. . . fearing . . . that I would end up stuck here forever, constrained, among people who believe that knowledge, rather than being the mastery of ignorance, is confirmation of the desire that things be the way a person believes they are. . . . I hated the willingness of young people to believe, to shrug off the individuality that grows out of the challenge of learning, and to embrace the dead abstractions that professors foisted upon them, and that were nothing more than banality cloaked in the guise of profound wisdom. . . .
I had been living on the edge of an incomplete historical vortex, on the edge of a historical sewer that sucked in all spiritual and physical secretions and then spewed them forth in even more horrible forms, disguised by the illusion of historical balances that dissolved at the most unexpected moments. Nothing was permanent in that place, nothing reliable, except a permanent faith in the power of illusion, and if that day, I was thinking, that had long since eroded into twilight and now held evening in its firmly clenched jaws, differed in any way from all other days, then the distinction lay in my feeling of incredulity at the willingness of people to embrace illusion, at the quickness, in fact of illusion’s embrace, I was thinking at the quickness of this willingness to seize on the veracity of illusion.
“I came because language no longer meant anything, it was being squandered like flour in a mill, because, in fact, it no longer existed.”
“I came here,” I said, “because I had stopped being, because I believed that life could be an existence again, and not merely a series of interrupted sequences, always a new beginning, never an end, and I found myself in a web of new beginnings, in a constant repetition, in the impossibility of being anything other than what had, once, been.” I couldn’t remember when I had last uttered such a long sentence. “I came,” I tried again, though I was no longer addressing only my toes, “because I believed that when I looked back from another place that I would see that first place in a way that I had never been able to see it while I was there, and then, freed of the subjectivity and passion for possession, I would see that everything might have unfolded in a different way, that reality, actually is contained in the act of choice, in opposing any sort of imperative.”
The narrator of David Albahari’s novel, published in English in 2005, is a writer who takes refuge from his disintegrating country at a Canadian university. A country that falls apart leaves people who fall apart. What had seemed to have meaning loses its meaning. Language squandered no longer exists. And without language, a writer becomes a snow man.
Without paragraph breaks, this novel puts a reader inside the head of a troubled man, troubled for good reason, impossibly situated, suffering — “Elend,” as the Germans say, eli-lenti, outside of one’s country — exiled, foreign not as foreign in a new country but foreign in regards to his own. Books and maps and sentences and words have proven useless, worse than useless, have proven to be lies, all of them.
The country is never named. The violence is never described. The dead are never counted. The history of this war plays out entirely in the personal crisis of the narrator in exile. His disappearing voice is devastating.