by David Albahari
translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac
Yale University Press, August 2014
. . . By the way, lest I forget, that evening we did not encounter a single elk, and that fact persuaded me to promise myself that at the first available opportunity I would pay more attention to the habits of elks, for each time I noticed their absence, I’d wonder where they had all gone and how it was that they all knew they didn’t have to be standing where they otherwise stood every day and night. Daniel Atijas laughed, not at the elks, since I hadn’t mentioned them, but at my claim that he had enemies at the Centre. I told him this shouldn’t worry him, because it was mostly a consequence of something typical of prairie dwellers—not all of them, of course, I said, but a number—especially those who were right-wing in their political thinking or bent. Somewhere, I told him, I had read that the prairie populist movements were rooted in the rich soil of intolerance that had produced a dualistic view of the world, and this dualism produced, I said, a simplistic divide of people into friends and foes, and everyone who was not a friend, or whom you didn’t understand, or whose customs were strange to you, everyone like that could be only a foe. Daniel Atijas laughed again, adding that he had never bought into generalizations like these, and now, after all that had happened in his former country, he believed them even less, particularly because, as nearly everyone claimed, the country had come apart at the seams and the war had erupted because of similar hostile feelings from times gone by or perhaps, as some claimed, he said, because hostile feelings were always there in the genes, mind, heart, and guts of every person who lived there. Because of that, he said, he had made an effort to pin down the crux and thrust of the hostility and knew, he said, of no better explanation than one in the wisdom of the Talmud: if two people come to us for help and one is a foe, help the foe first. Elks? I thought. The plural is elk, analogous to the plurals of deer and moose. This is the only flaw in the beautiful translation of David Albahari’s Globetrotter, I thought, the result of Ellen Elias-Bursac living on the east coast, in Boston, perhaps, and she simple didn’t know that the plural of elk is elk. Canadians may say elks, I thought—the novel is set in the Banff Center for artists and the elk are Canadian elks. No, I thought, Alberta is indistinguishable from Wyoming. Heavy SUV’s manufactured in the US guzzle expensive Canadian gasoline on the streets of Calgary and except for the difference between how US citizens designate their “Native Americans” and Canadians their “First Nations,” both countries are populated primarily by descendents of the European immigrants who subjugated the natives and who say elk and not elks after they learn English. After they learn English—because the novel is about immigrants, or should I say emigrants, I wondered, since the book features a Serb writer and the now Canadian grandson of the Croatian “globetrotter” after whom the novel is named. But elks? My dictionary confirmed my suspicion—elk is the plural of elk. And elks is also correct, it said, and now I wondered about other assumptions. What did I know about Jewish Serb writers like Daniel Atijas—other than what I know about David Albahari, who, by the way, shares the initials of the fictional Daniel Atijas, and with whom I drank coffee in a Belgrade cafe called Snezana or Snow White. I sat with Albahari and my friend Zarko Radakovic at a corner table. I told Albahari I had just finished his novel Götz and Meyer and that I especially liked the way the narrator repeatedly questioned whether he was describing Götz, or was it really Meyer? I spoke with Albahari (who has lived in Canada for 20 years) in English. I spoke with Zarko in German. Zarko spoke with Albahari in Serbian. Albahari was quiet, reserved. His eyes darted and flashed, not reserved at all. That is all, I thought, that I know about Serbian Jews who write novels—although I do know Nina Pops, a Serbian Jew who paints and draws in Cologne, Germany—and then I thought about the elks, and I say elks because I want to maintain my sense of uncertainty as I think about the book I have just read and want to be careful with my assumptions, especially because everything I know about the Croatian globetrotter and his Canadian grandson and the Jewish Serbian writer I know through the Canadian narrator, a painter whose mind jumps from elks to enemies to Daniel Atijas (the name Atijas in unfamiliar to me, I forget it easily, I looked it up in the internet and found doctors and basketball players and so on but for me the name is still a cipher), jumps to the plains to the mountains to pain to painting to Daniel Atijas who so fascinates the painter/narrator that he makes drawing after drawing after drawing of the writer’s face. And, as if to establish or reinforce or emphasize the fact that knowing is relative, dependent on what you already know, risky in contexts you don’t recognize, complicated beyond the niceties of indentation and quotation, the narrator tells his 200-page story in a single paragraph and without quotation marks. Only the insertion of he said or I thought or he interrupted shifts the change in perspective and yet, I thought, the perspective is always that of the unnamed narrator who reports the gestures and statements of others in the third person. How would I appear as a third person? I wondered as I read the book set in the mountains of Banff on the deck of my house set against similar Utah mountains and like the unnamed narrator who is fascinated by, or rather obsessed with the Jewish Serbian writer Danial Atijas I wondered as I read whether I was similarly obsessed with the Jewish Serbian emigrant writer David Albahari or was I simply—complicatedly— fascinated?