David Albahari’s novel appeared in Belgrade in 1996, titled Mamac, and in Peter Agnone’s translation from the Serbian into English, in the US in 2001.
The English title, Bait, troubled me to the end. Where’s the bait, I thought as I closed the book? There has been no mention of bait. Anywhere.
I looked up the Serbian word “mamac” and it translates as “bait.” It also provides a play on “Mama.” And that may be the key.
The narrator has fled the Yugoslav civil wars: “I no longer had a country, I was left without a mother, it only remained for language to be completely worn out and for me to remain without anything.”
This is a theme Albahari has explored elsewhere, most notably in Snow Man and in Tsing. What place is there for a writer in another country, in another language?
Two of Albahari’s countrymen (at least former countrymen), Charles Simic and Aleksandar Hemon, successfully write in English after their emigration from a mother language that is, or was, Serbo-Croatian, and that is now Serbian or Bosnian, respectively.
It is not the norm to write well in a second language, especially not for a poet or novelist. Almost all writers in exile rely on translators, on translations. Albahari’s works are accessible to me only through the good grace of his translators, whether German or English. I just started reading Ludwig, a novel in German translation, not yet available in English. And two books will soon appear in English, one with Yale UP, the other with Dalkey Archive.
Albahari himself has translated many English works into Serbian.
The narrator of Bait has brought with him tapes he made of his mother speaking about her life, and he listens to them over the course of the novel. It is a blessing and a curse: “. . . and the whole time I was tormented by the fear that a return to my native language, reinforced by the fact that it was precisely my mother who was speaking it, would bring me back to where I no longer wanted to return, especially now that, thanks to someone else’s language, I was finally beginning to feel like someone else.”
The someone else he is feeling like is a writer, a writer in the English language, a writer encouraged in part by the tapes he has made and brought with him, and near the end of the novel he gives his friend Donald, himself a writer, a manuscript that he trusts will put him on the path to a new life.
“I’d written about a poet who decides the time has come to write stories, but he in no way manages to free himself from concision, which he considers essential to composing verse, and dedicates himself to the interpretations which, so he believes, form the basis of prosaic speech. To him every sentence is still a verse, as every story is still a poem, for form, he realizes, is not important at all. The world around him is falling apart, a war is going on, his mother has died, and he feels, despite all prosaic concision, the story of her life becoming real in him, drawing him into himself and forcing him to play a role determined long ago.”
He is caught, then, between the new self he has begun to feel like and the old self that is the role determined by his mother. Will he write about the new self or the old self. Will his English, much of it still dictionary English, suffice for a description of the old self?
Both mother and bait, both mama and mamac, his mother’s words on the tapes and the writing about them in English are illusions. He was caught in a related illusion in the year before he left his home, and he sums it up in one long sentence:
“Attempting to flee from my fear, despair, and pain, I sought salvation by sinking into a fear, despair, and pain greater than my own, and so I accepted an offer to work in the office of one of the international humanitarian organizations, responsible for distributing aid and collecting data regarding refugees, which required me constantly to meet with those whose misfortune was not symbolic like my own, to help elderly women step across thresholds, to guide trembling hands toward the lines on forms which had been designated for their personal signatures, to regard the eyes of children that never, no matter how long you looked at them blinked, as though something had left them open forever, and then I began to visit the refugee camps, to take and record statements, to inventory lost and destroyed property, to make lists of the lost and missing or those who had simply been forgotten, to stack piles of almost worthless money toward which fingers with cracked fingernails reached, to find a doll for a little girl who couldn’t remember her own name, diapers for babies, medicines for the chronically ill, to translate and interpret, describe and summarize, until the moment I felt I couldn’t feel anything anymore and that someone else’s fear of a lost and changing world had canceled my fear of a repeating one. Then I left on my trip.”
And on the trip, in his new home, in Canada, his “symbolic misfortune” returns with a vengeance. He is indeed someone else. Someone caught forever between two languages.