David Albahari – Remembering one of the best Serbian contemporary writers

David Albahari died yesterday, on 30th July.  He was a renowned Serbian writer who wrote mainly novels and short stories. He was also an established translator from English into Serbian. Albahari was a member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts and a University of Belgrade graduate. He was awarded the prestigious NIN Award for the best novel of 1996 for “Mamac” (“Bait”). He was among the award’s finalists on 7 more occasions. This is one of the last interviews he gave for Vreme weekly.

 Escape into reality

“Serbia currently has trouble deciding which version of the historical truth about the Second World War to declare as real. This is absurd because the reality of the war cannot be changed, and that is the communists won that war. The whole world sees it. Simply put, if Russians did not play a role in that war, it would have been something completely different. Denying it in order to create some new version of history, so that some people, who were on the other side at the time, would be amnestied from guilt is terrible. In this constant return to the past, we are actually artificially slowing down history.”

 Although he says that language is a convention to which we are all condemned, David Albahari does not act like a convict. He constantly examines the boundaries of language and plays with form. In his novels, he remains faithful to one-paragraph sentences, jokingly explaining that the “enter” button on his keyboard does not work. Although he has been living in Canada for 17 years, he is very present in Serbia. He releases at least one book every year, and he is always a Belgrade Fair staple. Although he says what he thinks, he was never keen on public engagements and freely expresses his judgment and criticism about everything.

Albahari’s latest novel “Kontrolni Punkt” (“Checkpoint”) is a story about war, displaced from concrete time and space, in which “we may be attacked by ‘our people’ who do not know that we are ‘their people'”. And just as his novel “Goetz and Meyer” was about the banality of evil, to use Hannah Arendt’s words, “Checkpoint” is about the banality of war.

“Perhaps it would be better to say that one part of war is always banal and that one part has some meaning. Although I make fun of it in the novel, the philosopher is right when he says – war is the father of all things. In a symbolic sense, everything arises from struggle and opposition. Some will say that war is part of a higher plan, a necessity, a way to do something with the human race… It’s a really complicated subject”, he says.

In one interview, you mentioned that every man, when they sacrifice themselves for others, should determine the limit to which they want to do so.  Is this what you are referring to in your novel?

 “I understand that there is love for the country and the people and that someone can easily become a victim of those who are against that country. I am not ready for that, regardless of whether someone will call it a heroic or a cowardly act. I am not speaking from the position of a man who wants to save his own skin, but of someone who believes that things should not be solved in such a way and that, based on that, he has the right to hide and to refuse to participate in something that he did not cause. But this should be done before a person becomes part of the system. You can’t join the army and think – this army is going to feed the babies. You join the army with a specific task. To act surprised and expect this act of joining the army to go without consequences is absurd.”

You left for Canada in 1994. During all these years, as a writer from Serbia living in the West, both here and there, you have avoided playing the role of an engaged intellectual who makes political judgments. Why so?

“When I am asked something, I usually tell it like it is – I just don’t know anything about it. I have no right to talk about what I have not experienced. I have not experienced the bombing, which would give me the right to criticize and comment. I can, as a writer, imagine the experience, imagine what I would have done if I had been there. I wrote somewhere that it is nature that does not know the bargaining method, and that only man has the luck or misfortune to imagine “situations”.

But you are someone whose opinion is valued and therefore you are expected to speak up.

“I agree with you and that’s why I said that there is another part in which I act “as”, as a man who experienced it. But I cannot criticize what I did not participate in. Whether it is good or not, it is an individual experience. The problem is that people from outside can abuse such attitudes in their attitude towards me. Someone may consider me a traitor to Serbia because I moved to Canada. Not just me but all of us who left. There are people for whom this act is seen as cowardice and a betrayal of something that is ours, whatever “ours” may be. They see it as an escape from reality. In fact, it may have been an escape into reality.”

When it comes to the relationship to reality, in your novel “Svetski Putnik” (“The World Traveler”) you write that the problem with this part of the world is that we constantly trying to change the past. Where do you think our need to do that comes from?

 “It seems to me that it is because many things were not done when they should have been done. Much remains unresolved and suppressed. Perhaps all this is due to rapid changes, the entry into communism was too quick, then the exit from it… Serbia currently has trouble deciding which version of the historical truth about the Second World War to declare as real. This is absurd, because the reality of the war cannot be changed, and that is the communists won that war. The whole world sees it. Simply put, if Russians did not play a role in that war, it would have been something completely different. Denying it in order to create some new version of history, so that some people, who were on the other side at the time, would be amnestied from guilt is terrible. In this constant return to the past, we are actually artificially slowing down history.”

 You come from a Jewish family. During World War II, your father lost his first wife and two children, your mother lost her husband and also two children. What’s it like growing up in such an environment?

“Our parents talked quite freely about their deceased family members. Next to their beds in the bedroom, they had pictures of us and the children they had lost. We, my sister and I took it as if they were our lost relatives. Although I feel another, quite tragic feeling when I think about the lives of my parents. Four children had to die so that my sister and I could be born. It is terrible when a person catches themselves carrying that thought. But we grew up in a family where everyone was considered a member, whether absent or present. I never had a grandmother and many of my relatives did not survive. I had old cousins who played a role of a grandmother, but it was a different kind of relationship.”

In your books, you often write about the feeling of loss as it is alive… What is the relationship between loss and writing and creating?

“I often say that I write about the feeling of loss because my life seems like a series of losses. All life is a waste of an imaginary struggle with death and non-existence. On the other hand, writing is the only way to explain why one continues to write. Why was I not satisfied with the novel “Mamac” (“Bait”) but nevertheless continued writing it? Because a person thinks that no matter how good a picture, song, or novel is at some point, it can be done better than that. That is why there is no perfection in art because that would be the end of art. If someone writes a perfect novel, what should they do next?”

You wrote a lot about family, parents, relatives, and later your wife. You don’t mind showing the readers an intimate part of yourself?

“You give a part of yourself because the readers demand a sacrifice, it’s a symbolic sacrifice to be absorbed by them. In everything, it’s important that you can play, you can pretend that you gave them something, but you didn’t give it to them at all. It all depends on who sees what and who wants to gain from it. I can convince a reader who has an idea about me that it is a correct idea. But what guarantees the readers that you are giving them a real part of yourself? Maybe it’s all made up.”

You once said that, after you wrote “Mamac” (“Bait”), you had to change your relationship with the audience at literary evenings. Isn’t that playing too, just like writing?

 “Just learn to play your part. I leave postmodernist theories, theses and practice for people with that kind of thinking. When I go to literary evenings, I make the audience laugh, I make fun of myself a little, and say something about my family, and people like it. Previously, at literary evenings, there are usually three or four literary critics who spoke, and the writer sat like a living dead person, shunned by everyone. When I won the NIN Prize, at a literary dinner where all the critics were speaking highly of me, I took the opportunity and said “I have something to say”, seconds before one of them was about to speak. They looked at me as if I was going to cause a scandal. I started to refute something that the first critic said, he retorted and the discussion started.”

Do you feel comfortable in the role of David Albahari, the writer?

 “I feel perfect. It all started thanks to my stay in Canada. There I realized that a public figure must be an entertainer and that it doesn’t matter at all whether you are the president of America or an unknown or accomplished writer. When you go out in front of an audience, you have to entertain them. This is how the audience is won over – the more they laugh, the more they are yours, that is, you are theirs. I don’t do that because I have neither the desire nor the need to do it, but I realized how easy it is to manipulate the audience through laughter. You can make them do whatever you want.”

Do you compromise when it comes to writing?

“I think I have shown so far that I do not compromise because I persistently write novels in one-paragraph form, which is a difficult form for many readers. And I’m not giving up on it, on the contrary, I’m planning to complicate things even more. But even if I wrote differently, I don’t believe that I would become a more popular writer. I would write the same things. Even the novel “Mrak” (“Darkness”), which is the only one I wrote in a classical way would not sound different in one paragraph. I love seeing densely typed text. I’m totally into it. That’s why the biggest compliment I can get is when readers tell me that they read the book in one sitting.”

Some say that you always write one and the same book.

“I think that is correct. I think many writers have written or are writing one and the same book because each of us, as a writer, conquers a part of ourselves or our family. Besides, all things boil down to a few basic issues, of which the relationship between man and woman is the most important.”

Your novel “Ćerka” (“The Daughter”) caused very strong reactions in the public. They reproach you for the language you used, which they called pornographic. What do you think, where does so much public criticism come from? It’s not like you’re the first to use such words.

 “I am a writer who has never used such language before. This story could not be told otherwise, and as the professor from the novel believes, the story should be told in the language of what is happening. On the other hand, for the last fifteen years as a writer, I have been getting myself prepared to be attacked sooner or later but I have a ‘weapon’ against it. I am convinced that these ‘attacks’ are waiting for me for two reasons. One is perhaps because I declare myself a Jewish writer and the other is because any writer who is sixty years old and has reached a certain level in the national literature must expect to be attacked. Thirdly, I remember what I thought about older writers when I was a young writer.”

A neighbour of mine who was sitting with his friends at the Moscow Hotel said once to me: “We watch what you do. Every now and then you come here to collect an award and then you leave.” Even nowadays, when he sees me, he usually says:” Another award, huh?” When the book “The Daughter” came out, someone said that no writer had ever written such ugly words before, which is absurd. I can mention Jovica Aćin, Vladan Matijević, Damjanov… People also objected to “Checkpoint”, claiming that I am a fake humanist who very skillfully hides his opinion that the Serbs are to blame for everything. This is absurd! That’s why I’m very careful when choosing topics because I know that such a tsunami doesn’t come just once.”

What do you think about the younger generation of writers?

 “I don’t know exactly what the young generation brings. I read younger authors and I think they lack more willingness to break down forms and patterns. And they experiment less. I do think they miss the newsroom life. The Internet has terribly reduced the value of writing with the claims that the written word belongs to everyone and that everyone can be a writer. You cannot measure a professional writer and a blogger by the same standards. I try to read young writers. Mića Vujičić wrote one of the best novels last year and that’s his first novel.”

You wrote somewhere that you’ve been balancing your whole life between two identities, a rocker and a Jew. Are these identities compatible?

“I started thinking about rock and roll in adolescence. My friends and I used to go to the roof of our building every day in the summer and listen to rock and roll records. That was the first time I heard about Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis. We adored Domino, he was an absolute god. Then came the Jewish identity. It always seems to me that these two identities are in conflict. My consciousness is sometimes a rocker and sometimes a Jew.

As a rocker, I chose the Beatles. People were divided into two categories – Beatles fans and Rolling Stones fans. For me, Beatles fans were people who chose an inner journey, a change within themselves, they went East. In the case of The Rolling Stones, it’s a choice to live the outer aspect of your personality. The one who chose the Beatles was looking for a change in his soul, and the one who chose the Rolling Stones was looking for a change in his body.”

(Vreme, 31.07.2023)


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