Vilenica 2012 Prize Winner: David Albahari
David Albahari, a Serbian-speaking author of Jewish origins now residing in Canada, was born in Peć in 1948. His first book, a collection of stories headed Family Time (Porodično vreme),came out in1973. He has since published twelve more volumes of short stories, fourteen novels, five essay collections, and two children’s books.Family Time was followed by the short story volumes Ordinary Stories (Obične priče,1978),Description of Death (Opis smrti, 1982), Shock in the Shed(Fras u šupi, 1984), Simplicity (Jednostavnost, 1988), Cloak(Pelerina, 1993), Selected Stories (Izabrane priče, 1994),Unusual Stories (Neobične priče, 1999), The Best Stories(Najlepše priče, 2001), Second Language (Drugi jezik, 2003),Shadows (Senke, 2006), Every Night in Another City (Svake noći u drugom gradu, 2008), and a selection of his stories, Mute Song: Selected Stories (Nema pesma – Izabrane priče), in 2009. His novels include Judge Dimitrijevic (Sudija Dimitrijević, 1978), Tsing (Cink, 1988), Short Book (Kratka knjiga, 1993), Snow Man (Snežni čovek, 1995), Bait (Mamac, 1996), Darkness (Mrak, 1997), Gotz and Meyer (Gec i Majer, 1998), Globetrotter (Svetski putnik, 2001), Leeches (Pijavice, 2005),Stamps (Marke, 2006), Ludvig (2007), Brother (Brat, 2008), The Daughter (Ćerka, 2010), andCheckpoint (Kontrolni punkt, 2011).
He has translated into Serbian many books, stories, poems, and essays by such American, British, Australian, and Canadian authors as Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, Margaret Atwood, Isaac B. Singer, Thomas Pynchon. Furthermore, he has edited a number of magazines and book series. He resides in Calgary, Canada, since the autumn of 1994. His books are translated into more than fifteen languages: the Slovenian translations comprise a short story selection, Words Are Something Else (Besede so nekaj drugega, Aleph 2007), and the novel Bait (Vaba, Cankarjeva založba 2008).
Albahari is one of the most distinguished and influential prose writers of former Yugoslavia, a fact confirmed by his numerous literary awards.His collection Description of Death won the Ivo Andrić award in 1982, another collection, Cloak, won the Stanislav Vinaver and Branko Čopić awards, andhis novel Bait won the prestigious NIN award for the best novel of the year in 1996. Another novel,Leeches, won the Belgrade City Prize. Albahari has also received the award of the National Library of Serbia and two international prizes, the Balcanica Award and the Berlin Bridge Prize. As early as 1996/97, a ten-volume selection of his work was published by Narodna knjiga.
The generations of writers who emerged in the early 1980s to reshape the prose then dominant in the languages of former Yugoslavia received their aesthetic justification in Albahari’s short storyMute Song, which neatly encapsulates the contemporary conflict between ‛reality’ prose and ‛different’ prose. A mere handful of pages includes and masterfully interweaves a stereotypical scene of phallocratic domination, the academe’s confrontation with its intellectual powerlessness, and, finally, the mystery of transcendence inaccessible to reason. Thus it comes as no surprise that Albahari used the phrase Mute Song as the title of his 2009 personal anthology as well. Moreover, it is by citing the conclusion of this particular story that Aleš Debeljak concludes his own book, Balkan Bridge (Balkanska brv), thus providing a Slovenian homage to Albahari. And Albahari’s influence in the territory of former Yugoslavia is not restricted to the generation now in their fifties, as is attested by the work of Muharem Bazdulj, fifteen years his junior, and by still younger writers. Indeed, the wave of popular, Saturday, other, different stories in recent Slovenian literature may be a (conscious or not) response to Albahari’s ordinary stories (Obične priče) from 1978. Not surprisingly, Albahari named his 1999 collection Unusual Stories (Neobične priče): writing ‛ordinary’ stories, to borrow the more familiar language of another, non-literary culture, is today nothing short of a Mission Impossible.
The space which Albahari was entering in the late 1970s and early 1980s was quite different. What was appreciated then was reality prose, the aesthetics of tough marginals, street-wise survivor types, who spoke a robust idiom, were past masters in the language of fists, and – at least by night, if not by day – mastered the most beautiful girls as well. This prose code, which a more layered society might have relegated to a genre rather than to canonical prose, is perhaps best represented by the pinnacle of the literary context in question, the novel When Pumpkins Blossomed (Kad su cvetale tikve) by Dragoslav Mihailović. Before Albahari’s arrival, the only prominent representative of a different aesthetic path in Serbian prose, a path where the ethical scale was necessarily different and the victory of brute force did not supplant all other values, had been Danilo Kiš. It is no coincidence that both Kiš and Albahari were backed by a Jewish tradition of family and culture, which helped their individual voices survive in their euphemistically called ‛voluntary exile’ – except that theirs was not an exile to the new promised land, North America, but to the traditional refuge of non-conforming artists, Paris. (The clash between reality prose and metafictional techniques is attested by a precious collection of documentary evidence, Is Kiš to Be Burnt?