Archive for the ‘  Yugoslavian Literature’ Category

I discovered David Albahari through a friend’s recommendation, and decided to read his most recent book ‘Checkpoint‘.

A unit of soldiers and their commander are taken to a place in the middle of nowhere and are asked to create a checkpoint and manage it. They don’t know anything about the war going on, and who is the enemy. Nothing happens at the checkpoint. There is no one coming from either side and the days just pass by. As the narrator says –

“So we guarded a checkpoint where nobody was checked and peered through our binoculars at landscapes through which no one passed. If there was a war still on somewhere, we knew nothing about it. No shots were fired, there was no zinging of bullets, no bomb blasts, no helicopter clatter, nothing.”

What happens after that – are the soldiers just ‘waiting for Godot’, or does war enter this quiet place and does something happen – this is told in the rest of the story.

‘Checkpoint’ is a darkly comic satire. It is about the meaningless nature of war, during which innocent people get killed, and nothing good happens. David Albahari has been compared to Kubrick and Kafka and we can see why. (I’ll also add Joseph Heller to the mix.) Albahari’s dark humour makes us laugh in many places, and it also makes us think.

I enjoyed reading ‘Checkpoint’. David Albahari has written many books, but only a few are easily available in English translation. I found that a couple of them are available, and I hope to read them soon.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“No one wanted to die. Even for such a noble cause as defending the homeland. What could possibly be noble about a violent death? And the stupidest part of all was that afterwards this would become fodder for people who’d had no experience at all with it, with death. How can a living person understand someone who’s dead, understand what a gunshot victim thinks as the bullet rips through his flesh…”

“A wiseguy would say that the real barriers are the ones within us, and that the external ones, like the checkpoint, are, in fact, futile. Mumonkan, an ancient collection of Zen tales, speaks of all this with eloquence, but no one among us soldiers had Buddhist texts in mind, especially none of the amateur soldiers, society’s dregs, who were generally blasé about warfare. Professional soldiers, like samurai, are another story, and among them one may find connoisseurs of the Mumonkan and Hagakure, even lovers of the poetry of T. S. Eliot and the music of Edvard Grieg. Yes, it is one thing to be a samurai and altogether different to be an ordinary recruit who, when he opens his eyes in the morning, cares not a whit for himself or for the world.”

“War is so unnatural, so different from all else, that no one in their right mind can grasp why war would be a part of human culture. The commander turned—he ought to love war at least a little, being a man in uniform, but he couldn’t bring himself to. Never would he admit this to his soldiers. But he also couldn’t abandon them to this hell. So like a good fairy he hovered over their preparations for departure.”

“You could see right away, thought the commander, that he was one of those people bullets didn’t want to hit. There aren’t many folks who enjoy that kind of luck, though they’ll pay for it elsewhere, as things tend to go with good and bad luck. Life is impartial, it plays no favorites. If a person is offered something that is not equally accessible to all in equal measure, they’ll also be given something bad, meaning they’ll be greater losers in other realms. So the radio and telegraph operator, say, was spared the bullets, but he often tripped and fell, and it may have been a fall that additionally shielded him from bullets. The radio and telegraph operator may have stumbled exactly when the fingers of three snipers were on their triggers, and his tumble removed him from the enemies’ field of vision.”

“…the sky began to redden and the shadows, hidden until then by the dark, began shivering with anticipation. In no time they’d be venturing into the world, all they needed was to be told whether to go in front of or behind the soldiers. Shadows have a way of moving slowly and faltering, but when they finally make up their minds, their resolve is legendary. And so, when the soldiers set out on their “punitive expedition,” as the commander noted in his ledger, the shadows followed behind the soldiers, fused to their heels. When the soldiers returned, the shadows were still swinging from their heels, but with none of the earlier joy. In a word, the shadows on that brief journey downhill and uphill aged quickly, perhaps a little too quickly. Anyone would have aged who’d seen what the shadows saw; it’s enough to say they became darker, more somber, more hermetically sealed. Who knows what they might have said if only they’d had skill with words.”

Have you read ‘Checkpoint’? What do you think about it?


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I discovered Aleksandar Tišma’sThe Use of Man‘ through a friend’s recommendation.

It is the year 1935. A teacher in Novi Sad goes to the stationery shop, buys a diary and starts writing in it. At some point, this diary ends up in one of her students’ hands. This student has a boyfriend who has another friend. And suddenly our horizons widen, as we get to know more about these three people, and their families. The story keeps moving back and forth across time, as we follow the fates of the main characters and the people who are part of their lives. As this was also a complex time in history, when the Nazis, the Hungarians and later the Russians all occupied Novi Sad, and as our characters have complex social backgrounds and political persuasions, their lives get entangled in complicated ways, and the story tells us that.

The Use of Man‘ is a complex novel. It doesn’t have a linear structure and the story keeps moving across time, back and forth. Also some chapters are different from others, because they look like meticulous descriptions and lists. There is a reason for this and it is explained in the introduction. The characters in the book are all fascinating – complex, flawed, capable of beautiful things while at the same time doing the not-so-good things. In other words, they are all human. I loved the character of Vera, the girl who discovers her teacher’s diary. The way she evolves is very fascinating. Her boyfriend Milinko is very interesting too, as he is one of the nice characters in the book. His friendship with Vera’s father, and how their shared love for books and learning brings them together is very beautifully depicted. Mikinko’s friend Sredoje is one of the most complex characters in the book and because of that he is very fascinating. There is a German captain whom I liked very much and there is a minor character called Mitzi who is always bursting with energy, who is very likeable.

There is a beautiful introduction to the book by Claire Messud in which she puts the book in context and explains many of the things in the book, like a good teacher. If you are a seasoned reader, you probably already know this, but if you are like me (I’ve burnt your fingers many times reading the introduction before reading the book), I’d recommend that you read the book first and then read the introduction after that, as the introduction has many spoilers.

The Use of Man‘ is one of the classics of contemporary Serbian literature. I’m glad I read it. This is also my first NYRB book. So, Yay! 😊 I learnt a lot about the history of the period and I want to read more. I loved reading my first Aleksandar Tišma book. Aleksandar Tišma has written two more books set in Novi Sad and I want to read them sometime.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“At last she came to understand that having achieved her independence, she was going to be left too independent, in fact, completely alone, and that she was not up to such solitude.”

“It’s like people. Even nations borrow from each other. Nothing is born in a vacuum, nothing develops from itself alone, and anyone who claims otherwise—usually to laud the culture to which he belongs—is lying. All life is imitation. The way we live in this house is a copy of the way my father and mother lived in it, and they in turn patterned themselves on others. This kind of home, these objects, the storeroom in the back, the courtyard through which one passes from the private world into the business world and back again, all existed long ago, before this house, and served as a model when it was built and furnished. You could probably trace the migration of this type of merchant’s house, going back in time, from street to street, from the outskirts of town to the center, from town to city. Thus Novi Sad would perhaps lead you to Szeged, Szeged to Pest, Pest to Vienna, Vienna to Berlin. It might have been in 1862, or 1852, when this kind of merchant’s house was first adopted in Berlin. The same goes for books, whether they contain artistic material or whether they are of a scientific nature. Invariably you find traces of imitation.”

Have you read ‘The Use of Man‘? What do you think about it?

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I got Danilo Kiš’Garden, Ashes‘ a few days back. I was so excited about it, because it took me a long time to get this book, because Danilo Kiš’ books are hard to come by.

The narrator of the story is a boy called Andi Schaum. He tells us about his family, his mother, his sister, and his father. A significant part of the book is about his father. Through the book the family’s circumstances seem to be changing from good to bad to worse. And they are constantly moving from one place to another. In these circumstances, Andi describes his life and life around him and narrates his experiences while growing up.

This is the simplistic version of the plot. But this is not all what the book is about. The Holocaust looms large in the background, though it is only implied and hinted at and never explicitly mentioned, but we can feel its dark shadow throughout the book.

The book can be read as a coming-of-age story, a boy’s story about his father, a story about the Holocaust, or even as Danilo Kiš’ veiled memoir.

For me, the thing I loved the most about the book is this. Danilo Kiš’ prose sizzles throughout the book. In some places, there are beautiful sentences. But in other places, and these were my favourite parts, there were long passages of absolute beauty, which were almost Proustian in their depth and elegance. These were so pleasurable to read and gave me goosebumps. These passages continued till the end of the book – one of the last ones is a passage in which Andi and his mother light a lamp in the evening and start talking (I think) and it is magical. I waited for these long passages to arrive and when one of them arrived I read it slowly and immersed myself in it, and then contemplated on it for a while, and then went back and read it again. The book is slim at 170-pages, but that slimness contains such immeasurable, poetic beauty. I am sharing some of those passages below for your pleasure.

“I am sure that I will not be able to fall asleep that night. I have been lying awake long that it seems to me that dawn should already be at hand, so I lift my head to hear if the others are asleep or are just pretending, but then I sense that my head is drooping from tiredness and that I will not really be meeting the dawn awake. Yet there is no way for me to comprehend how sleep comes on all at once, without any effort of will or knowledge on my part, how I can fall asleep every night without catching hold of that instant when the angel of sleep, that great butterfly of night, swoops down to close my eyes with its wings. So I begin to set an ambush for that instant. I would have liked to catch hold of sleep at least once, just as I had been resolved to catch hold of death one day, to catch hold of the wings of the angel of sleep when it came for me, to grab it with two fingers like a butterfly after sneaking up on it from behind. I use precisely this metaphor because when I say “the angel of sleep” I am thinking – just as I was when I believed in the angel of sleep – of the moment when the waking state passes into the state of oblivion, for I long believed – and I think I was right – that this shift occurs all of a sudden, for – if the organism lulls itself to sleep over a long interval – consciousness has to sink all at once, like a stone. And yet I wanted to catch the angel of sleep in its insidious fortress…”

“Notes at the bottom of pages and all the ideograms – crosses, crescents, asterisks – were supplanted by whole pages of manuscript in a tight hand. Abbreviations became subchapters, subchapters became chapters. The original idea of a combined guidebook-baedeker had become just a tiny, provocatory reproductive cell that was dividing, like a primitive organism, in geometrical progression. In the end, all that remained of the ‘Bus, Ship, Rail, and Air Travel Guide’ was a shriveled cocoon, an ideogram, a bracket, an abbreviation here and there. In the meantime, the underlying text and marginalia and footnotes had absorbed this delicate, utilitarian, unstable structure that now stood almost invisible and wholly adjunct on the varicolored map of the world of essence, and this fabricated and abstract prototopic was represented only by the thin lines of meridians and parallels in the immense structure of some eight hundred pages, single-spaced. The text stubbornly, obstinately retained its original title as a travel guide, reflecting the sick confusion in my father’s mind : he actually believed that some publishers would be fooled by this obvious fraud and publish his chaotic compendium under the guise of an innocent timetable-travelogue.”

I loved ‘Garden, Ashes‘. It is one of my favourite books of the year. I’ve met only a few Danilo Kiš fans on the internet, but every one of them has raved about him. Though he was one of the literary stars during his lifetime, it is sad that he is less well-known today. I wish his books are more widely read.

Have you read ‘Garden, Ashes‘? What do you think about it?

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