In honor of the seventh annual PEN World Voices Festival and the release of Leeches (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), Words Without Borders sat down with Serbian writer and translator David Albahari for a chat. Speaking with WWB contributor E.C. Belli, Albahari touched on everything from postmodernism to questions of voice, silence as solution to the problem of language, the destruction of books, marijuana, and the saddest thing he’s ever written.
Leeches forces readers to reinvent the way they read. There’s a physical response to longer sentences that relates to breath and makes you aware of your own body. It made me wonder how physical the act of writing is for you?
It’s interesting for me to hear you say this because for me the story itself is almost without any movement. And although there is some action, in most cases the narrator and his best friend—maybe because they are stoned all the time—don’t move very much. I always thought of this book as bodiless. Everything is happening beyond the physical world. But when I wrote it, I did nothing special on a physical level, if that’s what you mean. I was quiet as a mouse, just trying to follow my story.
It’s funny you say the book was bodiless because I found it to be a very physical experience. You have to picture yourself walking through these streets when the protagonist goes after the clues.
You don’t know the place so you had to make it as physical as possible. Since I know it, it was bodiless. I felt like I was hovering above.
I’m interested in your choice of form. Leeches is basically written in a single paragraph, with no chapter or paragraph breaks. It’s a form you also used in Götz and Meyer. What about it appeals to you?
Well, first it’s an homage to the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard, who influenced me. I also liked the idea of it visually: when you look at the pages, everything is covered with words. I think writing should be a process of discovery, both for the reader and the writer who should become united in trying to get through this labyrinth. You have to fight with this form to reach the end. Not all readers like it, I’m aware. But I simply don’t want to give up on it.
What was the writing process like? Did the writing of this novel come easily?
When I start writing a novel, I’m usually only aware of the beginning. The first sentences comes to me, I feel that something is going to open itself, and then I let the story lead me in the way it wants. In Leeches, I just knew I wanted to write about the historical period in Serbia that happened recently with Slobodan Milošević.The book was also about my love affair with an area of Belgrade called Zemun. That’s why I write about it in so much detail—about the streets, the places. But I didn’t know the details ahead of time. I discovered the characters in the same way the reader discovers them. They simply walked into my story, presented themselves and remained there. As for the writing process itself, I write one, or maybe two pages a day. Never more. Even if I feel like writing, I stop. After all these years, I’m still fascinated with that voice. It comes to me and I’m only there as a scribe. I’m also fascinated that if I write a page today and then stop, tomorrow the voice will know exactly where we were. I’ll sometimes set myself a challenge and say, “If I leave the voice now, let’s see if it comes back tomorrow.” And it always does.
It’s a good voice. Faithful.
Yes, very faithful. Very loyal. Like a dog. But it took me quite some time to write this novel because it’s quite long. At one point, I even forgot what happened to the characters a hundred pages back. You need to go back and check that your character had brown hair before you make him blond! That’s why I like translations. Because usually translators come to me, and say, “Look you’ve made this mistake!”
Your work has been translated into sixteen languages. With translations there’s always a part that’s retained, a part that’s lost, and a part that’s gained. It must be interesting to think that all these slightly different versions of your story are in existence together. It’s like this living thing.
You’re right, because each language is completely different. The grammar is different. But when you write you don’t think about that. You really don’t know how it’s going to work in a different language. I believe that without translators we would be lost.
You choose to write in Serbian. What are some of the things that you love about Serbian that you can’t do in English?
Serbian is my language. It’s the language I best express myself in. When I came to Canada, about seventeen years ago, a number of writers told me, “You should switch to English!” I actually believed them and tried to write some short stories in English but I realized that it was a mistake since I already had a number of books published in Serbian and had developed something one might call “a style.” And the moment you get your style . . . When I tried to write in English it turned out that I was actually thinking in Serbian. My English was fine, grammatically speaking, but it was not the real language of the story. It was like this artificial language spoken by this artificial being with an artificial intelligence. I ended up asking myself, “Why am I trying to do this?” I should remain faithful to my own language.
I know how some writers are—how they forsake their work just moments after it’s been created. How does it feel to see the book go through a rebirth? Are you happy to see its return?
Oh, of course. But as a writer you always live for your last story (I’m actually dying to speak about my last novel). One problem is, though, that I have so many books behind me now I must re-read them before I can speak about them. As for my last novel, it’s an anti-war novel. It’s about some events in a war, which I don’t name. I don’t name the country either. I don’t even give a name to the people. I want it to be as international as possible. We’ll see how it works.
In past interview you said, silence seems to be “a much more reliable means of conveying sense,” which is “paradoxical because silence is also prone to different interpretations.” What appeals to you about silence, negative space, withholding?
It comes from my obsession with postmodern writing, which is dead and gone now. People keep telling me postmodernism is dead. I always tell them, “But I am alive!” I really think of myself as a dead postmodern writer. Postmodern writers always said that they weren’t interested in words because words are limiting. In Wittgenstein’s words, “The borders of my language are the borders of my world.” And when a man says “I love you” to a woman, they can understand it in completely different ways.
So in that way, silence would be more like an international language?
Yes, but the problem with silence is interpretation. If a man and a woman look at each other and both are silent, they can still think completely different things. So silence actually has the same kind of problems as language.
Leeches features a manuscript that is constantly changing, and thus constantly destroying itself. How interested are you in monuments, art, things that destroy themselves?
Are you asking me whether I’m thinking of destroying my books?
No! I was under the impression you’d perhaps be interested in these things, according to what you just said.
Actually, this question interests me because I’ve spent the last two or three years wondering whether I should destroy my diaries and the notes I used in writing my books. I hate the idea that something that is very private for me could become public property at some point. But it’s interesting because when I talk to my colleagues, other writers, they say, “You don’t want to destroy this! You’re crazy.”
On a different topic, you wrote a petition years ago in favor of decriminalizing Marijuana in Serbia.
Yes, I did.
Tell me about that.
This book shows why. Because I wanted my characters to feel loved!
I did it with some friends. We began the whole thing in 1989, a couple of years before the war. We based our petition on an idea of personal liberties—that everyone should be allowed to do what they want with their own body and mind (without endangering anybody else, of course). The petition was signed by a number of well-known writers, rock musicians, psychologists. A range of different people. It had many opponents, as you can imagine. Then in ’91 the war began and everybody forgot about marijuana. But in the book, the characters smoke marijuana because I wanted them to be unreliable narrators. It also made the action very slow and suggested to readers that maybe nothing the characters think or see is real. The whole story is, I don’t want to say ridiculous, but maybe a better word would be impossible. For me this book is one big literary game. It shouldn’t be read as serious. It’s serious in what it says about certain things . . . It’s serious when it warns against anti-Semitism and nationalism. But it’s a big literary puzzle. I took bits and pieces from different writers, from different books, which is a very postmodern thing to do.
I was wondering if you got more attention, or felt more pressure as a writer, after getting the NIN Award?
The NIN Award I won for Bait made the public aware of my existence in Serbia. Before that, people in the literary world knew about me because I was present there but I was too postmodern to reach a wider public. I was surprised though when it happened. My reading public changed. As a very strict postmodern writer, I had a small, dedicated set of followers. Suddenly, with this book, there were 300 or 400 people. I didn’t know how to behave. I had to change the way I talked to an audience.
Well, it’s a significant change.
A significant change, yes. I had to stop discussing postmodern things. With Bait, my goal was to write a book that basically doesn’t exist (the narrator is trying to write a book called Bait but that’s not the book we read). After it won the award, I did a reading with 300 or 400 people, most of them old women (since it’s a book about a mother), who had read this postmodern novel but without thinking about it in that way. They simply loved it because it had these old sayings my mother used, some Serbian recipes. And that’s what they wanted to talk about. I didn’t realize it was a different public at the time, and I remember telling them, “I’m happy you’re all here tonight to discuss a book that doesn’t exist.” Hundreds of eyes suddenly looked back at me. They thought I was crazy. They probably thought, “What is this guy talking about? The book is here in my hands.” So I changed my approach.
In a past interview you said that, “Language betrays us all the time because it must stay practical and limited” when in fact we need more precise words for our feelings. You also said that writing “at least leaves this possibility to come back and correct a mistake” whereas spoken “words are suds, bubbles, and once they burst nothing can restore them.” Is there anything you would like to restore?
I’m obsessed with how careless we are when we use words. In the rush of the moment, we very often say things we don’t mean (to a wife, a girlfriend, a boyfriend, what-have-you). And there’s no way to take it back. Because words, once spoken, are always there. You can go to your beloved and say, “Look, I didn’t mean this, I’m sorry I said it,” and they can say, “It’s alright, don’t worry.” But the words still stay. That’s what stories are made of: little moments of misusage, misunderstandings. Stories themselves can’t actually change anything though. They only make us more aware, help us learn, maybe, from the experience of another person. One of my characters had something like that happen to him. He wakes up one morning and can’t find his wife. When he arrives in the kitchen, he finds a note from her saying, “Sorry, I never loved you.” He reads it, sitting at the kitchen table, and flips to the other side in hopes that there’s something there. But there’s nothing. So he flips it again and reads the same sentence: “Sorry, I never loved you.” He ends up taking the piece of paper, crumpling it, putting it into his mouth, and chews it. That’s the saddest moment I’ve ever written. It’s the essence of all my attempts.