Forms of Serbian Fiction: David Albahari and Zarko Radakovic

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David Albahari and Zarko Radakovic in the early years

Last night, after reading David Albahari’s novel Ludwig in German translation, a novel about a writer obsessed with a writer named Ludwig and with the city of Belgrade, where they both live, I stepped onto our deck that overlooks Utah Valley. Utah Lake was reflecting the last natural light amid the pinpoints of electrical light from houses and streets. It was a familiar scene with mountains to the east and to the west—basin and range and basin and range repeating for a thousand miles across western Utah and through Nevada into California, always the same pattern with intense individual variations. The contrast between Albahari’s literary and somewhat paranoid Belgrade and my familiar physical landscape made me think first about how utterly different the two are — and then, as I thought further, about how similar the repeating basins and ranges are to the flow of the novel Ludwig.

The narrator’s thoughts move from the novel’s beginning to its last sentence without a single paragraph break. They return again and again to a very limited set of events: the televised discussion in which Ludwig asserts his dominance over the narrator, the moment when he returns to find Ludwig with his wife, their encounters during which the narrator sketches out the possibilities of a “book of books,” the publication of the plagiarized book. Other minor events are recorded, but these main ones are the objects of the narrator’s obsession as he plays and replays his relationship with Belgrade’s most famous writer. Each telling of an event reminds a reader that this is a novel of troubled reflection, and each new version with its slight additions and deviations is revelatory. An easily accepted denial near the book’s beginning appears less truthful when repeated late in the book. And so on.

There are three Ludwig’s in the account: the Belgrade author named Ludwig, the Austrian philosopher of logic and language Ludwig Wittgenstein, and a pistol the narrator acquires in his despair and names Ludwig. And with this triple signifier the book approaches a main theme: language. At one point the narrator is considering allegations that he has harmed the famous author’s reputation:

I emphasize once again: there was nothing dirty, there was nothing between Ludwig and me, what there was was a friendship that lasted for some time and then winked out, faded, wilted, dried up, passed away, tailed off, broke apart, disintegrated, disappeared, and many other words that mean the same thing because none of them alone is enough to describe what happened. To decide on one of them and to declare it exact is easy, but . . . .

Only repetition can approach robust meaning, even as it makes such meaning problematic.

Albahari and Zarko Radakovic have recently published a book called “Book about Music” (see earlier post) that involves another kind of repetition—two authors addressing a single question, each from his own perspective. Zarko and I have twice engaged in such an exercise, first in our Repetitions and then in our Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary (both published in English by Punctum Books).

Early in his “Under the Stone Bridge” (the second half of Repetitions), Zarko  writes the following:

The previous evening we had Stood (“for a while”) by the lake. We stared long at the water which hardly seemed to move. At one point, however, Scott said that the water “moved” … In my opinion, the water was slick (“as a mirror”). To the left, under a stone bridge, the river could be heard flowing. Out there (“to the south”)—something you could only imagine in the dark—the water “rolled.” There, the lake, drained, away. Immediately, the waves, turned, silence into, noise. “What a quiet landscape,” I thought. “What, a, quiet, landscape,” Scott said. (“It is now completely dark,” I failed to say. I noticed. I saw.) The mountains looked, like a wall, or, a curtain, or merely ships “that Stand,” “at anchor.” 

When the editor of Punctum Books sent me proofs for the book, she noted that much of Zarko’s text is oddly punctuated and suggested that the sheer quantity of quotation marks may be off-putting to readers. In response, I reminded her of David Albahari’s assertion that

Even before he left for Germany and especially thereafter, Zarko Radakovic was – and still is – one of the few absolutely isolated, independent, creative personalities of contemporary Serbian prose, over the years, even decades, remaining outside all divisions, definitions, tendencies and movements, without clearly visible predecessors and, certainly, without recognizable followers. Creating prose, Zarko chooses, without departing from the radical – at least that’s how it seems – literary isolation. . . .

And he created, simultaneously, a prose in which he dealt with his, our language like a foreign language, that is, he dealt with himself like a kind of unknown who actually makes use of the foreign language . . . in the same way, and this is my most profound belief, Beckett uses the English language and Handke the German language. In this way Zarko created a specific language, formally precise, but in fact extremely imprecise, sculptural, image based, which doesn’t lend itself to the development of a story (where there is at least a trace of story present) as well as to the gently hypnotic that develops out of rhythmic and unforeseen repetition. . . .

But I return to Zarko’s alienation of language, which finally would be the same as if I had said “Zarko’s self-alienation.” For we are our language, that is, each of us is her own language, as Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed. (Or was that someone else?) Reality is thus either reality itself or nothing, for as of the moment in which we begin to speak of it, it ceases to be reality and thus becomes only an image of our language.

. . . in his prose Zarko wants to write a story that appears not to be written, that appears not to describe “reality” but rather is reality. . . .

I think I will not be wrong when I say that Zarko (along with Miodrag Vokuvic) is the most radical Serbian writer of the present time, in the sense of use of our language as well as in the sense of exploring new prose forms and formulae. . . .

The editor accepted the argument without further question.

The translator of Zarko’s text into English, Ivana Djordjevic, responded to the published book with enthusiasm: “I greatly enjoyed revisiting Zarko’s text, which I remember – rightly, as I have now been reminded – as one of my favourite translation projects. Please give Zarko my warmest regards when you are in touch with him.” She enjoyed the translation, I suppose, because she sensed she was working with a brilliant text as interested in its own forms as it is in the stories it tells.

Now that it is in book form, I read “Under the Stone Bridge” again, with new focus, and it comes alive for me in new ways. The passage quoted above, for instance (if I breath as slowly as the words move across the page), melds words and landscape into a experience that, somehow, is physical and mental at the same time:

There, the lake, drained, away. Immediately, the waves, turned, silence into, noise. “What a quiet landscape,” I thought. “What, a, quiet, landscape,” Scott said. (“It is now completely dark,” I failed to say. I noticed. I saw.) The mountains looked, like a wall, or, a curtain, or merely ships “that Stand,” “at anchor.”

The quotation marks announce that language, cliched language is at work: BEWARE—and in the warning there is, paradoxically, authenticity. The commas feel like little dams, and somehow their presence also creates forward motion.

These formal devices do their work throughout the text, joined quickly by an insistence on telling stories that are not stories and by insistent and persistent repetition:

I talked for a while about the impossibility of storytelling. Before that, I had read a passage from page forty-seven of Handke’s work Repetition, and before that, a passage from page fifteen. I insisted on narrativeless narration. . . .

There was a series of descriptions there of sensations with, I explained, not a single event. And even if there had been any, they would immediately have been “reduced” by the sensory-perceptive apparatus of the subject. . . .

At one point I had the impression that I was talking with Sreten Ugricic, to whom I once said that Stories about powerful Sensations could now only dissolve into Stories-without-events. (“That is now a necessity,” I thought.) To Vasa Pavkovic too—who saw in Handke’s ‘narration’ ‘meticulous description,’ which also confirms, to the great chagrin of all, the death of ‘rock’n’roll’ in fiction—I meant to say something “useful.” (The Story eluded me.) … I turned to the wall, and saw the face of Slavica Stojanovic in the pattern of the wall paint. (“Who is this woman?” I asked, “visibly excited.” “She realizes that you are flesh that, perhaps, ‘ought to be fucked,’” Zorica said.) “Am I to strip just like that, am I to show myself naked ‘just like that’, only ‘just like that,’ just because I am ‘handsome’ and ‘big,’ ‘because’ somebody wants me ‘at any price,’ ‘because’ I haven’t a red cent, though I have something to sell, but cannot make up my mind, so it seems I’m not quite sure what to do with myself, for a pestilential specter is scouring the world, there is no justice, this is not a war, we are just prey to nightly agitation? … No! … O, I’d rather be impotent, ugly, evil, alone, unfree, and useful! … O, I want no Stories! … O, I want no Language! … I want no Chronology, I want no Starring role in an expensive movie! I want nothing… I have no time… I’m in a rush.” And I told the “journalist” on the TV screen: “‘You motherfucking dickhead, do you want me to play Jagger, who’s already past it anyway, manager of the biggest and least productive enterprise in the country, and still to be unaware that Dylan has been packed off before his time as a politician who has gone up shit creek?”… No! … You cunt! … I want!: Gentle concatenation!, Tender continuation!—not of events, but of perceptions! and sensations! thoughts! and feelings! … Storytelling must be! a tailoring! (“Screw you, shitheads!”) and a composing! in which the narrator! becomes! a hero! just like his listeners! Because he is! UnObtrusive! Because he is no! LawGiver!”

For three days now, like a “Lonesome Cowboy,” I have roamed the mountains and stage sets, searching for Tanzenberg, the bastion of a childhood, the “shelter” of parental pride and “base” for intended conquests … (All that was seven days ago. I am in Tübingen now. This is “Repetition”!)

My text, the first half of the book, is a straightforward account of our trip into the landscapes of  Peter Handke’s novel Repetition and of the author’s childhood. The journey begins, the journey continues, the journey ends. Zarko’s account is circular. He comes back to the same scene repeatedly and each time depicts it in slightly different hues. It is a genial repetition, an unsettling and reassuring admission that there is a kind of meaning that can only be approached seductively (“supposing truth to be a woman” Nietzsche wrote). And together our texts, like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald dancing “cheek to cheek,” get at things no single text could achieve.

At least that was our plan.

About Scott Abbott

Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University, 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I'm Director of the Program in Integrated Studies and former Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade), and translations of a book by Austrian author Peter Handke and of a catalogue of an exhibit called "The German Army and Genocide." More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as a watershed scientist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a corrections officer, as university students, and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett and our yellow dog Blue. Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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