslav one?
DA: Being just a writer, without any adjective, ought to be the natural aim of every writer. At the same time, the writer should not try to run away from what makes him a human being, from those factors that determine his roots and tradition. That should be a normal situation, unless those factors start to dominate the way he or she writes. If writing begins to serve any of those factors, I am deeply convinced that the writer begins to stray from the path of his vocation. In other words, I see myself as a sum of all those identities contained in your question, while at the same time I try to be a writer without any particular determinants.
TL: You have always mentioned your desire to be an invisible author, a voice whose "real person" remains hidden from public view.
DA: To be an "invisible writer" means to be free from all pressures, especially the political ones. The only pressures an author needs to respond to are those coming from literature itself. Any author knows that he is an artist only during the act of creation itself, while the public appearances are more or less successful performances of a role determined by his political, historical or cultural contexts. Writers often feel pretty bad in those roles, but often have no other choice but to accept them. Thomas Pynchon was, until recently at least, a perfect example of an invisible author. He is also perfect proof that those other, social forces never gave up the desire to "make him visible". The invisible writer is potentially very dangerous, freed from all external influences. Except, of course, his conscience and his literary art.
TL: Your last three novels are, as usual, mainly about the process of writing. How about your latest book that just came out in Belgrade?
DA: It is a short novel entitled Goetz and Mayer. It is a story about the 1941-42 Holocaust of Jews in Belgrade and in Serbia in a Sajmishte concentration camp. Goetz and Mayer are the drivers of a dushegupka, a sort of mobile gas chamber in the back of a large truck. More than five thousand Jewish women, children, and elderly were gassed to death in this way by German Nazis. The Jewish men were executed by a firing squad before that camp was even founded. The hero of my novel is a professor who lives in the present moment and tries to come to terms with the horror of the past while trying to teach his students history. He is trying to explain to them that forgetting the past may lead to even greater horrors in the future, especially if the present is characterized by a general apathy. Like my other heroes, the professor ends up failing, since no measure of sense can grasp the senselessness of the Holocaust.
TL: Has your shuttling between cultures influenced the style of prose you create?
DA: Technically speaking, there were no significant changes in my writing. However, living in Canada has influenced the choice of my topics. The theme of exile dominates three of the four short novels I have written in Calgary. They are about isolation and existence in a linguistic and cultural in-between. That theme will develop in my future books, especially since I have concluded that the history of the former Yugoslavs in Western Canada has not been fully developed in either the Yugoslav or Canadian literatures. I have to admit that I have been tempted in the last few years to change the form and style of my writing, to make it more accessible and less hermetic in order to reach the North American reader. Luckily, I have not succumbed to those temptations. Although I'm aware that the only measure of success on this continent is monetary, I continue to cling to the European luxury of measuring success solely by the degree of my own intellectual satisfaction.
TL: It looks like some critics have begun to consider you as a Canadian writer... What do you think about that?
DA: The heroes of my three short novels tell their stories in Canada, as they live the life of the new immigrant. Those stories are still not happening entirely in Canada, but are to a large extent devoted to the perceptions of difference between Canada and the world they come from. My longer stay in Canada will certainly move the events in my books to this country, although I'm sure that as an immigrant, I will continue to be fascinated by the act of transition from one culture to another, and by the necessity to change that this transition brings.
TL: I have a hard question. It is about the war in Yugoslavia. How did it change the way writers write in the new entities that have mushroomed on the body of our former homeland?
DA: The war has, without a doubt, interrupted the normal development of literature everywhere in the former Yugoslavia. It is my deep conviction that the greatest damage has been done on the level of the literary relationship among the major cultural centres: Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana, and Sarajevo. The exchange of ideas and influences among those centres, combined with the uninterrupted flow of ideas from the rest of the world, used to represent the most important element in the development of all Yugoslav literatures. Now, each one of these centres (and its respective literature) is left to its own devices and suffers to a much greater extent the uncertain destiny of a minor literature. Besides that, Serbian culture has suffered an extra degree of isolation from the rest of the world in the last several years, resulting in the reduced flow of literary and cultural information. At the same time, there was a strengthening of those political forces which see a danger in the development of culture without overt ideological determinants. Because of all that, it is becoming increasingly harder in Serbia, and it seems in other parts of the former Yugoslavia as well, to be a truly independent and politically disengaged writer.
TL: Finally, a question that many writers dislike... Who are those writers that you read with admiration and acknowledge as your literary kin?
DA: There are a few writers who had a decisive influence on me and their works continue to inspire me. Above all, Samuel Beckett, Peter Handke, and Thomas Bernhard. The present form of my short novels, written as one long paragraph, has been influenced by Bernhard's novelistic form of a long, uninterrupted fragment. I also trust that my protagonists share some of his protagonists' pessimism. As far as my short stories are concerned, my readiness to accept new influences is still there, reflected in that postmodern practice of responding to other texts and not to the "realistic" experiences of the world. In other words, my greatest narrative models are still writers like Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, although in my most recent stories there are reflections of my readings of contemporary Canadian authors as well, like Douglas Glover and Diane Schoemperlen.
We part after the convention. The hurricane misses us. It seems that the bombs have missed our hometown as well. At least for now. After getting back to Wisconsin, I try to transcribe the contents of this interview. But something seems to be wrong. The tape is blank. The only thing I can hear is silence. I try calling David, but he has already left. He is back in Yugoslavia on a book tour to promote Goetz and Mayer. I send him the questions again, this time by e-mail. His answers arrive after a few days. I ask him to write more about the situation there after the NATO bombing threat. He writes that a real panic took hold of the city after the first ultimatum. Many people sent their families away from Belgrade to stay with relatives in the country. The regime itself has used the opportunity of the external threat to clamp down on the independent media, the university, and non-governmental organizations. Several radio stations and newspapers have been banned. This type of censorship did not exist in Yugoslavia even during the worst years of Communism. Despite all that, the Belgrade book fair has been opened with a hundred thousand people in attendance. Despite the poverty and desperation, it is obvious that there are still people who don't lose hope, as well as those who have the will and energy to read and write. The regime is clamping down, but it seems these are its death throes.
Tomislav Longinovic is a writer and Professor of Slavic Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of Moment of Silence and Borderline Culture: The Politics of Identity in Four Twentieth-Century Slavic Novels
David Albahari's novel, Tsing (Bayeux Arts, 99 pages, $19.95 paper), combines a metafictional reflection on the writing of biography and autobiography with an episodic chronicle of the narrator's present as a traveller to and visiting writer in the United States, and a meditation on and account of the narrator's relationship with his dying father. (The following excerpts are reprinted with the permission of the author and publisher.)
This book should have begun like this:
There is too much light in this room, says the man, bends down, picks up the child, a girl only four or five years old, no more, and begins walking slowly, cautiously, although he will quicken his pace when he leaves the town.
It attracted me: that sudden change of speed: as if somebody inside the man told him: Now you are free, although he had not felt restricted before. The town, after all, is only a ground plan; space, however, is completely under our control. But any observer standing on one side would notice how the man literally broke free from something, as if releasing himself from an invisible rope tightened around his waist. He drooped; the child had by then fallen asleep on his shoulder; he even bent his knees a little; had we been a little closer we could have seen how he clenched his teeth, then straightened up immediately, his steps becoming longer, and he began to whistle quietly a well-known song. And where is he? On the path stretching by the sea, across the rocks, above a deep inlet, under the villa walls. There his speed is constant, only a pebble pops from under his feet, or a lump of earth, a couple of dry grey pine needles.
Then I departed.
It was then that I saw him naked for the first time. In fact, I had seen him naked before, but those were natural situations-changing into our swimming suits, for example, or taking our clothes off in the bathroom-but that time he lay on his back, stricken by a stroke, with his legs spread wide and with a thin tube inserted into his penis. When Noah got drunk and took his clothes off, his sons Shem and Japheth walked backward to him, their faces averted, in order to cover his nakedness. His third son, Ham, saw him naked but did nothing, and for that he was eternally cursed. But what could I do? Walk backward through the large hospital room? I took a bed sheet and, facing him but with my eyes averted, tried to cover him, but he caught my hand and stopped me. Sometimes his withered body filled with unexpected strength. I gave up. If time has come for curses, I thought, let them happen. I threw the sheet over a chair. But all that time I wanted to bend down and look closely at his penis and scrotum, as if in their wrinkles I could have read not only his future but mine as well. While he kept repeating: Take that tube out, take it out, please.
I cannot even attempt to reconstruct his life. Every biography is as futile at laying claim to truth as is an autobiography. One witness is not enough, and the statements of two witnesses are never identical. A true biography demands a whole life, or the whole length of life of the subject of a biography. Measured by the dimensions of a book, we would need a book no one has ever seen, and yet it would not give answers to the simplest questions, not to mention the complex ones. Heidegger has supposedly said that each man is born like many men, but that he dies as a single person. What biography could record that change from multitude to loneliness?
In America, I was lonely. The greater the number of people around me the more I felt like hovering above myself. I would crawl out through the hole on the top of my head and watch myself talking to complete strangers. I would gently push away the women who would try to approach me, not with my hands, of course, but with words, that were well chosen, marked by my strong but indeterminable accent. I opened myself only to a few Indians, a Chinese, and a black woman; I discussed Faulkner with her. My loneliness became stronger in accord with the population density. In New York, for example, I thought I could die of sadness. On the bottom of Canyon de Chelly I stepped into the stream and watched water soaking up the ends of my trouser legs. I followed the advice of a student tourist guidebook and in Tuba City, at a restaurant called The Truck Stop, I had "the best taco in the world." While I was eating, a drunk Navajo vomited in the toilet. He reminded me of my father. He threw up the same way, with loud moans, as if the vomit was tearing his esophagus, or as if something was being yanked away from him, which he wanted to keep and had for a long time. Despite all that, the taco was excellent.... Tuba City looked like a town promising nothing, in spite of a sign directing passengers toward the dinosaur tracks. I had seen those tracks: three fingered, surprisingly small footprints, hollowed out in a stone surface which had once been mud. Several deserted wooden stalls creaked under gusts of desert wind. Soon I could feel sand under my teeth. There was a sign above one of the stalls: "Indian Jewellery, Indian Rugs." I had seen those rugs in a museum in Santa Fe. Some of the patterns were incredibly similar to the patterns on the rugs from the southern part of Serbia. And why not? If two men, separated by thousands of miles, could throw up in the same way, why couldn't the rug patterns be the same? Maybe that Navajo would die just like my father, at night, hidden from curious eyes. And maybe the throwing up in the narrow toilet of the truckers restaurant was just another painful spot on the road to liberation from one's own multitude, to the realization that man, after all, is alone in the world. After all: how finite were those words, how unchangeable! For days after that I kept discovering grains of sand on my skin. Nothing could help: not showering, not washing my hair, nor exposing my body to the wind.
He collected old coins, like an amateur, passionately.
We touched rarely. An occasional kiss and an occasional hug. In the last few years even kisses turned into imitation: we only rubbed our cheeks together. Were it not for his seizures and diseases I would have never hugged him closely, I would have never admitted how close I felt to his body.
Love that I feel for him bites into me like a bedbug: I don't see it, it's not around, and yet I'm covered by the red traces of its bites.
Tsing, it is so soft.