|While North American writers arent required to proclaim their "North American-ness," theres a perception that writers from other lands should be representative of their nations. But Serbian-Canadian author David Albahari has managed to avoid a national label.
Albaharis works include the recent, highly acclaimed novel Götz and Meyer, a wonderfully haunting account of two SS officers going about their jobs during the Holocaust. His newly published novel Snow Man is equally unsettling, tracing the disintegration of a writer who has recently arrived in Canada. The intellectual and political philistinism that the character experiences causes him to become increasingly alienated from his surroundings and himself, leading to his destruction.
Albahari himself came to Calgary in 1994 from the former Yugoslavia, although he cautions against readers identifying him with the character. He is also a translator, and sees the approach to both translating and writing as equally important.
"I translate as much as I write," he says. "I translate for Serbian publishers fiction, plays for theatre, short stories, sometimes poetry as well. Ive been doing it forever. Doing translations myself helped me to understand how difficult it is for somebody to translate my books. Not because theyre written in a way that might make it difficult for a translator, but every time you translate, its not only from one language to another, but from one culture to another.
"It can also help you in understanding writing itself," he adds. "Because when you translate, you represent and have to become that author, try to think the way he thought while writing."
Albahari still maintains ties to his Serbian heritage, which is evident in his work.
"I saw myself as somebody writing in the Serbian language, so I cannot deny that I belong to literature written in that language. But I always thought that writers should be above all those narrow denominations," he says. "There are moments when you have no choice; when a nation is awakening for example, and you are supposed to give your voice. I remember reading an essay by William Gass, who said that an author, when it comes to revolution, cannot join in the revolution. The moment he or she leaves the room they stop being an author. You are a writer only when you write. When you want to go out into the street, how can the writer go out?
"Some people may not agree with that, but I always thought it the best explanation: Im a writer when Im writing; when Im not writing, I can pretend to be the person who has written this book. But I cannot pretend that at this moment I am writing. If I want to join the revolution I cannot join it as a writer, I can join it as David Albahari, the man, the person."
There is a lingering notion that writers from Eastern Europe are here because they were persecuted, and their works are approached from a political slant, true or not.
"I think that audiences in the West expect that for writers coming from Eastern Europe, being politically active was something expected of you simply because you were born, or lived there," says Albahari. "I always fought against that, for several reasons. The main reason was (that) living in Yugoslavia was different than living in other Eastern communist countries more relaxed, more open than, say, Russia or Poland. So we were free to publish and translate whatever we wanted, including works by East European dissidents, which you couldnt find in any of their own countries, but you could in Serbia.
"My generation grew up fighting against the idea that writing should be political, your primary concern. We saw ourselves as postmodern authors."
Nonetheless, it has often been assumed that he left his homeland because he was a political author. "I always denied that because nothing like that happened. I didnt want to pretend that Im something that Im not," he says. "Well, of course now that I look back at what happened in the former Yugoslavia, war and everything, I realize now that even postmodernism does not get rid of history; it is somehow stronger than anything else. You can be whatever kind of writer you want, you just have to take history into account, whether you want to or not."
This insistence is partly maintained by the publishing industry.
"As an author, one is interested in the artistic integrity of ones work, and its not that the publisher isnt, but sooner or later, there is the question of how it sells, does it sell, would it sell this way, and so on," says Albahari. He recalls the time he met a North American publisher about publishing a collection of his short stories. The publisher asked him if hed ever been to prison or offended the authorities. When Albahari said he hadnt, the publisher told him, "Thats the problem: how can I publish an author from Eastern Europe and say that hes happy to be in Eastern Europe and he has no problems?"
Snow Man deals with the alienation that someone entering a new culture feels, an experience not unknown to Albahari, who wrote the book after he came to Calgary.
"I was simply, as a person, concerned with how the whole position changed coming from one culture to another culture, from one language to another language," he says. "I survived the change, so to speak. The narrator, though? Some people read it as the story of madness. A number of readers also read Götz and Meyer as the story of madness. I didnt think of madness either in this book or that one."
Whatever the work is, the approach is uniquely Albaharis affecting, disturbing, postmodern.
"Some people think that postmodernism is dead, or that it has never existed, which all proves that it is still alive," he claims. "If youre a postmodern author, you can go through many changes and still remain who you are. Any kind of writing is beautiful. Its not the world that were looking at, but the reflection of the world in art."