Globetrotter by David Albahari trans. Ellen Elias-Bursać (Yale Margellos, Aug. 2014) Reviewed by Jeffrey Zuckerman

by David Albahari
trans. Ellen Elias-Bursać
(Yale Margellos, Aug. 2014)

Reviewed by Jeffrey Zuckerman

“Sometimes words say what they want to say,” the unnamed narrator of David Albaharis Globetrotter tells himself near the books end, “and there is nothing we can do about it.” Instead of “words,” he almost ought to have said “people.” But it would never occur to him to do so: his own loquacity, in fact, is the driving force of Albaharis novel. The single, unbroken paragraph that flows through Globetrotters two hundred pages is narrated entirely in this solitary and self-absorbed voice, working through its obsessions and curiosities with a wide-ranging eloquence. The very first lines warn the unwitting reader of the books narrative confines:

Cities are like women, I said to Daniel Atijas, when we met at the Centre in Banff on June 11, 1998. You like the way some look, I said, and others you like for what they are on the inside. Some cities are neither, I said, and you are indifferent when you find yourself there, I said, by the side of certain women. They are colorless, I said, like air. I thought hed say air is not colorless—he struck me as that type of person, the kind who always, without being overbearing, states things as they are . . .

We are listening to—or, rather, reading—this uninhibited protagonist during his stay at the Banff Centre, high in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. He is a painter, and the man who, he thinks, “states things as they are” is a Jewish-Serbian writer he has just met named Daniel Atijas. The books ensuing pages will show us how the two interact and become enmeshed as friends and as intellectual jousters, though the narrator seems to want even more from the writer, his interest in Daniel Atijas soon bordering on nearly homoerotic obsession. He connects with the writer upon discovering that they both come from flat plains: “I should have recognized in him the reflection of his plains . . . for that makes us more similar than either of us might have reckoned.” Over the ensuing days, they spend more and more time exploring the Centre and its environs. In the course of wandering through Banff together, Daniels obsession with history—both his own and that of the Centres—nearly explodes upon discovering a single person from the past.

This nearly mythical figure is the Globetrotter of the title, and the two men come across his record as they look at an old guest book from when Banff was a spa: “It was someones signature, a little smudged in spots but legible. Ivan Matulić, it read, and next to that: Globetrotter from Croatia. And then came the date, June 22, 1924 . . . Yugoslavia had already been a country by then for five or six years.”

At this point a few of the books themes are already clear: obsession and obsessiveness; male (and potentially homoerotic) friendship; the power and failure of words; the burden or hollowness of history.

And, perhaps most of all, the nature of place-names and places and names. This novel is set in 1998 and was published in Serbian in 2001, as the Yugoslav Wars were ending. The narrator and Daniel Atijas (whose initials and origins are identical to David Albaharis) fixate on this signature of a man who wrote that he was from a no-longer-existing Croatia, and they do so from a moment in history where Croatia exists once again. Ellen Elias-Bursać’s translation—one that so delightfully renders in English the astonishingly precise words Albahari chose in Serbian—has come out thirteen years after the original publication and fifteen years after the end of the Yugoslav Wars. Its evident that Elias-Bursać has spent enough time in Zagreb to be keenly aware of the political and historical preoccuptions undergirding Globetrotter, and understands how these themes refuse to come to the fore of Albaharis novel. Daniel Atijas feels very keenly the violence that his homeland has suffered, but that pain is minimized and marginalized by being filtered through the narrators voice. When we read sentences like “History had never, he said, meant much to him, for after all, he had grown up in a time with no history, in a country without a history, on a continent where study was more and more often seen as assembling fragments,” the secondhand nature of reported speech drains the words of their emotional strength, and we are left with paraphrases and summaries and hints of reality, smothered by the narrators own emotions and obsessions.

For David Albaharis narrator is one who overshares in order to hide other things, much like a magician whose patter distracts viewers from his sleights of hand. There are indeed discussions of historys “sticky tentacles” and “foul stench,” and certainly Albahari has been frequently compared to Thomas Bernhard for his unrelenting mania, to László Krasznahorkai for his nearly uncontrolled sentences, and to Franz Kafka for his maddening interiority. But the narrators obsession and ranting is less Bernhardian fury than Murnanian taxonomy (such as his recurrent description of Daniel Atijas as “the type who so readily forgets” or “the type who was more concerned with others” or “the type who ups and goes like that”).

In particular Globetrotter seems closest, stylistically and thematically, to Gerald Murnanes The Plains. The narrators focus on “the plains” as a marker of identity in this mountainous locale becomes a fascinating contrast. Such statements as “this would not be the first time the mountains swayed a person so that the person, especially someone from the plains, lost all sense of direction” are not uncommon. This line, along with others interspersed throughout the book like “On the plains, I thought, every movement is a form of standing still,” would hardly be out of place in Murnanes parable of a book, which itself holds such koan-like sentences as “The sunlight in summer can blind a person to the possibilities that lie behind the plains” and “What words or what camera could reveal the plains within plains that I heard of so often these last few weeks?”

The Australian author contrasts the plains and “the interior” of his country to its coastal cities, and in so doing contrasts contemplation and historicity to hurried, forgetful progress and presentism. The Serbian author, in turn, considers the plains diametrically opposed to the mountains (the narrator and another woman “claimed to understand the mountains, but we refused to accept that the people who came from mountainous climes could grasp in its fullness the essence of prairie”), and attempts to establish unstable dichotomies upon the two biomes. Going to the mountains becomes, in Globetrotter, a way for the narrator to more clearly apprehend his inherent plain-ness; it is not, as in the case of Murnanes similarly unnamed character, a way to escape himself and more thoroughly understand the new and unfamiliar culture. But while in The Plains, Murnane attempts to master and measure a seemingly unbounded landscape, Albahari harbors no such ambitions. Both he and his narrator understand that any lofty attempts at proper definitions must run aground in the face of reality. How else, indeed, to explain such non-dichotomous events as the death and rebirth of Croatia and Serbia?

From the very start I believed Daniel Atijas to be an extremely rational person, which is why, after all, and this I knew, he could not understand the collapse of his country, which was irrational and defied all logic. It is easiest, he had said at the lecture, to refer to the inevitability of history, but history, like fate, is not inevitable; exactly like fate, it is the result of free choice . . .

There is another system at play here in Globetrotter: the concept of hollowness. “Emptiness can be filled, whereas hollowness is what remains when everything else is taken away . . . [Emptiness] is the presence of absence; hollowness, he went on, is the absence of presence.” And this hollowness is certainly apparent in both of the countries that feature in Globetrotter. The former Yugoslavia is almost an absence or a void interrupting the existence of its constituent countries; its immigrants can only look back and what no longer exists. And similarly, Canada is portrayed by the narrator as a relatively hollow, ahistorical country: “All of us in Canada, after all, were immigrants, some earlier and some later.”

Canada's apparent culture of deracination faintly chimes with the image Margaret Atwood invoked in Survival, her critical text on Canadian literature: “The survivor has no triumph or victory but the fact of his survival; he has little after his ordeal that he did not have before, except gratitude for having escaped with his life. A preoccupation with one’s survival is necessarily also a preoccupation with the obstacles to that survival.” The national literature that Atwood considers and canonizes deals not with Canada as a specific location but, more fundamentally, as the site of a struggle for presence in the face of absence. And lest this consideration seem reductive, the writer Brian Evenson has considered Canadian literature in the time after Survivals publication, and also come to the conclusion that “some of the best Canadian fiction is not primarily or overtly about Canadian identity.” Paradoxically, this would lead us as readers to think of David Albaharis novels and themes as appropriately Canadian. He had indeed been living there for six years, and would stay there for about eighteen years before returning to Serbia. But even at the time of Globetrotter’s writing, he was known as a Serbian writer, producing texts in Serbian. And so Canada becomes analogous and even symbolic of Serbia, a country that has disappeared and reappeared, flourished and consumed itself, a presence that remains hollow.

And one of Canada's immigrant types, in fact, interrupts the neat dichotomy of the two men from the plains. As they follow Daniel Atijass curiosity and start researching the mysterious Ivan Matulić, his grandson appears. He, too, has been researching this forebears arrival from Europe, hoping to extract some significance from the trip. Somehow he manages to be neither named, like Daniel Atijas, nor unnamed, like the narrator. Rather, he is constantly referred to as “Ivan Matulić’s grandson,” and his presence in the novel turns the two mens friendship into a messy triangle—not quite a love triangle, but perhaps a jealous competition for attention. Ivan Matulić’s grandson, as a character, seems hollow himself. We learn little about him, and far more about the original Ivan Matulić. He has only a shell of a name and, having divested himself of his hereditary Croatia-ness, a shell of a national identity. Perhaps this can be attributed to his being an immigrant—obsessed with his grandfathers survival and his traces of history and his former country—and this bears comparison to Daniel Atijas’s status as a Serbian emigrant. Atijas comes across as emotionally empty at first: attractive to everybody, especially the narrator who spends his hours away from Atijas sketching faces that come increasingly close to depicting Atijass own, but neither interested in women (as the narrator implies in the books first sentence) nor men (as the narrator seems to be throughout the novel). But there is a kinship between himself and Ivan Matulić’s grandson in their living outside their ancestral homelands, a kinship that excludes the narrator and drives him mad. The narrator takes faith in Daniel Atijas’s other interest. Language, in Daniel Atijas’s eyes, in the one element that has not been destroyed or remade or hollowed out. He says, when Ivan Matulić’s grandson describes the Croatian language as a fireball, that “Language truly is fire. . . except that while some succeed in escaping fire, no one escapes language.”

For language is what remains of a place after it has been hollowed out, and words are what remain after a nation has been erased. In its abstractness and nontangibility, the verbal components of language can outlive their makers and original users to exist outside borders of any sort. This would perhaps be why the narrator finds himself so compelled, in contrast to the listeners around him, when Daniel Atijas reads one of his stories to the Banff attendees: “There was no storyline to it, no events, no central or marginal characters; it seemed to have no beginning or end. It was all about passage, about language itself—endlessly beautiful and powerful.”

Such a story sounds unmoored. And not entirely unlike David Albaharis Globetrotter, which in spite of its concrete characters and setting feels like a mountain range rather than a path through calm plains. The narrator is at multiple removes from Daniel Atijas by being a painter (not a writer) and a Canadian (not a Serbian), which blurs his obsessions. The story itself moves in jolts and bursts: the narrator wakes and sleeps at unexpected times; a scene of drunkenness erupts suddenly and its aftermath contaminates the books first half; two violent climaxes halt the story so abruptly that we can almost hear the gears grinding and shifting. As we get closer and closer to the end, we start to wonder if the narrator has been entirely honest with us, or if he has perhaps been a bit deceptive. There is something unstable in his language, and it becomes clear how he does not use words half as carefully as the writers around him do. The books last sentence reinforces how hollowness the narrators time at Banff has been: “I suddenly thought Id be back on the plains again soon, and I was glad.” The entire book reads as an expression of David Albaharis state of being as he lives in Canada, exiled from Yugoslavia and trying on a proper emigrant identity in a country full of immigrants. It is a novel that feels both intentionally and unintentionally out of its author’s control, as if it were attempting to give words to thoughts and feelings that its author was not yet ready to work through. In its messiness and obsessiveness, Globetrotter  encapsulates its author and his countries, and it swallows the reader whole with its places and people and words that cannot be controlled. Those words say what they want to say.


Jeffrey Zuckerman is digital editor of Music & Literature. His writing and translations have appeared in Best European Fiction, The White Review, The Rumpus, 3:AM Magazine, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. In his free time, he does not listen to music.