The new edition of Open Letters Monthly (December 1) will have my review of Albhari’s two new books in English. This is how the review will end:
“Learning Cyrillic,” the book’s title story, is divided into 37 numbered paragraphs, a formal device quite different from the novel without paragraphs but that likewise slows and disrupts a reading. The story is told by a lonely Serb who has emigrated to a cold, Canadian city where on Friday evenings he goes to church, not to pray, he says, but to teach Serbian to children of fellow immigrants. The story juxtaposes two lost causes: the impossible task of preserving Serbian language and culture in a context in which the English-speaking children are eager to assimilate and the equally impossible attempt by a mysterious Indian to preserve his Siksika language and culture in a place and time where his people are known only as Blackfeet whose remains are displayed in a museum.
The events of this story are largely unremarkable, but as the fragments accumulate a reader begins to sense the narrator’s profound loneliness, a feeling heightened by the isolation shared in somewhat different ways by the genial but somewhat clueless priest in whose church the Serbian lessons are given and by the Indian who eventually reveals that his name is Thunder Cloud. The story’s last three sections (35, 36, 37) end with three bleak sentences: “I shut my eyes and I’m gone. . . . I find a dead mouse. . . . I start to walk until I find myself across the street.” Gone, dead, the narrator finds himself only on the other side of the street, not within the church and not in the Cyrillic letters of his Serbian language. He finds himself, as do all immigrants, in the language of the new country, in English-language “green letters” of the pedestrian signal that invite him to cross the street. The German word for misery, “Elend,” means in its root sense “out of or away from one’s country.” The characters in this and the other fine stories by David Albahari are all—humorously and gently and each with his or her quirks—miserably away from home. Which leaves me sad as well in the early darkness of this November afternoon. All readers are immigrants.