This slim, puzzling book is more meditation than story, a postmodern ball of yarn tripping over themes of exile, loss, language, and the act of writing itself. Like the author, the book’s narrator has escaped from Serbia to the alien landscape of Canada (“infinitely far from everything that once made me what I am, or what I could have been, or what I was”). Moping around his solitary apartment on the rim of the prairie, he spends a lot of time reminding us he’s not sure he’ll ever really write this book or even knows how to anymore (apparently, he’s chosen to do it without any paragraph breaks). “Since I’ve been here, I walk about like an empty shell, like a conch from which reaches the roar of a nonexistent sea. I wear clothes like the heaviest of loads, I bend under the blows of the wind, I’m astonished I have strength enough to hold a cup of coffee.” The reader, too, might collapse under such mental weariness if it weren’t for one prop: a tape recorder, “lying like a fresh corpse” on his kitchen table, from which haltingly comes the voice of his mother, who died several years before in Serbia.
The mother’s life stories, recorded over a decade earlier after her second husband died, provide the more interesting riddles of the text and would sound almost like Zen koans if they weren’t so tragically real. “When the Germans entered Zagreb, they trampled through the flowers and the chocolate,” she says cryptically over the squeaking noises of the recorder; or later, describing the Belgrade Jewish community in 1938 (which she had married into): “I was standing at the window and watching people change.” At length, she goes on to explain each statement—telling the story of her first husband, who was transported to a Nazi death camp, and their two children, who were killed in a train accident; and her second husband, who, like her, knew great loss. (“He was an emptiness, and I was an emptiness, and we knew we didn’t have time enough to fill that which was no longer in us.”)
Her life spanned catastrophe and destruction; she withered away, in fact, watching the new wars of the ’90s on television. Unfortunately, her story (and that of her region’s bloody history) is drowned out by the narrator’s own self-absorption, adrift as he now is in a land “where nothing is more than a few weeks old.” Beneath the noises of David Albahari’s metafiction is a powerful tale of woe straining to be heard.