“Learning Cyrillic” is the title of a story by David Albahari, in a translation by Ellen Elias-Bursac, published in Words without Borders, January 2007. It is also the title of a book of short stories, soon to appear in a US edition (David Albahari told me this on April 10, 2013, in the Snezana Cafe in Belgrade).
Presented in 37 numbered paragraphs, the story is told by a Serb who has emigrated to a cold, Canadian city where he teaches Serbian to children of emigrants. The sly genius of the story lies in juxtaposing two lost causes: the impossible task of preserving Serbian language and culture in a context in which the target children are avidly assimilating to the English language and Canadian culture and the equally impossible attempt to preserve Siksika language and culture in a context where they are known only as Blackfoot Indians whose remains are displayed in a museum.
The priest in whose church the cyrillic lessons are given is conflicted but nevertheless committed to a purity of language and belief. The narrator, a somewhat diffident teacher, is fascinated by what Thunder Cloud (whom he encounters, somewhat mysteriously, in the first paragraph) tells him about the Siksika. Thundercloud, like the priest, clings to the remnants of his culture.
My retelling bypasses the surprises and lacks the ironies of the story (which can and should be read HERE). But it brings me to another story about learning cyrillic.
When I went to Belgrade a year ago, I took with me a little notebook in which I had juxtaposed two alphabets:
I did this because my little dictionary / recnik was a product of a unified and thus homogenized Yugoslavia and thus had no help for the Cyrillically challenged.
Later, in Cologne, my notebook fell open to that page while I was having coffee with Zarko Radakovic and Nina Pops. Zarko noticed the two alphabets and, smiling, showed the page to Nina. She smiled too. My attempt to gain access to their language and culture was pleasing to them as they, like me, sat in the foreign land of Germany that itself broadened our ways of being ourselves.
Months later Zarko sent me an essay he had published in a literary journal in Novi Sad.
It’s in Cyrillic, he wrote in German (our common language). It is a response to your thought, he continued, written as a dedication in the book you sent me [Wild Rides and Wildflowers], that you can’t read my books although you desperately wish you could. My essay is titled “We (About Friendship),” and is a text about the two of us, about how I experienced us at a given moment in time. It too will join the set of our texts that remain foreign to each of us.
This Sunday morning, however, after having read David Albahari’s “Learning Cyrillic,” I thought I would learn Cyrillic too. And I would do it as a key to Zarko’s text about us.
I installed a Serbian Cyrillic keyboard. I opened Google Translate. I opened my little notebook. I copied the first paragraph of the text. And here is what I found:
Жарко Радаковић / Zarko Radakovic
МИ (О пријатељству) / We (About friendship)
Ноћ у Ба ји ној Ба шти. По ро хлад на, ти ха, ми ри сна, не ка ко зна чај но све ча на. По пу- стим со ка ци ма там не сен ке жбу но ва шим ши ра ис пред ула за у по за тва ра не ку ће. Пас за ла је са мо на рет ке на ле те ве тра ко ји по кре не гра не ста бла ја бу ке и, као пре ну те из дре ме жа, до ср жи пре пла ше не, отре се зре ле пло до ве на тле об ра сло тра вом оро ше- ном све жи ном ве че ри у ко јој су сви при сут ни про ме ње ни.
I can read the first word, night, because I recognize it from Zarko’s translation of Peter Handke’s novel The Moravian Night: Моравска Нођ. So far so good. But then, through Google Translate, I run into trouble. The first two sentences come out like this:
Night at Ba Ba ji Eastern residents. According ro the shade, you ha ri me sleep, not to who knows no tea at all cha.
This may take longer than I thought.
I scroll down the file Zarko sent me and find, on the eighth page, something I understand, a photo of the two of us taken by Anne Kister (the spot on my cheek turned out to be a squamous cell carcinoma and required surgery!):
And I can even read the caption:
Жарко Радаковић и Скот Абот