JAMES MAY

Lost in Translation

An international luminary writes in obscurity in a Calgary suburb. Revealing Alberta’s best kept literary secret.

By George Melnyk

A slender, middle-aged man with dark, gently greying hair sits at a desk in his basement. He’s wearing a black sweatshirt, faded jeans and white sneakers as he peers into the screen of a laptop. Above his head is a narrow window with security bars whose only view is a concrete wall. The scene hints of prison. With his sinewy fingers he types an email in a language few would recognize.

The man has been working as a writer in this small room for 16 years. Against one wall is a bookcase with books in Serbian. Next to it is a set of shelves filled with works the man has written, along with their numerous translations. Opposite these is another bookcase with books on Jewish topics and those written by Canadian authors. A wall holds a poster for the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize for which one of the man’s novels was shortlisted.

These are clues to the man’s identity. But he is not trying to be a mystery. He lives in two worlds and belongs to both of them. One is the world of Europe and the other is the world of Canada. In one he is a literary star; in the other he is unknown. Guess which one Canada is.

David Albahari is the author of 12 novels, 12 collections of short stories and three volumes of essays, as well as numerous translations. Almost 60 translations of his work in 17 different languages have been published in the past 25 years. In his home country of Serbia he is a celebrity the way Margaret Atwood is in this country. In Canada he’s known only to a handful of literary insiders. Why? How can a writer of his stature be so unheralded in the place where he lives? Whose fault is it?
Ours or his?

In an interview published in Paris’s Le Monde, Albahari said: “I always have more confidence in silence than in words. Although I have to use words to write, I hope my readers will also hear and comprehend the silences between words.” (My translation.) His emphasis on silence can be read as an emphasis on personal invisibility. But I know David Albahari and he is not trying to disappear. I know he won’t mind if I try to break the biggest silence, the one that surrounds him in Alberta and keeps him confined in anonymity.

 

David Albahari came to Alberta initially just for a visit. The main instigator was Edmonton writer Myrna Kostash, who met him in the mid-1980s while researching Bloodlines: A Journey into Eastern Europe (1993). In the early 1990s, thinking about the civil war raging in the former Yugoslavia, Kostash convinced Alberto Manguel, then head of the arts journalism program at The Banff Centre, to invite the well-known Serbian writer to Banff. Albahari accepted the invitation and arrived in the summer of 1994. (Many years later Alberto, while on one of his periodic jaunts to Calgary, told me he thought that David’s writing is worthy of nomination for a Nobel Prize.)

He is the author of 12 novels, 12 collections of stories, three volumes of essays. He is to Serbia as Atwood is to Canada.

While Albahari was in Banff, Kostash and I arranged for him to be invited to be the Markin–Flanagan Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Calgary for
1994–1995. Again he accepted, arriving with his family (wife Bojana, son Natan and daughter Rebecca) in late October, just in time for his kids to experience their first Halloween. They must have thought they had arrived in paradise where everyone gives free candy to children! Even so, Alberta was an alien universe of large, air-conditioned supermarkets, North American cars and single-family homes. How different from the corner grocers, pygmy-sized cars and ubiquitous apartment buildings that dominated their world of Zemun, an area of Belgrade.

Albahari was 46 years old when he came to Calgary. He was already established as a writer, having published his first collection of short stories in 1973. In university he studied English and English literature and so was fluent in the language; he had also travelled to the US as a touring writer. But why take up the invitation—and why then stay?

“It was a simple decision,” Albahari tells me. While the war raged, he worked for the Jewish community helping people flee the war zones. “Had I remained in Serbia during the war, dealing with Jewish refugees from Croatia and Bosnia, I felt I would lose all possibility of writing. Yes, I wanted to help people. But I felt that being a writer was my vocation and in 1994 it looked like the war would never end. It was my luck that Myrna helped me.”

Looking back on their first meeting, Kostash remembers that David took her for a walking tour of Zemun, once an Austro-Hungarian town across the Danube River from Turkish-occupied Belgrade. She considers this historical distinction between Belgrade and Zemun an important element in his literary imagination. It suggests duality, even plurality; it hints at borders and differences and it suggests that identities are fluid, like a river. In Bloodlines she describes Albahari as being proud to belong to a multinational and multi-ethnic Yugoslav literature rather than a particular group. He continues to favour chameleon-like identities that blend in, that disappear into the woodwork.

But that pluralistic Yugoslav identity unravelled in the tumult of war, shattering into a pile of antagonistic nationalisms from which the region is only slowly recovering. Multicultural Canada and Calgary suddenly made sense. Albahari preferred a distant peace to an ongoing war.

Albahari deals with his coming to Alberta in the novel Snow Man (1995), published in English translation in 2005 by Douglas & McIntyre. The novel describes a man who flees his war-torn homeland by coming to a North American university as a writer-in-residence; he gets into a prolonged debate with a professor of political science about the meaning and value of Yugoslavia. It is a novel about loneliness that accompanies loss, both emotional and symbolic.

“Whatever happened in Snow Man I felt but on a smaller, less intense scale,” Albahari confesses. He overcame isolation by embracing solitude, turning a negative into a positive. He welcomed this regime of self-exile as an opportunity to simply write. In Alberta he has found the necessary space—quiet, discreet, hidden—for an extremely productive period in his writing life.

Albahari usually writes at least one work annually, and in some years two or three. Most often he writes novels or short story collections, sometimes translations. When writing a novel, he limits himself to a page or a page and a half per day, though he will write more than that when producing a short story. He can complete a first draft of a 150-page manuscript in four or five months. And he usually works on several other projects simultaneously, including translations of fiction from English into Serbian or creative non-fiction pieces for Geist magazine, which he writes in English. He can spend hours in his basement “cell” writing, communicating with European friends or surfing the Internet for the latest literary developments. He is content in his monk-like existence.

Not everything is so straightforward. “I had to decide at the beginning of my arrival in which language I would write,” Albahari says. “I chose to keep writing in Serbian because writing in English involved a certain mental translation. I can’t create in English.”

This has proven problematic for his local profile. Most readers get to know Albahari’s writing only through translation—and only a few of his works are actually available in English. For example, his award-winning novel Bait (1996), published by Northwestern University Press, received limited distribution. Likewise, his short story collection Hitler à Chicago (2007), subtitled “Canadian stories,” was published only in French by the Quebec press Les Allusifs.

Further to the problem of availability is the issue of writing style. Albahari considers his signature style—the unchaptered, continuous, book-length text—as a source of freedom from traditional structure. He believes that it imparts a “poetic spirit” to his fictional form. “I see my writing as a kind of labyrinth in which you can only go forward,” he explains. When your eye faces a solid block of Albahari text, it is forced to move inexorably down the page. But where does it stop if there are no chapters or paragraph indents?

“I keep writing in Serbian because English involves a certain mental translation. I can’t create in English.”

Albahari leaves little clues for the reader—a kind of refrain, a sentence or phrase repeated at the beginning and end of a section or train of thought. The style is fascinating, but it’s not for everyone. “I decided many years ago that I would never compromise my writing style to attract readers, he says. “I realize that my writing style is more acceptable in Europe than in North America.” Even though his books are available in many languages other than Serbian, he is not a bestselling author in European countries. Popularity has never been his game. “But I would like Albertans to read my work,” he says.

 

Vladimir TasiĆ, a writer and math professor at the University of New Brunswick and himself from the former Yugoslavia, believes that Albahari should be credited with the creation in his writing of a “strange new figure of a writer, a writer who was unsure about his writing… an author that was not an authority, and who was regularly and sometimes hilariously questioned by the character of his wife.” (Such a character features in the short stories of Ma Femme, published by Les Allusifs in 2009.)

Albahari has a wry, self-deprecating sense of humour. Among his favourite authors are Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian writer from whom he adopted the narrative form of a book as one long, continuous paragraph; Franz Kafka, the master storyteller of guilt, fear and entrapment; and Samuel Beckett, minimalist and absurdist. All three influenced Albahari’s particular stream of consciousness. Of course, these influences only accentuate his European sensibility, which may contribute to his low profile in Canada.

Calgary author Roberta Rees describes Albahari’s style as “a marriage of the deceptively light touch and serious issues such as the Holocaust, the death of a parent, and what it means to live in a country torn by war and politics.” His first-person novel Götz and Meyer (1998; English translation, Vintage, 2005), about two German soldiers involved in the extermination of Jews in Serbia in 1942, is a perfect example. Albahari had to “conjure” them in his imagination—truly a horrendous journey for the author, who lost his relatives in the Holocaust. Rees claims that the novel is “one of the most masterful, moving, devastating books” she has ever read.

Jaspreet Singh, the Markin–Flanagan Writer-in-Residence for 2006–2007, read Albahari’s Snow Man while still living in Montreal. He quotes a line from Albahari’s short essay “Bird in the Willow,” published in Geist, that he feels captures the essence of the author’s writing: “There’s always something that’s not included, something that remains, and that small thing is what all stories are about.” “The silences in David’s work,” Singh explains, “are as significant as his words. Stuff that is left out, not said.”

Stephen Osborne, publisher of Geist, is trying to introduce Albahari to a Canadian readership. When the two men met in Calgary, Osborne found Albahari to be “exactly the author of the book [Snow Man] that I had read in one sitting.” “He writes in a manner completely foreign to Canadian literature,” Osborne concedes, but he also describes Albahari as “the most interesting and the most exciting writer in Canada.”

So translation issues, yes. Writing style, yes. But there is a personal dimension to Albahari’s obscurity as well. The author is not drawn to the limelight. Even when he returns to Europe for book tours in various countries and to the annual Belgrade book fair, where the media treats him as a celebrity, he looks forward to his retreat in Calgary, where he can hide out and be creative.

Albahari’s Swiss literary agent, Marc Koralnik of the Liepman Agency in Zurich, finds the author himself “quite enigmatic—one cannot ever be sure how to interpret the twinkle in his eye.” I believe that twinkle has a mischievous side. Sometimes one doesn’t know whether Albahari as writer is playing the role of a cat or a mouse. Is he on the hunt for readerly attention, or is he on the run from the world? Both?

With Albahari one is never sure—and he prefers it that way. He loves to formulate questions and avoid answers. Nevertheless, his life in Calgary has clearly provided a great deal of material for his literary imagination. For example, I am told that the character of Donald, the antagonist in Bait who represents the strange new world of Canadian sensibility, seems to have been drawn from David’s conversations with me in the mid-1990s, when he was finding Alberta mysterious and I was trying to explain life here.

In general, Albahari seems devoted to his new home. “The longer I live here, the stronger my connection to Calgary becomes,” he says. He views the Canadian literary scene ambivalently, as “less chaotic but also more money-driven than the one back in Belgrade.” Notions of identity give him less trouble than perhaps one might think. “I’ve never thought of myself as a writer-in-exile,” he says confidently. “I’ve never been in exile from anywhere.” He describes himself as “a Serbian-Canadian-Jewish writer—Serbian because I write in Serbian; Canadian because I live in Canada; Jewish because that’s what I am.”

David Albarhari

David Albarhari. (James May)

But he is perfectly aware that literary audiences bestow different identities. “In Germany there is an obsession with Canada, so the German audience considers me Canadian.” He smiles. “In Serbia, I am a Serbian writer living in Canada, while in Calgary I am accepted as a Canadian writer. And I do feel like a member of the literary crowd.” Yet he agrees that writing in his mother tongue precludes him from being considered a “true” Canadian author. This is a paradox faced by many immigrant writers, but it is particularly poignant in Albahari’s case because of his considerable international reputation. He has had only two English-Canadian publishers in the past 16 years. Neither has published a second book.

Albahari does have friends among Canadian and Albertan writers, even if his local reading public is small. Rees credits him with the ability to create “deep writing friendships” and compliments him on his role as “a mentor and friend to many writers.”

The quandary of the immigrant writer who verges on invisibility, is taken up by Vladimir Tasić, who attributes Albahari’s low profile to the “general lack of interest” in translations. “Books written in English, by immigrants, are better represented and better positioned in comparison to translations,” he says. “This situation seems to me absurd, especially in Canada.” Tasić says that while Albahari receives grants here, he will not earn widespread recognition here, because he writes in Serbian. His choice to not write in English, concludes Tasić, comes with a certain price.

But this doesn’t seem to bother Albahari much. He seems content with his Calgary existence. “When I am writing,” he says, “I get rid of my own self to become the character I am creating. It’s like visiting dreamland.” When not writing, he listens to rock ’n’ roll from his youth. He also likes to watch films, as many as a dozen a week during the winter, fewer during the summer. He prefers European directors such as Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman, as well as early Hitchcock. I perceive that cinema’s visual narrative impacts his literary style.

His family responsibilities are no longer so great. His son, educated in Canada, now lives in the family apartment in Zemun and works in Belgrade. His daughter is at the U of C. His wife teaches English as a second language. During the day is he often at home alone. A man of modest taste and informality, he eats lightly, drinks only one cup of coffee a day and enjoys a solitary walk under Calgary’s sunny skies. He likes the friendly atmosphere of the province, which he claims is missing in many of the countries he visits.

He is aware of the absent audience for his work—the mass of Albertans and Canadians who have never heard his name. He likens his writing to “subtitled movies, which have only small audiences.” I think this is a good analogy—it highlights what pleasures await those who have yet to discover his writing, and plays on his attraction to cinema, a complementary universe of imagination.

 

UK writer Clive Sinclair describes his friend David as an “outsider” who is highly “intellectual, analytical, almost ascetic.” This image of the writer as a solitary figure is powerful because it elevates the writer beyond national labels or celebrity, lifts him to an almost spiritual level. Albahari speaks to the sense of the intangible that is found in his work: “I believe that the world we inhabit is just a world of appearances. The real world is hidden from us. The teachings of Zen Buddhism speak to this. You have to reach enlightenment and see the world for what it really is.”

“Germans are obsessed with Canada: they consider me Canadian. In Serbia, I am a Serbian writer living in Canada.”

It is yet another David Albahari persona. The importance of playing with appearances is an idea close to the author’s heart. He likes to create illusions, both in his writing and in his person. He wants to draw his readers into an all-encompassing fictional moment, and yet he wants the reader to be aware that writing is part of our world of appearances. Some will see his writing as ethereal. Others will see it as earthy and funny. Still others will wonder what it all means. No matter, because in the world of appearances there are only mirrors of interpretation, personal translations that reflect what they will.

When I ask him about his plans for the future, Albahari says he lives in two parallel universes—those of Calgary and Banff and of Belgrade and Zemun. He is comfortable in both but he has no intention of leaving Calgary for the foreseeable future. The economic and political situation in Serbia remains too unstable. Calgary remains too fertile a site for his creative process.

I ask about the dreary view from the basement window above his desk. He answers with one of those wonderful twinkles in his eye: “One time at a reading in Belgrade a woman stood up and said that she imagined from my writings that I had a large picture window in my study with a beautiful view of the mountains.” The woman’s fantasy reiterates the sublime power of the author’s imagination to create amazing wonderlands. “In fact,” Albahari continues, “the only view from my study window are the feet of the meter readers who come by once a month.”

George Melnyk wrote the two-volume Literary History of Alberta and is co-editor of The Wild Rose Anthology of Alberta Prose.

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