David Albahari: THE ART OF SURVIVAL The letter arrived on Thursday morning, and just a day later, on Friday

afternoon, Nemanja had sunk into such a deep depression that, at one moment, he thought of committing suicide. He did not really think of the actual deed of taking his own life, but it occurred to him that all the suffering should be ended – which could clearly also mean raising his hand against himself. A different matter altogether is what would be held in his hand at that moment – a knife, a bomb or a pistol – all weapons Nemanja had in his apartment, although he suspected that if he were to raise his hand against himself, he would be holding a comb. No one has ever committed suicide with a comb, Nemanja smiled. He stood at the mirror, trying to part his hair perfectly symmetrically with that very comb. But a few minutes later he had to give up. Depression dislikes partings, he thought, and burst into tears. He could not understand the speed with which the answer contained in the letter had turned into a source of spiritual degradatio n, and of his body’s decreasing readiness for all activity. Nemanja knew well that depression is a two-headed beast, one that could therefore drive him towards either unbroken day-and-night sleepiness, or exhausting day-and-night wakefulness. When forced to choose between sleep and insomnia, he had always chosen sleep; this time, however, for who knows what reason, sleep would not come. He tossed and turned in bed, on the couch, in the armchair, on the floor – wherever he attempted to enter the land of nod – so much that fatigue soon made him start stumbling, dropping plates and compact disks, and reaching for the saltcellar instead of the bulky sugar container. At first he got angry with himself, tried to cheer himself up, and even scrunched up the letter and threw it in the kitchen bin, but depression steamrolled all of these efforts. In the end, Nemanja took the crumpled letter out, straightened and flattened it carefully, then placed it between two kitchen cloths and ironed it. This did not help either. Once it had slipped away from under him, he could not find his footing. Nemanja was convinced that he was an expert survivor: this made him even angrier. As a survivor was how he spoke of himself; at least he had before receiving the letter we have mentioned. Having lived through four slippery decades, he used to explain, you cannot be swept from your feet by just anything anymore; and then he would list everything he had muddled through. First the sixties, during which, especially in the latter part of the decade, he had swallowed, smoked and injected such an amount of opiates into himself that at one moment he actually ceased to think. His head was as empty as an empty room, without even paint on the walls. A few months later, the first word appeared to fill this void, but he was unable to decipher it. When the sixth one came, he started talking again. The words continued multiplying, and after many days, when the very final particle of narcotics had left his body, he was able to understand them, although he never repeated them to anyone else. During the seventies, he survived his military service, with consequences, though, which had followed him ever since. He turned a deaf ear to the advice of his buddies from the sixties, who recommended he get exempted from military service by documenting his ongoing rehabilitation from drug addiction, and used a different tactic upon arrival at his barracks in Doboj: he claimed that army food did not agree with him, and that he could not eat it. It soon became apparent that the army considered such cases of “Nemanja no eat”, as the doctor at the garrison health station defined it, to be neither an urgent health concern for the afflicted, nor dangerous to the morale of fellow soldiers, so Nemanja was left to his own fate. He tirelessly refused to eat, almost visibly shrinking away before his fellow troops. It became routine for him to lose consciousness during morning inspections; there were even those who bet on how long he would hold out before

it was not easy to endure it all. the sanctions. first in the archives. then in an office. the art of survival. not even the faces of the people at the counter. while she was putting compresses on swollen bruises. the internal revolution. gun shots. scornful glances. He imagined them gestating. the affectionate complicity of the likeminded. a routine. increasingly obsessed with visions and hallucinations similar to those he had experienced during the sixties. there was not a single part of his body which remained undamaged: liver. almost like an angel. slouching old man. had he regretted his course of action. but this could not stop his bodily decay and mental drift. and all that in rapid succession. the massacres. he would cross over to the other side. and after three months walked out onto the street a new man. and that. the hardship. pressed her lips down onto his sex. where nothing ever changed. The book was to deal precisely with what he was most knowledgeable about. closer to the middle. his mother’s illness required him to spend more time around her. although he was sure he did not want to find out. Compared to this state. and then something opened up inside him. As he left the municipality building. he would repeat whenever he got the chance. released from army duty. while he was groaning in pain. repeated cudgellings. At night. Nemanja felt he had reached the end of the road. so he used this opportunity to tender his resignation. then at a counter. He was unsure what this other side was. Not a single mo ment. the war. protest meetings. and oesophagus all required treatment which. sprouting right where his shoulder-blades were. When seven months later he was. the closed borders. If I managed to live through that – he later told Dubravka. That is how he decided to write a book. His spirit also followed his body’s example. stop. so. Even when the policemen dragged him into a building entrance near Brankov bridge one evening. making other decades seem like child’s play. facing off with the special units cordon. Then nothing can break me. He returned to his mother’s apartment. He would start. Nemanja got a job as clerk in one of the municipal administrative services. his sight becoming keener. For nine years he worked there. heart. one after another. and start again from scratch. that is. and then the nineties ended and no one cared about them anymore. slightly lower. a university student he marched with several times in processions protesting against current authorities – then there’s nothing I can’t beat. he used to drink tea and eat biscuits. Yes. in some cases. Dubravka laughed. from that very spot they will sprout like shallots from rich soil. Writing did not come easily to him. In the late eighties. Life turned into an endless flow. And so it really seemed during his experiences of the nineties: clashes with the police. rolled him onto his back. cold water jets. like practice for the real art of survival. and he conceived it as a loosely veiled autobiographical document. he felt his heart beating peacefully again. surely start growing. finally. was continuous. whispered: No one can defeat a people who get this hard even after a bashing. that is. in secret. and his muscles ached from regular morning and evening exercise. and. Not one bad psychedelic experience in the sixties. colon. he said to Dubravka. abandoned himself to her care and culinary skills. the toppling of the regime and various moguls: in all this he took part as if nothing could touch or harm him. however. He turned into a wrinkled. the inflation. which would one day. while the years under opiates appeared to be an Edenic period. his first worry was whether the blows to his back would impede the development of wings. he firmly believed. as if he had found the .falling. kidneys. with no beginning and no end. and then when it started to become erect. the bombings. his skin toned. at the start of the eighties. he walked lightfooted. as if each moment were a preparation for take-off. His posture was again straight. finally. the time spent in the army seemed agreeable. a bounce in his step. right there. threw him on his back and tried to hit him in his crotch: while interposing his hands in a bid to shield his scrotum. return to it. unless he did something about it.

as Nemanja was seeing him off. at the very mention of it. Afterwards. and when he answered negatively. was ambivalent. He handed him his hat. the descriptions of abstinence crises. She would surprise Nemanja by reciting the line-up of the entire Canadian hockey team. The idea occurred to him that Vojin might be aiming to hypnotise him and erase every memory of the manuscript’s e xistence. incidentally. Vojin’s judgement. she said that the best bit was a description of group sex after sniffing cocaine. She would also remain . who used to sell hashish with him to Zemun high-school kids.right pace. All in all. whom he continued seeing occasionally. but then decided to remain silent and watch her leave without a word. Mrdjan. Nemanja wondered whether he should confess that. so that he could then publish it under his own name. Vojin stressed. and in the course of the following six months. lit a cigarette. She read the manuscript in a night. and was a keen follower of various sporting contests. he told Dubravka. or quoting all the results of the last NBA round. the book protagonist served his army duty in Banjaluka and did not work for the municipality. Nemanja gave himself the occasional pinch to the thigh to keep himself awake. Vojin nodded. the right way to commit to paper what he was used to saying. Nemanja had stopped listening by that stage. he liked the book and felt repulsed by it at the same time. how old some people can live to be. He cited a few poetic comments by Asimov. As if she were a clerk dealing with truth and falsehood. then asked her how she had liked the last chapter. after all those decades. Mrdjan could not finish the first chapter in three months. managed to bring tears to his eyes. indeed. Even now. if Nemanja even understood it correctly. The following day. but as a clerk at an imaginary Belgrade company – the woman replied that the greatest portion of the book sounded rather unconvincing. like a detailed account of the humiliations he endured in the army. and Nemanja soon felt his eyelids closing. You’d be surprised. a psychologist he used to hang out with during his military service in Doboj. although the protest marches had long since marched their way into oblivion. and when at one moment Vojin paused to take a breath. Vojin said. When Nemanja said it was all truth. since truth was nothing like that. and asked them all to read the manuscript. and that her nipples were almost prickling while she read it. and then started conveying his impressions. Is there any more of that coke. umbrella and galoshes. He sought out other witnesses: a woman who had worked at the next counter at the municipality. She showed him first one and then the other breast. Nemanja stared at her for a while. for example. there was no choice but to classify it under the genre of science-fiction. she said. He spoke in a flat monotonous voice. Vojin. Nemanja replied. went down every day to buy the newspaper and some bread and yogurt. Nemanja’s mother was ninety. Nemanja included. Because the main character. that in fact only some names and locations had been changed – for instance. some passages gave him goose bumps. and shut the door behind him. and her nipples were. was so different to all the people he knew. had never read – to prove he was right. she put her breasts back into her blouse. Dick and Lem – whose works Nemanja. Nemanja later told Vojin. Le Guin. they’re sticking out like a pair of horns. unbuttoning her blouse. and buttoned herself up to the neck. Vojin was the quickest. She lived alone in a two bedroom apartment on the second floor. rather than one dealing with the health insurance of self-employed artists and craftsmen. The counter woman rang him up one evening and asked how much truth there was in what he had written. She emphasized the word truth as if she was the only one competent to say what is true and what not. Dubravka asked in a voice that had suddenly become husky. one part of him had not held up. as big as pegs on a clothes-horse. while reading the manuscript. he succeeded in telling the entire story. while others. he believed he had succeeded. I thought she’d died long ago. Nemanja told him he had to leave urgently to visit his sick mother.

he would have found it hard to demonstrate his survival skills had it not been for her. in general. while she calmly explained why she preferred cremation and how the choice between the morning and afternoon flight to Tivat did not bear a decisive influence upon her destiny. and the n. he told the woman who kept the newspaper stand. at least. freshly ironed. destiny and death. when she was about to speak. tell him not to commit suicide or to. Just as he now. wait for her to die. Of course he did not share this with his mother. then return to the table. During the sixties she got him out of critical situations several times. she allowed him to visit her and occasionally had rather calm conversations with him about history. Nemanja watched him walk away. and understood Nemanja’s participation in protest activities as a direct attack on her. “How can you do this to me?”. who did you send the manuscript to? Nemanja explained. she was in an imaginary relationship of sorts with Milosevic. he had to admit. While in the army. thinking some people. and the letter. look Nemanja in the eyes and start whining. Only in the nineties did she not lend him her support. mentioned editors’ names and publishing houses. Haven’t you been allowed to do that yet? – his friend asked. she found ways and connections not to have him fired for grave misconduct.silent sometimes. so that the natural order of things would not be disturbed. with the volume down fleeted images of destruction. He used – as he confided to a school friend he met by chance in the street – a subtle strategy and told her he did not want to be a child any more. a struggle in which she had succeeded in wresting from him the knife he had wanted to use to sever his right hand. he knew she would. He patted his pocket. In fact. like this school friend of his. Nevertheless. gave a faint rustling sound. order becomes unimportant. As if through a haze – heroin haze – he remembered the moment when he had slapped her. He drummed his fingers on the crocheted tablecloth and set his lips to a whistle. Like the majority of old-age pensioners. . and at last stay out as long as I choose. approach the TV that she might see and hear him better. would not be affected in the least had they received a letter a hundred times worse. even though. hatred and humiliation. she said. then suffered all the pains of his coming off heroin. not in that form. But when parents live long. of his “wish to fall asleep and never wake up”. refusing to give reasons for this. sobbing. the person with whom the narrator shared the good and the bad. and the “depression that had come over him”. Nemanja thought. than I certainly won’t allow my mother to persuade them. The school friend shrugged his shoulders and rushed off to catch a bus. of “the incapacity to do anything”. she even kept his photograph under her pillow. That’s the irony of my life. he set his lips to a whistle that was never head. in the next decade. my chum. and when he got a job. as if sent to comfort him. and the struggle with her. she needed to comfort him. Nemanja said. anyhow. In Nemanja’s manuscript she appeared as the mother of the narrator’s best friend. and during such days Nemanja felt like a ghost roaming the apartment in which she sulkily stared at the TV set with the volume turned low. human disgrace. it was her parcels he used to bribe his way out of night guard duty and secure a permanent pass. the shame he had later felt. Then the flushed leader would appear on the screen and she would jump up. Tell me one more time. where and when he had submitted the manuscript for fear – he was dying of fear and shame – she might go there and try to sort things out. If I ’m unable to persuade them with what I’ve written. In reality. ten years later. drummed his fingers while talking of the “blow he had endured”. Across the screen of the TV. Nemanja said. he had no doubts she would succeed. she would say. as she kept reminding him. “Am I not your own flesh and blood?” Nemanja did not know what to do. I want to be a grown-up. And to his mother’s apartment he would go to comfort her. but he did not wish to become a writer in that way. the hand that had administered the blow. careful not to say exactly to whom.

because it knew that there was no one home. Everything around him was clear and sharp. until he felt a sharp chest pain. How many knives is that. He stood on the roof courtyard at the top of a Zemun high rise. reached towards the dot and drew it to his belly. The main character is unconvincing. Yes. There was truly nothing there. Nemanja had to concur. a wafer box. but was already falling. and the envelope in which the manuscript was wrapped. cut a blood vessel. a telephone directory. He remembered where he had put his brush. he spotted the comb nearby. fell onto his skin. we think that the manuscript requires a lot more work. Nemanja ran down the stairs to his apartment. but prison is prison and slavery is slavery. Nemanja bent down and took a look. and winked. and again he smiled. quietly. He did not know how it had got there. and like natives used to tear up photographs to set themselves free again. page after page. Parts of it are good. it really had been written as a comfort. and watched the Danube roll along towards Belgrade. but the manuscript as a whole is not up to our standards. face to . That’s it. the narration digressive. a lottery ticket. plasters and bandages were. but the pain went on and on. but every one of them is like a knife struck in the same spot.In some way. Then someone coughed in the next room. as if etched with a sharp blade into the flat surface of reality. He remembered where his toothpaste. the folder. we have read the manuscript you sent us. Nemanja remembered experiencing something similar during the sixties when he woke up one morning in an unknown apartment. notebooks. the language uneven. aspirin. Nemanja said to the electricity company employee who was calculating bimonthly power consumption in advance. He remembered how he had relived his life while writing line after line. as if Nemanja’s whole life was gathered into that one spot. into a single dot. and where is the spot? At first Nemanja wanted to point to his heart. chapter after chapter. but could not. He had gone away a long time ago. and vanished. said Nemanja to himself. Truth be told. In brief. life is made up of small repetitions. He tried to remember the location of his comb. so he kept tearing up all he could lay his hand on: books. the employee was not lying. After a little while. a blank memo. He recalled the toilet paper. the employee said. he felt it touching his skin from inside. and when he bent down to reach for them. that it had become letters and words. on so forth. razor and hand cream. like the way that natives used to believe that photographs imprisoned their souls. or lie on an activated grenade. but he now knew that he would have plunged into the void in vain. We wish you success in your future endeavours. before coming to this roof. The difference was that Nemanja’s soul did remain in the text. I see nothing there. He stretched out his hand. ripping out several pages at a time. there’s no one home. He had come there intending to jump. as if knocking. and the structure extremely random. but always see them as something happening for the first time. he thought. threatening to remain there forever. so small that we mostly don’t recognise them. before this. kind regards. grabbed the manuscript and tore it up. how he had thought his life no longer his. paper tissues. and his body was an empty shell walking only because it did not know how to do anything else. He remembered how he had started crying when he put the full stop to the final sentence. and stared at it. the employee asked. and then he could not stop. but in the end he stopped his moving finger at his belly. That is what reminded him of the comb. Not a single sentence was written with the aim of insulting the author. He tried to get up. shampoo and wet wipes. electricity bills. He remembered the razor blades. and all the engraved surfaces converged under his amazed gaze. Dear Sir. and then he tore the editor’s letter to pieces too. Nemanja had again considered the weapons at his disposal and had had to admit he would not have been able to shoot a bullet into his head. All that was left were some old newspapers piled up under the bed. a baby cookbook. The dot bounced to his body. He remembered his bath salts. the letter read.

Since then he has published more than ten books of stories. Kosovo. including Saul Bellow.the floor. From the 1970s to the mid 1990s he was editor of several Belgrade and Novi Sad journals and publishing companies – Vidici. Književna rec. . novels. The novel Mamac (The Bait) won the Nin award for best novel in 1996. Pismo. His books have been translated into sixteen languages. The novel Pijavice (Leaches) won him the City of Belgrade award (2006). Canada. For his book of short stories Opis smrti (The Description of Death) he was awarded the Andrić prize. Translated by Alison and Vladimir Kapor * David Albahari is amongst our most distinguished prose writers. Kulture Istoka. Politika. Since 1994 he has been living in Calgary. British. Australian and Canadian authors. Margaret Atwood. as well as the Serbian National Library award. as outside night was falling. His book of stories Pelerina (The Pelerine) received the Stanislav Vinaver and Branko Ćopić awards. which places Albahari amongst our most translated writers. Mezuza and Matica Srpska’s edicija Prva knjiga. Caryl Churchil and Jason Sherman. He has translated a large number of books. Isaac Bashevis Singer and Thomas Pynchon. Vladimir Nabokov. stories. and also three books of essays. as well as dramas by Sam Shepard. His selected works in ten volumes appeared with Narodna knjiga in the nineties. faster and faster. poems and essays by American. Balkanika and Bridge-Berlin awards. He published his first book of stories Porodično vreme (Family Time) in 1973. He was born in 1948 in Peć.

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