... and snow, about how myths arise and the possibility to influence them, and about anti-Semitism and discrimination not only in Serbia but everywhere in the world.
We meet right in the tangle of the book fair. The stand of David Albahari┬┤s German publisher Eichborn is bustling with interested visitors, who browse through the books. Albahari takes a sip of orange juice. He is a smart conversational partner whose irony is very likeable. When we ask him to excuse our old-fashioned tape recorder he simply says: "It┬┤s just as old-fashioned as I am".
AVIVA-Berlin: Mr. Albahari, in your new publication "Cow is a lonely animal" ("Die Kuh ist ein einsames Tier") the reader could be irritated quite a bit by word games like: "I┬┤m thinking about cats. We┬┤ve had three dogs so far". He doesn┬┤t know whether to be confused or to laugh. Are you trying to teach the reader to distrust the words?
David Albahari: I┬┤m always trying to teach myself not to be puzzled by the ways that inspiration sometimes works. The sentence you mentioned is from the title story, which is a story about writing, about how inspiration comes to the writer and about how the writer works - how I worked on this story trying to decide which segments of my imagination and inspiration should become part of it. It┬┤s not meant actually for the reader - it┬┤s meant for me.
AVIVA-Berlin: In this book we often come across statements like: "A real narration is the absence of narration", "the only true narrations are those that have never been written down", "narration is a lie". Is it possible - by saying something or writing something down - to focus on what remains unsaid? Otherwise you could have published a book with only empty pages, couldn┬┤t you?
David Albahari: Wouldn┬┤t that be nice? Actually it has already been done several times, not by writers but by conceptional artists. The author Aran Saroyan once published a book of empty pages where each page had the copyright sign at the bottom. He quasi put a copyright on empty space. So if you write something you actually become a part of his copyright. That┬┤s a game that artists can play. Writers can only play with silence but you cannot actually write using silence. You have to use words. And in that moment you use words you actually betray silence. That┬┤s a paradox you have to solve, but you cannot solve. You can believe that there is no narration, no story, but actually in order to say that there is no story you have to write a story! So the question is whether the story exists or not. That┬┤s the question that I┬┤m still obsessed with after all these years. At one point recently I thought that it┬┤s ridiculous that after 25 books you still think about how to write a book which is not a book at all, but if you write 25 books about the silence than something is wrong with your writing.
AVIVA-Berlin: It┬┤s been said that only 3-5% of Serbian people read regularly. In other countries Serbian literature is not yet very popular. Therefore, do you think it┬┤s possible than Serbian authors can influence the change of modern Serbia at all?
David Albahari: Fortunately Serbian authors become more popular. That┬┤s why I think that this event [Serbia is guest country at the Leipziger Buchmesse] is very important not only for Serbian literature but also for Serbian culture and Serbia in general. Although the number of readers is getting smaller I hope that it will enlarge if Serbian literature finds its way and becomes part of the Internet, social media, Twitter etc. By the way: You could call Cow is a lonely animal a book of Twitter-stories.
I hope that this is the beginning of recognition of what modern Serbian literature can offer to an international reader today. I┬┤m not saying that it┬┤s better or worse than any other literature but if you don┬┤t translate enough work it cannot be useful for spreading more information about the country in general. Writers, technically speaking, do not influence anybody except one single reader. But if I as a writer influence you for example as a reader, it┬┤s already a slow victory, one by one. You have to be very patient with literature.
AVIVA-Berlin: German press describes Serbia as a country, in which legends (like the Battle of Kosovo) and ideologies like nationalism, or about perpetration and being a victim remain omnipresent. Do you believe that literature is able to deconstruct these myths and ideologies?
David Albahari: I agree with you. But in a way this concerns almost every country. In every culture there are legends about how the country arose, about historical leaders and their strength. Some of them are accepted as "good", some are seen as bad. I find it ridiculous that people sometimes accept something and on the other side refuse the same thing, simple because it comes from another surrounding.
I┬┤m not defending it. I┬┤m just trying to notice something that some people do not realise when they criticise.
AVIVA-Berlin: So you say every culture is build up on legends in a way?
David Albahari: Wouldn┬┤t you agree with that? There must be something similar in German or in English mythology. We all have stories and legends and we need them in order to survive. Without them we are lost. It┬┤s easier to keep history alive by using legends than by using historical facts.
I know this may sound like I am defending this ideal of myth in Serbian tradition but it┬┤s a fact that you cannot deny for that culture. The problem I think you mentioned in your question is when these myths become ideology which dominates over everything else. This is something a writer should fight against, not for. Literature should criticise this and help people to understand that myths are myths and legends are legends. And that you cannot go back in history.
AVIVA-Berlin: In your novels you draw a lugubrious picture of Serbia in the present. Anti-Semitism, nationalism and homophobia threaten minorities and dissenters. Do you feel that present Serbia, even for the younger Serbians, is changing for the worse?
David Albahari: I think that this is true, but I also think that this happens all over the world. For example in Canada, where I live, the Jewish communities publish a list of anti-Semitic incidents every year and they usually have more than 500 of it. But nobody would say that Canada is anti-Semitic. The number of anti-Semitic incidents in Serbia is unfortunately growing. That┬┤s because the stronger nationalism is, the stronger grow anti-Semitism, homophobia and all those anti-feelings ÔÇô all over the world. It┬┤s something that happens in other European countries, too. So maybe the whole world is in a progress where the parties and politics on the right become stronger than those on the left or in the middle. By the way: I hate writers who discuss political questions.
AVIVA-Berlin: So you usually don┬┤t?
David Albahari: Do you see me as a political writer?
AVIVA-Berlin: Well, in some way ÔÇô yes I do.
David Albahari: (smiles) Would a political writer write about cows?
AVIVA-Berlin: Um, maybe I wouldn┬┤t call Cow is a lonely animal political, but for some of your publications I would. Leeches ("Die Ohrfeige"), for example, is different.
David Albahari: Well, that┬┤s true, there are no cows in there.
AVIVA-Berlin: Right. Only lots of cats.
David Albahari: [short silence] Really? Are you sure?
AVIVA-Berlin: Of course. Feliks for example, the cat of the editor of the newspaper Minut.
David Albahari: Oh yes, you┬┤re right. It┬┤s a big book so I cannot remember everything.
AVIVA-Berlin: (laughing) Oh, I don┬┤t believe you. You cannot forget the substance of a book you wrote yourself.
David Albahari: Of course you can forget! You can even sometimes write the same story twice. Look, I wrote 25 books. Recently I realised that I had three short-stories which I called snow. I had to change it, but I didn┬┤t know how, because the title was convenient for every story. So I called them snow I, snow II and snow III. Now I┬┤m thinking of writing a whole book of snow stories with maybe hundred different numbers.
AVIVA-Berlin: Some say that there are languages that have many different names for snow.
David Albahari: Well it┬┤s good that you mention this topic because I recently read an essay where the author pointed out that this legend about the Eskimo-Aleut languages is completely false. It was a mistake that was introduced to public in a newspaper hundred years ago, then slowly entered the international media and became sort of an accepted knowledge.
AVIVA-Berlin: So it┬┤s a myth.
David Albahari: That┬┤s how myths are born.
So you┬┤re writing for an online magazine?
AVIVA-Berlin: That┬┤s true.
David Albahari: Can I enter this site and then write some comments on what I said?
AVIVA-Berlin: (laughing) Of course you can. You can comment on it on our profile on Facebook.
David Albahari: But I want to write as somebody else, not as my own self.
AVIVA-Berlin: Great. Maybe I can guess then which comment is yours.
One last question: Serbia is the guest country at the Leipzig book fair, but Serbian literature is not very popular in Germany yet. What could you recommend to German readers: which books should they read in order to get to know and understand Serbia better?
David Albahari: (smiles) Well first of all they should read all books by David Albahari of course. (more serious) But not only his books. They should read as many books of Serbian authors as they can find. Of the recent published books there are for example excellent poems by a great poet named Radmila Lazić, or Die Villa am Rande der Zeit, a beautiful novel by Goran Petrović about how readers become the heroes of the stories that they read. And of course some of the writers who belong to the older generation of Serbian writers should not be forgotten: writers like Danilo Ki┼í, or Aleksander Ti┼íma. That would be a great beginning of a love affair between German readers and Serbian literature.
AVIVA-Berlin: Mr Albahari, thank you very much for the Interview!
David Albahari in conversation with AVIVA-journalist Anna Hohle
Read more about David Albahari at: www.davidalbahari.com
Read also our review to Cow is a lonely animal at: "David Albahari - Die Kuh ist ein einsames Tier"