Tr. by Ellen Elias-Bursać
First sentences are a doozy, duh. Writing them and reading them. It is unclear whether or not one should resist judging a book by its first sentence, or at least more unclear than whether or not one should resist judging a book by its cover — or its reviews. The first sentence of David Albahari’s Globetrotter, translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursać, is a good example of why first sentences often deserve a close look, or at least some context, before the sentence or book is exalted or condemned. Globetrotter begins, at first glance, rather inauspiciously: “Cities are like women, I said to Daniel Atijas when we met at Centre in Banff on June 11, 1998.” Reading that first clause: red flags, everywhere. The remainder of the sentence: some brief, factual introductory-type text that lets us know about setting, time, character. There is an “I” narrator to think about. Judging by this first sentence, he is at best sort of stupid and unimaginative, at worst misogynist, likely both. Is it time to throw in the towel?
We’ll give it another shot. The narrator continues to spin out his women-cities comparison for the remainder of the first page, interrupting his reveries only to remark in surprise that the target of his musings, Daniel Atijas, doesn’t seem particularly interested in the comparison. The narrator is further shocked when Daniel Atijas isn’t at all phased by his use of the self-consciously questionable construction “lusty strumpet” in the course of his comparison. This surprises the narrator in particular because he had pegged Atijas “as the type who would be ready to blink, who’d feel no compulsion to hide honest embarrassment.” (It quickly becomes apparent that this tendency to typify other characters — Daniel Atijas especially — in fact tells us more about the “type” of the narrator than anyone he is thinking about: the phrase appears probably thirty times in the 200ish-page novel). As the beginning of a story, this isn’t the most promising start. As the beginning of Globetrotter, though — which, as a novel, is not only a story — it totally works. For one thing, this isn’t the beginning of the story: quite a bit has already happened before this conversation begins, as we later learn. This stuttering, awkward start to the novel, we realize, is the fault of our narrator: a challenged storyteller, to say the least, and an often confused judge of character. The narrator of Globetrotter is like Forster’s Good Soldier, John Dowell, if Dowell had his attention span shrunk a tumbler or two.
When the novel begins, a Serbian writer, Daniel Atijas, has just arrived for a three-week visit to Banff Art Centre, where the narrator, a painter, is in residence. Smitten, the narrator decides to do everything in his power to make sure Daniel Atijas spends the majority of those three weeks in his company. The narrator’s attraction to Daniel Atijas is aesthetic as well as intellectual — and perhaps romantic, and throughout the novel he paints countless images of Daniel Atijas’ face. One of his first attempts to keep Daniel Atijas around is to take him on a small tour of Banff, during which they stop at the Museum of Natural History, and discover that in 1924, a visitor to the museum had signed the guestbook as Ivan Matulić, “Globetrotter from Croatia.” This strikes Daniel Atijas — a Serbian — as prescient and profound: Yugoslavia had already existed for six years, yet Ivan Matulić wrote Croatia. “A word created the world,” Daniel Atijas remarks, “and a word can destroy it . . . he gashed the soil of Yugoslavia.” The two decide to try and track down more information on the “globetrotter,” meet his grandson — who is never given a name besides “Ivan Matulić’s grandson,” as if to emphasize his embededness in his past — and the events of the novel are set in motion.
To say that the “events” of the novel are set in motion is perhaps to exaggerate. Not much happens for most of Globetrotter: the narrator and Daniel Atijas wander around Banff and talk, the three men get drunk, argue, walk more, drink more, take a hike. There is perhaps one real event in the novel; the majority of the text consists of conversations between the three central characters, filtered through a heavy dose of the narrator’s own anxious internal monologues. Daniel Atijas and Ivan Matulić’s grandson develop a close if somewhat alienated and adversarial relationship, much to the chagrin of the narrator, who is threatened by the historical bond the two share in their connection to the former Yugoslavia. It is not the three characters’ at times picaresque capers that carry the narrative, nor is it the narrator’s complex, semi-romantic interest in the Daniel Atijas that proves central: his infatuation remains rather peripheral in the reader’s mind. This is appropriate, considering the image we get of the narrator as an intensely stunted thinker and agent — even in his own narrative, he manages to appear as something of a marginal figure. But rather the tensions created by the history of each character — or, to tackle perhaps the main thematic concern of the text, their occasional sense of their lack thereof. History, rather, emerges as the absent center of Globetrotter, the evasive fulcrum on which the narrative totters erratically in time.
Formally, it is easy to compare Globetrotter to the similarly digressionary, single-paragraph rants of Thomas Bernhard, or W.G. Sebald’s only barely paragraph-broken nostalgia trips. Tonally, however, Albahari’s novel stands quite apart from these two giants of the European megaparagraph. Rather than a frustrated misanthrope or a solitary walker, Globetrotter’s unnamed narrator comes across as a kind of depressed goofball. Stripped of Bernhard’s vitriol and Sebald’s world-weariness, Albahari breathes fresh, funny life into the almost-genre of the European historical thinkpiece. Globetrotter reads almost like slapstick Sebald, Bernhard on laughing gas. And much of this freshness can be attributed to the narrator: if Globetrotter were narrated by Daniel Atijas, whose dialogue provides 99% of the intellectual energy of the novel, it would lose quite a bit of its magic.
Because of this distance between the narrator and the figure at its intellectual/thematic center, Globetrotter ends up reading as a hugely self-conscious novel — both thematically and formally. At one point, Daniel Atijas describes his ideal form for a story, which would “start from the middle and then, like a tangled skein, resist anyone’s predictions about how they will unravel.” Although this isn’t exactly the way that Globetrotter works — it starts somewhere close to the beginning, progresses through time in fits and starts, doubling back on itself constantly but unpredictably — it is pretty damn close. It is as if the narrator has taken Daniel Atijas’ advice in the composition of his own idiosyncratic story.
But the narrator clearly doesn’t follow all of Daniel Atijas’ advice, particularly regarding the moral position of the historiographer. There will always be demand for novels that think about history, especially those that think about the distance of history, how history is a thing that is lost and always occurs elsewhere — just look at a list of Nobel Prize winners. In the west, Daniel Atijas argues, personal distance from history can become a virtue and a privilege in itself, and ones knowledge of history should be of the order of trivia. Daniel Atijas is rather scathing about the simultaneous personal value placed on historical distance — especially in the United States and Canada — and the ravenous thirst in those same places for “émigré” literature: literature which often concerns itself with the insidious forms that the process of distancing oneself from history can take. For Daniel Atijas, the suffering of nations — and the real search for the suspension of that suffering — is metamorphosed, through the apparatus of “world literature,” into innocent intellectual enjoyment for distanced, privileged populations, who need to look to literature to satisfy a hunger for trivial, tragic history. Unlike the narrator, Daniel Atijas refuses to participate in this system of narrative exchange:
[H]e would not be shouting his pain from the rooftops or, like many of the artists of his former country, hawking it to an assortment of world artistic and other foundations, which, by supplying funding, were washing clean — and he believed this deeply — public opinion in their countries and contributing in practical ways to concealing the truth about what they, with their political and economic decisions, had really done to the countries that had been vilified, such as his.
It is worth noting that this pessimistic theory of the literature of exile is espoused not by the narrator but by a figure he reveres absolutely. It is somewhat rare to come across a novel that concerns itself with lofty premises and discusses them in equally lofty terms in which the narrator is something of an oaf. The tonal distance between the narrator and those around him is alarming in a satisfying way. In Globetrotter, the narrator and his tale is a sort of narrative spoonful of sugar. And considering how much of the novel the narrator spends sitting around with Daniel Atijas and Ivan Matulić’s grandson, trying desperately to understand their conversations — most of which concern Yugoslavia’s complex history and the endlessly intricate relationship between its component parts — the narrator comes across as an unliving bovine, in Nietzsche’s terms, stuck outside of history, there to show us what it looks like — how confounding it can be — to push oneself to truly live with history. The problem, Globetrotter seems to assert, is that we actually are already living with history, despite our geography: the difficulty lies in turning towards it.
Walter Gordon was born and raised in Berkeley, CA, and now lives in Brooklyn.