David Albahari Checkpoint

David Albahari

Kontrolni punkt. Beograd
Stubovi kulture, 2011.

By Damjana Mraović-O'Hare

Calgary apparently suits David Albahari. Since he moved to Canada because of the political situation in the ex-Yugoslavia, in 1994, he has published nineteen books, including one for children. Kontrolni punkt (Checkpoint) is Albahari's tenth fictional text written outside of his homeland, and the first that is not directly concerned with the former-Yugoslavia region and its history, or associated with Albahari's two cities, Zemun and Belgrade. Kontrolni punkt is an allegory about war, an antiwar text—as the author himself has described it—which emphasizes the absurdity of war and the role of the media in its instigating and maintaining.
And yet, with Kontrolni punkt, Albahari one more time revists “his“ themes: the role of an individual in turbulent historic times (Bait, Snow Man); relationships in a contemporary moment (Obične priče); death (Porodično vreme, Cink, Sudija Dimitrijević); the status of minorities (Leeches) and Jews (Gec and Majer); auto-poetics, high modernists such is Beckett (Ludvig, Brat) and, above all, the constant re-examination of language. Although all of these subjects are discussed in passing, and reduced to a series of comments (e.g. «Didn't the Nazis, in the same manner, at the time when it was obvious that they're losing the war, hysterically continue with the liquidation of Jews, as if the final outcome of the war depended on it?»), they are superbly united by a bizarre and grotesque narrative. A group of 37 unprofessional soldiers is sent to protect a checkpoint. Brought in the middle of the night, the soldiers not only don't know from where they came—and, therefore, how to go back—but they also do not know where they are. They do not have any connection with the headquarters; their radio is down and cell phones are useless without electricity and chargers. Surrounded by the woods and three enemy armies, at a clearing, the soldiers struggle to learn for whom and why they need to sacrifice their lives, defend the checkpoint, and—of course—how to survive the war. Expectedly, their attempts are unsuccessful and in less than a month, the unit is reduced to one survivor.
Similar to his previous short novels, Ludvig (2007), Brat (2008), and Ćerka (2010), this text culminates in the destabilization of the narrative and unreliability of the narrator: the told narrative is almost a paranoid version of the events. In other words, Albahari suggests at the end of his short novels that the reality of his characters does not correspond with the reality in which the characters find themselves; friendship- and sibling-inspired rivalries, as well as sexual adven-tures, are not as tragic or exceptional as his characters want us to believe. Those conflicts, it is possible, may have never happened. And while Albahari uses the same composition and narrative principle in Kontrolni punkt, he modifies it in such a manner that it becomes the ideological axis of the novel. In Kontrolni punkt, it is obvious that the characters participate in the war. However, the twist at the end of the novella does not question the characters' understanding of reality, but the reasons that brought about the war. In this case, the reality turns people into killers and lunatics; psychological disturbances of the characters are informed by the social and political context, not their mental and emotional challenges. For instance, the commandant—the only survivor—comes from the battlefield to his apartment as if he moves through a surrealist text: «One more time he looked at the half-eaten cook's body and then, following the signs that only he could recognize, he bent over to touch the stone at the beginning of a narrow path—if that was the right path, he should feel three indents. There were three [indents]… [The commandant] closed his eyes and turned around himsemf, and when he opened them again, he found himself in front of the closed light blue door. He turned the door knob and entered the apartment… Everything was how he left it… ». When the commandant turns his TV on, he—astonished—finds himself on the screen. It turns out he is a mysterious guest on a special show about the war. The conversation with the journalist eerily resembles the commentary programs about reality shows, in which participants are encouraged to compare their impressions, tactics, and approa-ches to the game. The war becomes a reality program similar to Big Brother, or The Real World. But, the commandant is not sure how and when he volunteered to participate in the war game. While in the previous short novels the distorted vision of reality was crucial for reading Albahari’s characters, the twisted reality of Kontrolni punkt recalls the tradition of the anti-utopian novel, from Zamyatin to Orwell.
The tragedy and absurdity of the situation in which the characters find themselves is further emphasized by the novel's perspective, the first person of plural. Although the collective we is consistently being reduced, it opens and closes the text, underscoring the author's idea of the collective war victim. Written in one paragraph—like most of Albahari's fictional texts—and composed as a series of anecdotes whose logical causality is often problematic (like the war in which the soldiers are forced to participate), Kontrolni punkt is an exceptional text. And yet, in Serbia, the first critical reactions were not only negative, but also the readings of the short novel barely corresponded with its narrative. In Kontrolni punkt, for instance, critics recognized a text in which the Serbs, and then the European Union, are «under attack,» while Albahari is declared to be a «pseudohumanist» whose writing is unnecessarily rooted in theory. Not even negative comparisons with Danilo Kiš and Miloš Crnjanski were avoided. In the meantime, on a book tour all over Serbia, Albahari insisted that the text is fictional and universal, that it would be wrong to associate it with either the domestic regions or the recent war, and that he found his inspiration in Dino Buzzati's Tatar Desert. And while critics have learned a while ago that authors' statements should not be unconditionally trusted, it would not hurt, in his case, to listen to Albahari.
Kontrolni punkt is, nonetheless, an antiwar, allegorical text. Punkt is also the most successful longer text that Albahari has written after the critically acclaimed novels of the Canadian circle, Snow Man (1995) and Bait (1996), and it is more relevant than his previous short novels. Kontrolni punkt is also, probably, the first Albahari's text in which humor is the main stylistic trait. Since Albahari has a reputation of a serious author who deals earnestly with somber subjects, the humor of this short novel is therefore even more pronounced, and unusual: «Mladen was cute, [he] begged, and preklinjao… promised different things, but the soldiers were done with the war. 'Let somebody else play it,' said one of them.» After his relocation to Canada, Albahari's mistrust of language and his Wittgensteinian approach to it was turned into an interest in history of the ex-Yugoslavia. With Kontrolni punkt, this interest is widened to archetypal themes and, above all, dark humor with which Albahari, one more time, enriches his writing.

Damjana Mraovic-O'Hare holds degrees from The University of Belgrade, Serbia, The University of Tennessee, and The Pennsylvania State University. She is particularly interested in contemporary literature, as well as the issues regarding post-modernism, ethnicity, and history.

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