Perspectives | Culture

David Albahari, In Memoriam

By - 13.09.2023

Recollections of the acclaimed Serbian writer from his English translator.

Born to a Sephardic Jewish family in Peja, Kosovo in 1948, David Albahari became one of the most celebrated Serbian writers of the late 20th century. He received significant international acclaim for “Götz and Meyer” (1998), a postmodern novel about violence, obsession and the Holocaust that The Guardian called “unimprovable, astonishingly moving.”

After helping evacuate the Jewish population from besieged Sarajevo in the early 1990s as the chair of the Federation of Jewish Communes of Yugoslavia, Albahari fled the violence of Milošević’s Yugoslavia in 1994 for Canada, where he lived until 2012. He died on July 30, 2023 in Belgrade.

Ellen Elias-Bursać, the English-language translator of “Götz and Meyer” along with other works by Albahari, recalls her 25-year literary relationship with the writer.

When we lost David Albahari in late July, I found myself thinking back to the half-dozen times he and I met in person during the 25 years I have translated his novels and stories into English. The first thing I admired in his work was his commitment to postmodernism. The literary output of 1970s and ’80s Yugoslavia was otherwise dominated by fiction with a strong political bent, much of it pursuing a grievance aesthetic aimed at exposing the long-shrouded secrets of Tito’s Yugoslavia, with a focus on issues such as prisoners’ experiences at the Goli Island prison camp and Partisan atrocities at the close of WWII.

David was interested, instead, in fiction as art, in exploring the limits of language and words. He once said in an interview for the online journal Words Without Borders: “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.”

We first met in Belgrade in 1988. I had come across his short story, “Moja žena ima svetle oči” (later translated as “My Wife Has Light Eyes”). I was living in Zagreb at the time, working as a freelance translator. I was electrified by the way he’d interwoven bickering jousts between a husband and wife on the verge of divorce with ruminations on the nature of literature, cast in the humor and playfulness of his postmodern sensibility. 

I found the story so refreshing that I wrote him to ask if I might translate his work into English. He received my message warmly and we soon met at the Jewish Community Center in Belgrade which he was actively involved in at the time. Not long after that first meeting, we both moved away: I with my family to Boston where I was from, and David with his family to Calgary, so our ongoing correspondence after that was mostly via email and letters, seldom in person.

Ellen Elias-Bursać and David Albahari together at a residency in Banff, Canada in 2011. Photo: Tania Samsonova.

In 1994, when he first arrived in Canada, David was invited to take part in a residency at the Banff Art Centre in a spectacular national park amid the Canadian Rocky Mountains. He faxed me a text he’d written to present at the residency, addressing some of his experience of carrying the Yugoslav wars with him while he was in Canada, and I faxed him back my translation. An excerpt:

…On the first floor and part of the second was the local bookstore. When I discovered it on my second day in Banff, I closely perused the shelves with books of prose and poetry, and, by habit, pulled out the books I wanted to own. Then, one by one, I put them back on the shelves where I’d found them. The rest of the books had already begun to expand, taking over the newly emptied space, but I was persistent, I repeated this ritual which I have developed over the last two or three years, denying myself any opportunity of bringing a book home with me from a trip. 

It took the war for me to understand the futility of all property; despite my intentions to ‘wander free as a bird,’ I had accumulated belongings, I hoarded, I stuck to things like a caterpillar sticks to a leaf, but when I greeted Jewish refugees from Sarajevo, each one spoke of ‘his’ books, of despair at the thought that ‘someone else’s foot’ was kicking them around or ‘someone else’s hands’ were tossing them into flames.

During his 18 years in Canada, David wrote a series of novels, one of which, “Globetrotter,” is set in Banff. In 2011, I took part in a residency at the same Banff Art Centre and David was invited to join me there for five days. My residency project was to translate “Globetrotter,” so he and I spent our time there exploring the novel’s settings. While there, he wrote another essay which I translated on the spot and we read it, he in Serbian, I in English, to the assembled translators and authors:

The Banff Translators

Once they had finished translating everything there was to translate in Banff, the Banff translators, better known as Group 25, headed east. Along the way they translated all they saw: they translated elk into buffalo, Japanese tourists into an Aboriginal of the Blackfoot Tribe, the mayor of Calgary into Chief Sitting Bull. The squirrels in all languages remained the same, as did the words: cage, peanut, love, and communism. 

By then the translators had reached the East Coast of North America and here for the first time they were faced in all seriousness by their role in the world and life. It had been a breeze to be a translator in Banff, but how, now, to translate fish into gulls, salt into iodine, German submarines into optical cables, and the flushed cheeks of newly grown girls into the first dreams that would flush their faces even more? 

There was no help to be had here from the Old English, the Sanskrit, and the Celtic languages. Love is untranslatable, unless replaced by pure energy, such as: waves lapping at the toes of the Banff translators. The translators are barefoot as they have learned meanwhile that for a translation to be good there has to be first-hand, or first-foot, experience, their feet must feel the mud of the earth first if they are to catch sight later of the gleam of stars, there is an order which defies translation, and untranslatable are a breath or a heartbeat or that soft sound when tooth hits tooth at the end of a first kiss.

While I was working on the translation of his novel “Leeches,” I visited Zemun, the part of Belgrade where he grew up, armed with David’s instructions. He wasn’t in Serbia at the time but he sent me suggestions for where I might go to see the courtyards and streets he describes in the novel. On a later visit, after he’d moved back, he took me on a walk along the Zemun quay, along the banks of the Danube. During the walk we talked about his work on “Today is Wednesday,” one of the several novels he published after his return from Canada to Serbia. 

The novel is narrated from the perspective of a young man who is looking after his father who has Parkinson’s. David had been suffering from Parkinson’s for many years at that point and his son, Nathan, was living with him in Zemun and looking after him. The compassion of this project was especially moving for me — the way he chose to place himself in the position of the son dealing with the cantankerous sick old father. David confessed during that walk that one of his favorite pastimes now that he’d moved back was to show up unannounced at readings held by aspiring writers, so that his presence might serve as an endorsement for their work.

The last time I saw him was in 2017 when David, Nathan and I had dinner together at their apartment in Zemun. He told me then of movie nights he had been organizing, when someone would find a copy of a good movie and friends would come over, bringing food and cheer, and they’d all watch the movie together. If getting out was increasingly difficult for him, he’d bring his community home to him.

There are many aspects of the five novels and two short story collections of his which I translated (out of his prolific opus of sixteen novels and nineteen collections of short stories as well as plays, children’s stories, essays and translations) that I have loved working on since 1988, but one of my favorite devices of his was the way he set up bickering exchanges between his characters, like the husband and wife in the first story of his that I translated. Dubravka Ugrešić once commented that she, too, was intrigued by the way these conversations play in David’s novels and stories. I am quite sure that the second chapter, “A Balancing Art,” in her novel “Fox,” was her exploration of this same device, inspired by David.

David Albahari has left us with a rich legacy: his wry sense of humor, his generosity and warmth, his profound commitment to the art of writing, and his unflagging drive to create despite the many difficulties imposed by Parkinson’s. After spending so many years translating his prose, I am moved and relieved to find that his voice is still alive in my inner ear. You, too, can hear it. Asymptote Journal published one of David’s stories, “Trash is Better” a few years ago. The publication encourages writers to record themselves reading their text, and David obliged. Now that he’s gone, it feels particularly precious that we can still hear his voice.

Feature image: Das blaue Sofa / Club Bertelsmann via CC.

  • 14 Sep 2023 - 09:16 | Thomas McGonigle:

    I have always wanted to thank in public Ellen Elias-Bursac for translating Albahari’s many books which live now ever constant in my mind… again the mention of Zemun jumped out at me as I once upon a time had to go to that rather grim suburb to look for the relatives of my Bulgarian wife who were in the run after fleeing then communist Bulgaria—- I don’t know if Albahari ever read my The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov or my other novels but I’ve always mentioned his name and books as being similar in terms of form and intent… so of course his death was deeply sad for too many reasons…