Magazine article World Literature Today

Ending Up with a Question Mark: An Interview with David Albahari

Magazine article World Literature Today

Ending Up with a Question Mark: An Interview with David Albahari

Article excerpt

Over the past four decades, Jewish Serbian-Canadian author David Albahari has produced a body of work that persistently questions matters of identity, language, and history. Until moving to Calgary in 1994, he spent most of his youth and adult life in Zemun and Belgrade. A prolific writer and translator (he has translated Beckett, Pynchon, Bellow, and others), Albahari also served as chair of the Federation of Jewish Communes in Yugoslavia in 1991, working closely on the evacuation of the Jewish population in Sarajevo. His 1996 novel Mamac (Eng. Bait, 2001), which partially draws on his experience of war-torn Yugoslavia, was awarded the NIN Award in 1997 and the Balkanica Award in 1998. For its translation, together with his translators Miryana and Klaus Wittman, Albahari received the Br?cke Berlin Literature and Translation Prize. In 2003 G?tz and Meyer, the English translation of Gee i Majer (1998), won the ALTA National Translation Award. Other works available in English include the novels Tsing (1997), Snow Man (2005), Leeches (2011), and the short- story collection Words Are Something Else (1996). Albahari's works have been translated into more than sixteen languages, and in 2012 he received the Vilenica Prize, following in the footsteps of such writers as Milan Kundera and Claudio Magris. We caught up with Albahari in a quiet coffee shop in Zemun.

Tamara Gosta & Tom Toremans: Knowing your history of immigration, the first question that presents itself is as difficult as it is straightfor- ward: Are you home here in Zemun?

David Albahari: Yes, I am. I am at home because I believe that one can feel at home in more than one place. I feel at home here because I spent the greater part of my life in Zemun, and as soon as I return here I feel like I never even left. Now, having spent twenty years living in Calgary, I also have the same feeling there. These are my two homes. There is a rather unusual proverb: "If home were a good place, a wolf would have one."

A wolf does not have a home. He either lives on his own or in a pack. Perhaps this is the correct answer. Maybe we need to live in solitude or in a pack so that we always feel at home.

TG & TT: It is interesting that the recent German translation of Bait translates the title as Mother- land. What is "motherland" to you? Is it a stable entity or one that, like the mother in Bait, is mal- leable and capable of constant transformation?

DA: No, for me "motherland" is a firm entity, a whole made up of memories and reminiscences that you cannot alter. You may migrate to which- ever place in the world, but you can never imag- ine that you have spent the first forty years of your life in that place simply because you have spent those forty years somewhere else-and that "somewhere else" you always carry within your- self. However, I am opposed to turning those forty years into nostalgia. Then those years become a burden, and a very dangerous one. You keep alive those forty years every time you return to the place you have left.

TG & TT: How does your position as a Jewish Serbian-Canadian writer relate to your decision to write exclusively in Serbian?

DA: Although I live in Canada and English is spo- ken in my direct environment, I decided to write in Serbian because I think that once a writer has discovered his "style," he can no longer change it. I deeply believe that only one writer was able to cross linguistic borders without affecting his style, and that was Vladimir Nabokov. He first became an expert stylist in Russian, and then he came to America, started writing in English, and became one of the most significant stylists in the English language. When I arrived in Canada,

I had already been formed as a writer, and when I tried to write in English, my stories sounded like very bad translations of my Serbian stories. I cannot think in the same way when I write in English as when I write in Serbian. My advantage was that I, like many other Serbian writers who live abroad, could continue to publish in Serbia. …

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