David Albahari – Words are Something Else

DAVID ALBAHARI (1948), a writer and translator from Yugoslavia, moved to Canada in 1994. He has published seven collections of short stories and seven novels in Serbian. His book Opis smrti (Description of Death) won the Ivo Andric Award for the best collection of short stories in Yugoslavia in 1982, and his novel Mamac (The Bait), won the NIN Award for the best novel in Yugoslavia in 1996. His books have been translated into fourteen languages. A selection of his stories in English translation, entitled Words Are Something Else, was published in 1996 by Northwestern University Press. The English translation of Tsing was published in 1997 by Bayeux Arts, Calgary.


paulo da costa: How has the conflict in the Balkans and the western perception of the Serbs’ role in the conflict affected you as a writer?

David Albahari: There are several ramifications to your question. I’ll try to answer those too. The way that the West – perhaps the whole world – perceives the Serbs or the Serbian side on the former Yugoslavian conflict has affected all writers in Serbia.

On one hand – and with some justification for such a perception – some writers who supported the Serbian cause were seen as nationalistic writers who, by supporting the nationalistic Serbian cause, in fact, betrayed some of the things the writer is supposed to do – whatever those things might be. One of those being that you are not supposed to be very nationalistic. Although, when you look back into history you see that many writers have actually been nationalistic but the historical moment of the time was different and allowed that. I guess the world is more afraid of nationalistic tendencies today than it was at a time when states were being formed.

In the case where you were not a writer living in Serbia and you did not support the Serbian nationalistic causes in the last Yugoslav war, you were also from time to time, seen as someone quite suspicious. At least that was the feeling I had when I would meet people from other countries. Unless you declared yourself quite openly that you were against the things going on there, you were also as suspicious as the ones who supported the whole thing.

Even when living in Yugoslavia, during the old period of the communist time, I got tired of people looking at us that way and making a judgement about a writer simply on his or her political stance.

It seems that we as human beings feel at the same time that we are willing to forgive and forget, and also that we are willing to not forgive and forget. What I am trying to say is that if we look at the Second World War period we realise that there were many writers – now considered to be great writers – who supported Nazi politics and fascist, right wing decisions of the time. People like Ezra Pound, Louis Ferdinand Celine in France. Now, we are willing to forget those things because we want to remember their art but we don’t want to forget the kind of persons they were.

Your question leads to another question: Is a writer someone different from everybody else? Is the writer someone who has more rights and more obligations than a regular human being? I don’t believe a writer has more rights or obligations than everybody else and he has the right to make mistakes as everyone else, but he should also – just like everyone else – be responsible for his word and actions.

pdc: As a writer do you feel the Balkan conflict diminished your visibility in Canada?

DA: I don’t think so. People in Canada don’t even perceive the war in Yugoslavia as something important. Important in the way Europeans do for example. Canada – and North America in general – is so far away from the area of conflict that it doesn’t present any sort of danger. In Europe it’s different. If there is a conflict in the Balkans it can be felt throughout Europe. Since the beginning of the conflict Europe was afraid the conflict might reach into other parts of the continent. Some times I think my visibility has been diminished, on the other hand I still believe that in the end, and as writers, we should be only judged by our work.

pdc: You are known as a writer who abstains from speaking out and taking sides on controversial political issues. Why such choice?

DA: I made that choice many years ago while still living in the former Yugoslavia because in the old communist system writers were seen as dangerous enemies of the state, regardless of what they were doing. Potentially they were seen as troublemakers.

Many writers belonging to my generation – this is happening twenty or thirty years ago – thought it was simply unfair. There were writers like myself who were at the time not interested in politics at all. We were interested in post-modern techniques, we wanted to use them without thinking about writing on communism – its sins and virtues – either in Yugoslavia or the rest of Eastern Europe. We thought that being outside of politics would provide us with a better perspective and a better choice for whatever we wanted to do as writers.

On the other hand I do not agree with the position you can often hear in Europe, and especially in France, about the role of the intellectuals. It is a question that involves many others questions. Who are the real intellectuals? Are the intellectuals the ones who are supposed to tell us what to do and what not to do? Being a writer I found that I just wanted to be a writer and not someone who is there to give one’s opinion about everything someone wants to know.

Finally, I must admit that after living for sometime in Canada as a writer I almost became prepared to change my position. Here writers are not heard at all. At one point, and at the very beginning, I thought that it was good that I was not supposed to read what Margaret Atwood or Timothy Findley were thinking about this and that. All the little and big things that take place in Canada. Now, I think the voice of the writers should be heard. Heard as a commentary that is coming from someone who has already established oneself as a writer and who can truly reach some insights into the human mind and behaviour, as well as insights into the nature of our society in general.

pdc: You also side-step the temptation of ethnic, religious and ideological categorisations and/or identifications.

DA: These choices are connected.

Although in many of my short stories I, of course, use elements, episodes, stories from my childhood, from my growing up in a Jewish family in Belgrade; I’m using them because I’m writing about what I know. Not because it was ethnic or not.

One of things the writer is supposed to find out is something about oneself. Why would I try to imagine other peoples when I already have enough problems trying to imagine, or realise who I am, trying to understand why I do things the way I do? So, I use my own life, the elements coming from my own life, which happens to be a Jewish life in a Jewish family, and play with them to discover something about my own self.

pdc: What are your thoughts on the recent tendency of labelling writers and literatures as Latino, Jewish, Afro-American and so forth?

DA: It is a delicate question. Generally speaking, I am against any labelling, but sometimes it is easier to have those labels if you want to do some sort of historical survey, an overview or to establish connections among a group, based on ethnicity.

On the other hand I believe the writer should try to cross those boundaries – whenever a writer accepts that he or she should be a part of a boundary, a system that someone else sets, then the writer is losing something. I believe that our final goal – if there are any goals in what we are trying to do – is to speak to everybody regardless of where that person comes from. You are writing in one language and you hope you are writing in a universal language that will, of course, mean different things to different readers in different parts of the world.

pdc: It appears to me that you write and live in a double margin. You write in Serbian and live in Canada – where only two of your thirteen books are translated to English. What happens to the writer and to your writing in the process of leaving a country, leaving a well-known literary name behind to settle into relative anonymity in Canada?

DA: It has its good and bad sides. For somebody like myself who has always wanted to be outside the writing community – not that anything is wrong with the writer’s community – the idea of going away was a good one.

Although after a certain point I realised that if you want to go on writing in your own language you have to develop as strong as possible ties with your former community of writers. You are still writing in that language and you are still being published there. I didn’t leave for feeling or being threatened. The motivation to leave, more or less for good, was my family. Another motivation to leave the former Yugoslavia was the fact that being there presented an obstacle for my own writing because the whole situation put additional pressure on me, both as a writer and as a person. The situation makes you more politically active than you want to be, more vulnerable.

On one hand, to be away is a blessing, on the other, it’s a curse. You move to the margin and you must find ways to remain content while living in that narrow margin. It’s different if a writer lives in true exile and cannot publish in one’s country. For that person – moving to that narrow margin – would be terrible. I can see now how terrible it must have been to exiled writers who were unable to publish in Russia, Poland or any other country of the world they were exiled from. In my case, I can publish in my country. It is similar to the North American writers who chose to live in Paris, write in English and publish here. You are not here but you are here. It is a double life that you choose. Since writers have to pretend they are somebody else in their writing, being your own double is sometimes a good thing.

pdc: In Europe, South America, and many other areas of the world, the text, by and large, is sacred. Publishers either like a text or not, and leave it at that. In North America the text is more or less extensively worked between writer and editor. That intervention appears to implicitly justify the necessity to improve a text to conform to the current standards of good writing or to conform to particular market niches. Are two literatures evolving? A market-based literature versus a literature based on the omnipotence of the individual who has gained a name, a readership and following and therefore can do no wrong?

DA: Alberto Manguel wrote an interesting essay – published in his collection of essays, Through the Looking Glass – in which he says that he believes that editors are there because somebody in the North American type of society, someone in a company, must take responsibility. It cannot be a writer who is an outsider. The responsibility must be taken by somebody who is inside the company. If you are an editor, and you are supposed to take responsibility, of course you want the responsibility to look the way you want responsibility to look like. You want the text to look the way you want it to be because you are responsible for the text. Responsible for its success or its failure. I think Manguel’s explanation is an explanation that helps us understand this strange symbiosis between editors and writers and which is strange for writers coming from Europe. I can accept it as a technical explanation, although I cannot accept it as any other explanation.

I still find it strange when I talk to writers in North America and realise how much they rely upon what their editors have to tell them. I ‘m surprised. Not because I don’t believe in editors – what the editors know and can or cannot tell you. I’m surprised because I don’t understand why the writers are not more confident about what they are doing. How come they are willing to give up whatever they are doing because someone else tells them it is not, for example, good enough? I might be mistaken but I would agree with you that there might be two types of literatures developing.

pdc: Would the sensibilities of the European and the North American reader be different and have some bearing on this equation too?

DA: I don’t think so. There are European books read here and vice-versa.

pdc: The market is often used as the excuse for that intervention in the text.

DA: Since everything is so market oriented here it is quite normal that you also have a culture in which, if some one makes lots of money – which is seen as a good thing here, and nobody has anything against that – you would find it ridiculous in this culture to say those books are bad. It implies that you would be saying that people who make money are bad, which this culture would not accept. Here when you make money you are good, unless you are making money in some unlawful manner.

In Europe the idea of being a successful writer is not so much connected with financial success. If you go from one country to another – and there are many small countries – you will find they have many fine writers who still have to work very hard to make their ends meet. Although their books are seen as excellent, and they are the leading writers, they do not bring much money. Countries are small and not everyone can be a best-seller author with millions of copies sold. This is a general difference.

In North America you see that writers who are considered, both by critics and the public, to be good writers, are usually best seller authors too. One goes with the other. I don’t see someone considered an important writer who also is not selling well. Importance is connected with success. A writer does not have to think in those terms, although sooner or later the system will make the writer think that way. The system will tell you that if you want to be successful you must write a book that everybody will buy and read.

pdc: And Hollywood will film…

DA: Yes…

Of course I am not saying every writer thinks this way here or every publisher works this way but I still find it strange when I open a book section in a newspaper and I see that a book by a best-selling author is reviewed on the same page as a book by an author who is seen as a serious, intellectual, academic writer. That book is reviewed because of its quality, and the other because of its success, the business quality, I guess.

pdc: Your writing has a preoccupation with family life. The father, the mother, the wife are recurrent characters in your works? Why such intense focus on this family nucleus?

DA: As a writer I want to discover more about myself – not because I think that I am the most important being in the world – but because I think the idea of writing, and art in general, is to find out more about whatever makes human life the way it is. I could invent people but I go back to my own self because it looks and feels more real than other people around me.

Focusing on the family was an obvious step for me then. I believe that the family unit is the most important unit in human society. I know that it is not a very original insight, but I have always felt that way – perhaps because I grew up in a family that was very close. I believe that if you try to understand the connections existing in a family then you are trying to understand the connections that exist among people in much wider contexts: town, country, state, the entire human race.

Basically whatever happens within the family repeats itself on a wider level, although in a slightly different form. Whatever happens between a man and a woman, husband and wife, in terms of friendship or animosity, could find its explanation and usage in whatever it is happening between two nations, which at times might resemble what happens between a husband and a wife going through a terrible divorce as was the case of the former Yugoslavia.

pdc: What has happened to the family as the object of your writing now that you have moved to Canada? Are the stories beginning to be set in Canada?

DA: My work is now set in Canada and my family lives in Canada. It is the same story set in a different context.

pdc: Families are also moving around much more than in the past.

DA: The entire world is on a faster track than before and perhaps whatever is happening in a fast moving family can also help us to understand whatever is happening in the fast moving world. Maybe I was influenced in all of this by some of my readings of the old Chinese text of The Book of Change, The I Ching, where a relatively small number of combinations of those Yin and Yang lines, whole and divided, is used to explain everything that is happening in the world. The I Ching was a great influence in my life. I realised you could apply the same principle in the regular life; if you understand what is going on inside the family, you will understand what is going on in the world. Patterns repeat themselves, only the scales are different.

pdc: You are an accomplished translator of Anglo-Saxon literature and have translated into Serbian works of Saul Bellow, Robert Coover, Thomas Pynchon among others. How has your work as a translator affected your own writing and your relationship to language?

DA: When you translate, you have to transform yourself. You have to become the writer whose work you’re translating in order to find the best solutions in your own language. You have to at least try to understand how his mind worked, how he dealt with the problems of structure, how he chose his words, how he developed his story and tied the narrative strings together. In other words, when I work on a translation, it’s like listening to a lecture on creative process. You do learn things that otherwise you would miss – things about the importance of the rhythm of language, the construction of sentences, the little tricks you can use for your own beginnings and endings… When you translate, you simply become more aware of the power of language to create, and sometimes to destroy, the world.

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