By Bill Marx.
Arts Fuse: Tell me how Leeches came about, given how different it is from your other books, at least those in translation.
David Albahari: It is different from other books of mine. But then, there were several things that made me, in the end, write the book. First of all, I wanted to test how long the paragraph can be because all of my novels have been written in one paragraph, following how the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard treated paragraphs.
But all of my other novels are much shorter. They’re usually between 120 to 150 pages. So I wanted to see whether it is possible to go on, to go to more than 200, 250. Actually, I believe that I wrote more than 300 pages, but then I cut around 50 pages because the book was too long.
But I still hope that this length, that it still works, even as long as this one is. And also, I wanted to test the readers themselves and see whether the readers would want to read a book written in one paragraph with no spaces, nothing. So once—actually, I see this kind of a text of a sort of a labyrinth for readers, and for writer as well.
So once the reader goes in, if he or she wants to go on, there’s nothing else for them to do than fight to find their way to the end of the book. And then, of course, they can give up, but I believe that there are readers who will go on.
So there were all of these things involved, and finally, the last thing was that I wanted to write a novel that has something to do with the recent history of Serbia. And then, Belgrade. I’m thinking about Slobodan Milosevic and his politics in the period when he was in charge of whatever happened in Serbia. So I wanted to say something about that.
But I also, since I don’t see myself as a writer of historical events, I wrote the book that at least, at the first moment, does not look or read like a history novel. But it is, because since I don’t want to be seen as a writer of history, history novels, I made some sort of a cabalistic and dope smoking and then when post-modern, I believe, novel.
AF: I mean, was it partly reaction to the previous book, which was much more of a—I want to say, conventional. It was somewhat different, but it was much more in tune. In that case, it was more of a historical novel dealing with events—
Albahari: You mean Goetz and Meyer?
Albahari: Yes, well, Goetz and Meyer was a different type of novel. As you said, it was more openly historical, although for me, the main story in Goetz and Meyer is actually the story about when the writer is professor, when he tries to use his own, his personal destiny and whatever happened to him and his family in the Second World War, in order to try to teach children something that they do not, obviously, understand.
There is a little hint in that book, which tells the reader that it is a very (inaudible), and I don’t expect non-Yugoslav readers to recognize this, because at one point, only at one point in the book, I said, I mentioned that the professor in Goetz and Meyer is—teaches Yugoslav literature. Which means that the book actually takes place in the pre-’90s wartime, in the ’70s or probably in the ’80s. Because after the war, nobody mentions Yugoslavia anymore, in the former Yugoslavia.
So had the book been written the way to refer to the more contemporary period, I would never say that he teaches Yugoslav history. I would say that he is a teacher of Serbian literature or history.
So he’s actually trying to warn the kids of what is going to—what was going to happen.
AF: And what was going to—
Albahari: In the ’90s, where they—
AF: So the future, a future history.
Albahari: Because in Goetz and Meyer, the war actually is in the future. The war in the former Yugoslavia. But they, as many of us, they don’t learn anything from the previous experience. And although he takes them on that trip, which looks like a trip taken by the gas truck that was used to kill all the Jews, they still don’t recognize that. And like many, many young people and older people as well in the former Yugoslavia, they never recognized that history that has happened might happen once again.
AF: Once more. Well, you sort of have—are playing around with some of those ideas in Leeches as well, aren’t you? I mean, issues of the anti-Semitism and the continual return of it.
Albahari: Yes, yes.
AF: But in that—in this book, it’s a lot more—you make it a little difficult to follow, because you’re throwing in the Kabbalah (overlapping conversations; inaudible)—
Albahari: Yeah, there are many other things. Because I still believe that books should be—or, maybe, that’s the kind of books that I like to read. I like to read the book when I’m—as a reader, not as a writer but as a reader, I sort of discover something, and I have to, so to speak, fight with the book and then quarrel with the book sometimes in order to find my way through the book and to come to the end of the book. Because I believe that the book really becomes real when it becomes a sort of a dialogue between the reader and the writer.
Of course, they’re never together, because the reader is who knows where, and the writer is who knows where. But this is—it’s their dialogue, because each one of us reads any book in a completely different way. Your reading of this book or any book will be completely different from my reading. Even at the moment that when we say, both of us, like the book, but we like the books in different ways. And then the book that you read is not the book that I have written. Because even I cannot read the book that I’ve written myself.
AF: Well, you make that—that’s very much—you’ve incorporated that idea, of course, into this book itself, since it deals with a manuscript which continually keeps changing.
AF: So, it’s a moving target. So not only does the narrator have trouble figuring out what’s happening in this mysterious, enigmatic (overlapping conversations; inaudible) and events around the manuscript, but the reader also is going, well, if the narrator can’t give us a factual report of what’s going on in this manuscript, then—you know, we sort of are in the position of throwing up our hands, well, then, you know, well, what can we do? We’re doubly helpless.
Albahari: I agree with you, and it must be a frustrating experience for many readers. But that book that keeps changing is actually my—showing my respect to one of the great masters of short stories, Jorge Luis Borges, in his Book of Sand, of course.
AF: You mentioned that in there.
Albahari: I mentioned that. And that’s because, actually, the Book of Sand, the way he wrote the Book of Sand, the way he explained the Book of Sand in his beautiful short story. So I wanted to say somehow and to show that I respect his work, and I mentioned him. And I mentioned many, many other writers, and I have different quotes. Sometimes they are quite obvious, sometimes they are hidden, and so on, because I like all these little games. I like to play these games. And the one point, one critic from Switzerland who read the book and wrote a very good review in Switzerland about the book, he told me when I met him that he believes that one, I don’t know whether it’s going to happen, but that what he believes, that one day a companion to the Leeches will be published with all the explanations of what’s hidden in the book, and what’s not, and so on.
So I like the idea.
AF: You like that idea? I thought you might be disappointed. I mean, that will—then the mystery will be gone. People will simply go to the companion book and look it up, and—
Albahari: Well, maybe, but I just hope that he doesn’t expect me to write it. (laughter)
AF: I like the idea. At least it shows you care something for the reader. You think eventually a companion will come out that will help us, since you’ve left us high and dry so often.
Albahari: Yes, but as you mentioned, this book is, because I mentioned the book that is changing all the time, this book is changing all the time itself as well, because it is, at the same time, a story about the Jewish community in Belgrade and Zemun. It is a story about counterculture embedded in Zemun with references to rock and roll, and then beat culture, and the dope smoking.
AF: You also mention the group Morphine at one point, and I happen to know the singer who is in Morphine. Is that the group you’re referring to? There was a—
Albahari: Yeah, but unfortunately, the guy died.
AF: The guy died, yeah. No, I know—I knew him, though, and I used to listen to—I mean, I just—so that—so I did recognize that immediately, because (overlapping conversations; inaudible).
Albahari: Yes, because I mentioned, first of all, I like their music, really. And then I mentioned the groups and the music that I like, of course. And then Morphine was one of my favorite groups. I believe a really, really great—I don’t know whether to call them rock and roll, maybe or alternative rock music. And it was maybe a, if one can say, a nice way to die, he died in the best possible way, so to speak. I mean, on the stage, as far as I know, in Rome, I think, I think it was in Rome.
AF: I think so, yeah. He collapsed, I think. Yeah.
Albahari: He collapsed and died after that. And it’s terrible thing, I felt it is a terrible shock, because I expected so much from him and from his group. And I still believe that they were one of the most original groups in the last few decades.
AF: I was surprised to see Morphine there. I mean, it was—I’m pleasantly surprised to see that you mentioned it. Now, how serious—since we’re going with Borges and the idea of post-modernism, so how serious of a game are you playing here? I mean, there are mentions—there is anti-Semitism, I mean, there’s—at the same point, the novel seems to be partly a response to escaping from. I mean, the narrator continually says the country’s going to pot, we have a horrible war, the barbarians are—we can’t trust the police, they’re part of the barbarians. This takes my mind off it.
So I guess my question is, is it, how playful of a game is this book? Are you making serious, moral political statements or judgments or are you, in a sense, presenting the (overlapping conversations; inaudible)?
Albahari: Well, as I said a moment ago, I don’t like to be seen as a very serious writer. I mean, I always tried to run away from that idea, because I don’t believe—I grew up in a society which, like many Eastern European societies believed, and somehow believed too much, I think, in what writers can say and should say to society, which so many writers is the leaders of the nations, people like (inaudible). And then, other people in the former Yugoslavia, not to mention people in Russia and Hungary and East Germany.
I never believed in this thing, because I don’t see why writers should be seen as the leaders, and then somebody who— someone–why should the writer be seen as someone who understands things better than any other person? There are good writers, and there are bad writers, and that’s maybe the only thing. But it doesn’t say—it doesn’t mean that the writer should be a political leader simply by being a writer, or that he understands things better.
So, when I decided to write this book, I realized that if I don’t hide all these things in different ways, I’ll be seen as that type of writer. So I hated the idea, and that’s why everything is so hidden, or double hidden, so to speak.
And—but I—actually, I am serious when I write about these things. It’s true that there’s a—that after the war in the ’90s, and then also after the fall of the Berlin Wall at the end of the ’80s, the anti-Semitism grew all over Eastern Europe, because suddenly people felt that the idea of freedom means also that you are free to express these ideas as well. And of course, it’s regulated all over the world, so you cannot—freedom does not mean that you can suddenly be allowed to speak against Jews or Gypsies or whoever, although we see these things happening all over the former Eastern Europe.
So I tried to hide all these things. But I was actually serious, more serious than the book itself says to the reader.
AF: Talk a little bit about it and place it. I mean, there’s certain concerns I see in Leeches that are very much connected with your earlier books. For example, language, writing about language in a very self-conscious way. I mean, there’s some really wonderful passages here, although certainly, for someone who loves words, you’re unhappy to hear that you’re essentially giving us elegy for language itself. I think at one point, you have words lying dead on the floor, or at least comatose.
That goes back to your earlier writing as well, which was more intensely personal, but was very much self conscious about the limits of writing, in order to capture various intense—in the case of some of the earlier books, some intensely personal relationships.
So I know it’s a bit question, but—
Albahari: Well, it’s a part of my feeling that I belong to the post-modern literature, and the—one of the—at least, the way I understood post-modernism, one of the way to express your post-modern ideas was not to believe in language. Because the idea of post-modern, or maybe modern literature in general, was to reach silence in a certain way, to show more or less complete distrust in the words themselves. And there’s always this idea—of course, the idea, the first idea that comes from Witterstein (sp?), the borders of one’s—of my language, the borders of my work.
So what I can express, what I can say, is what my world is. And what about everything else? I mean, there are so many things I don’t know, that I cannot express, and I always felt that silence actually tells us more than words themselves. Maybe it doesn’t work that way, but that was a nice idea to play with. And especially because I remember a number of books written by—what’s the name of that American literary critic? Hassan?
AF: H-A-S-S-A-N? E-N?
AF: Ehab (sp?), or—
Albahari: Ehab. He had—I remember reading one of his books, which really influenced me many years ago, about the final frontier, so to say, that the artist is supposed to reach. So it was always the silence of the empty page, or the empty– the painting, the—how to say?—the white painting with no—
AF: With—exactly, just a white canvas (overlapping conversations; inaudible), dot in the middle of it.
Albahari: A white canvas, yes. And then, of course, I mean all of these things have been done. John Cage wrote that—
AF: Was it Silence (sp?)—type (sp?) 33, is it?
Albahari: Something like that, yes. I’m not sure who—
AF: Where he just—someone just sits at the piano, (overlapping conversations; inaudible).
Albahari: But doesn’t play, yes.
AF: (inaudible) ambience, (inaudible).
Albahari: So he—it’s actually the silence that he plays. And then I remember reading that Aram (sp?) (inaudible) and William (inaudible)’s son, published at one point an empty book. And I think that the only thing in the book as far as I remember was a copyright note on each page, because it was his copyrighted—the silence belonged to him.
AF: This is far from silence, though. I mean, you’ve written a 300 page paragraph here.
Albahari: There are—but wouldn’t you agree, that when there are too many words, they need the same as if there’s none?
AF: (laughter) Well, I’ll have to think about that one.
Albahari: Yeah, because too many words, after a while, there is too many—so many words that you use—I believe that our ability to accept all those words is—actually, I’m talking against my book now, I realize. (laughter)
AF: You are. You are. I’m sorry to put you in that position, you know what I mean? You can stop now, if you wish.
Albahari: But still, I think that it is a problem for a reader; it was a problem for me as a writer as well. Because I told you, I took away some 50 or 60 pages from the book, because I realized that the—my own limit to—of the number of words that I can accept and keep in my mind, it was crossed with that length. And that’s why I—for me, this is as much as I could keep in my memory. I don’t know, it is maybe a small amount for a computer, but it is a—this is a quite large amount for human brain.
AF: For a brain. You’ve never returned home. You live in Canada now, you’ve been there for how many—a decade? A little over—a couple decades?
Albahari: Since 17 years.
AF: Since 17 years. Have you ever thought about going back? I mean, this is an interesting book also, because it is going back. I mean, it is creating that life, and it includes sort of the class reunion—you know, I mean, people are coming back and being reunited, and yet you, yourself, aren’t going back. I mean, is that—
Albahari: Well, I do go back almost every year, and especially, I go back in October when there’s a book fair in Belgrade, because it’s a great period for me. I mean, the book fair, which lasts 10 days, because everybody’s there. All my friends, people from all over the former Yugoslavia, and publishers from all over the former Yugoslavia. So I can meet people, meet my publishers, different publishers in different parts of the former Yugoslavia.
It’s a good thing, actually, for writers. I mean, the disappearance of Yugoslavia. Because suddenly there are six countries instead of one. Before the war—
AF: It’s a bigger party now.
Albahari: Yeah. Before the war, you would publish only one book in Belgrade, and it would sell all over the former Yugoslavia. Now you can get—you can have your book published in six different places. And so I’m still—I still live in Canada, but I must admit that the idea of going back to Belgrade, not only because of Belgrade itself, but because of Europe, is slowly becoming something that is almost sort of an obsession for me at this point. Because I think that I am more of a European than a North American writer. Because you can live anywhere in the world, but still, you are what you are, so to speak.
And then in Europe, a writer who lives in Europe, anywhere in Europe, he has—I mean, there’s a probability that his books could be translated into—what is it, like 25 languages or something like that. In North America, there’s only one. There’s only English, because in Quebec, they wouldn’t translate it into French. They would buy your book from France anyways.
So I believe that for me as a writer, especially this moment now, I have—my books are quite successful in Germany and in France. So it’s simply, since I live in Calgary, and Calgary is far from any town in the world, well, it’s the closest town to Calgary is Edmonton, which is 300 kilometers from up north. And it takes eight hours for me to reach Europe from—I mean, it’s eight hour difference. It takes me 10 hours to fly from Calgary to Frankfurt, and then to Belgrade. And it is becoming more and more difficult as years go by.
So, I’m thinking not a complete return to Zemun and Belgrade, because I got used now to living in a different place. But maybe spending more time there, so that it would be easier for me to go to different literary festivals, to visit publishers and all this. It would simply be more practical, so to speak.
AF: And this is certainly one of the—maybe your most ambitious, or one of your most ambitious books. I don’t remember them—they’re all wonderful, but they’re all—many of them are short.
AF: This is probably one of the longest things you’ve written.
Albahari: It definitely is, and you are right when you say that it is the most ambitious book of mine, and I simply wanted to – as I said at the beginning, I wanted to test some of the things. I wanted to see whether I could write something that could be seen, at least on one level, as a historical novel, a historical novel about the Jewish community, which is, of course, also, most of it is my invention.
AF: Well, I was going to ask that. I mean, how—is there any factual—you know, I didn’t do a lot of Googling over some of the references here.
Albahari: Well, the—
AF: Is most of this imaginary? Or are there—is there certain elements of fact—
Albahari: There are many elements that are true through the real facts. And even the story about leeches, and the Jews who were allowed to catch them and sell them, it is a true story. Because leeches were almost, as I mentioned in the book, almost on the—how do you say?—on the verge of—
Albahari: Extinction, because they were used so much in medicine of that time, in the nineteenth century, that they simply could not—
AF: To keep up with the demand.
Albahari: They used—I mean, the numbers are staggering—like some 20 million leeches a year, or something like that. And even if you read, there’s a beautiful description of a (inaudible), in (inaudible)’s book on (inaudible), when (inaudible) goes through the same procedure, and when they put leeches all over his body, and he’s trying to get rid of them. Because I—I’ve never seen it done, but it looks terrible, when you think, oh, hundreds of leeches all over your body, drinking your blood, and somehow you should feel better after that.
And—but anyways, because Jews were not allowed to, as you know, throughout the history, they were not allowed to do many things, but because—not to be competition, for example, in Serbia, they were not allowed to be merchants, in order not to be competition to Serbian merchants. But they were allowed to collect leeches, because nobody else wanted to do these things.
And so these things are really—it is—those are historical facts that I found and took from different sources. Also, the story about Jews living in Zemun is an interesting one, because Jews were not allowed to live on the border of what’s the Hungarian Empire. But this community of Jews who lived in Zemun managed somehow to postpone—they were supposed, every year, to leave, but they somehow managed to get a letter from the king or the queen in Vienna, telling them that they’re allowed to stay for next six months, for example. And then they would change all the names in their lists, in order to prove that the newcomers had come, because the community was not allowed to grow. So they would pretend that some people have died, for example, in the meantime, or that the new ones have come, and they would change the names to hide traces.
And so I used all these little games that they played in real. They actually helped me to realize that the history itself can sometimes be a game for some people in a certain way, and that playing those games helped the Jewish community in Zemun to stay there and to remain.
AF: And is the religious aspect of this book part of the game or not? I mean, there is the Kabbalah, there is mystic energies, or talk about mystic energies and the well of the self, and is this simply—you know what I mean. Is this—are you talking about Judaism and its survival and value as sort of a cultural force, or are you also mentioning, suggesting that there is some sort of religious, spiritual discovery—quest for discovery going on for the narrator? Seems to act that way, but then he never really finds out what he’s supposed—what he’s questing for.
Albahari: Yes, because nobody knows what’s happening in the book. I believe—I’m not sure that I know what’s happening in the book. But the Kabbalah was—I’m not an expert on Kabbalah, of course, but I read a lot of books on Kabbalah in a number of different translations. I cannot read Hebrew myself, so I had to read the translations. Luckily, there’s a huge library of translated books, and there are many, of course, books that are terrible books, with different type of nonsense and—about Kabbalah, and then all those ways that Kabbalah and money, Kabbalah and then beauty, Kabbalah—
AF: Kabbalah and dating, I know, yes.(laughter)
Albahari: Kabbalah and dating, and all these things. So when I made that idea that there is a group of people who wanted to use Kabbalah in order to fight Milosevic and the Serbian government of that period, it was, of course, ridiculous. Because—especially, it is ridiculous to expect somebody who is not a Jew, who cannot speak Hebrew, to suddenly become so well acquainted with Kabbalah that he could use the powers of Kabbalah in order to reach whatever in the book.
And of course, it is all a big game, with some real, real elements. I mean, the quotations from different books are real, and the names that I mentioned, the different masters of Kabbalah throughout the Jewish history of Kabbalah are real.
But the whole book, actually, is a sort of a parody of a conspiracy novel.
AF: And in fact, characters are always saying, isn’t this like a—this is like a bad Hollywood movie, that we’re in the buildup here?
Albahari: Because—because I always ask myself, how come there are so many—you know, the theory of conspiracy movies in the United States? How come that so many novels and so many movies are made with the (inaudible) that somebody’s doing something from somewhere? And the—to all citizens are part of a certain game that they don’t know why it’s being played.
So that’s why the characters in my novel mention this fact, in order to show that they don’t believe in it, although they themselves actually play the roles that somebody else invented for them.
AF: Well, I was going to say, I mean, you are playing with the idea of post-modernism and the idea of order and no order. You know, you are the author ordering the events, which yet seem to be continually going out of control and being completely (overlapping conversations; inaudible).
Albahari: Exactly. So in the end—
AF: So who is—is the author in control, or not? Is—
Albahari: No. No, no. The text is more in control. The text writes itself, I think.
AF: So do you—so the idea of language being dead, and this I might have taken too seriously, is—I thought you were also sort of referring back to the—well, you know, what you’ve done in the early book on the Holocaust. And the idea that after, perhaps, after that event, in the words of someone like George Steiner and others, that has crippled literature, or (inaudible) empty meaning out of this sort of humanist enterprise, out of the intellectual tradition, such as even the Central Jewish European tradition, which is now sort of eradicated, but partly that the meaning has also been eradicated because of the (inaudible).
And so in that sense, that’s what I thought you were saying. Maybe I took it too seriously, the idea of language being dead, meaning that the Kabbalah could not be brought back anyway because the language itself no longer serves that sort of purpose.
Albahari: That’s true, and Kabbalah is language, actually. Because it’s all words, and the world was created by words. So if God is dead after—for some people, after the Auschwitz and then all those other terrible things in the Second World War, then there are no more words. The language is dead itself.
AF: That’s what I thought you were suggesting, I mean when I heard, but perhaps not. But—
Albahari: Well, I do—I did think of that, and I think that partly, it is in the book. But there’s also at least we must, I believe, give ourselves some hope, a little hope. Because maybe the language did not disappear, and I’m not sure, maybe you can correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that Jews themselves, the Jewish religion and then the philosophy has not come with the right answer, how the whole thing has happened. And not why the thing has happened. I mean, the Second World War, and Auschwitz, and all these other things.
But how come that—the famous question, how come did God stood—
AF: Well, I would say, no response.
Albahari: No response.
AF: No answer, no—you know, it was also that these were cultured people who did it. And there are often—the usual cliché, but it’s the Commandant of Auschwitz, who would go home and listen to— you know, read his (overlapping conversations; inaudible)—
Albahari: Oh, yes.
AF: Listen to his Beethoven and then get up and begin the killing the next day. The idea is that the language of humanism, the language of morality that had been accepted in the great works of art—you know what I mean?—suddenly seemed a bit empty after that.
Albahari: Well, it’s true, but there’s an answer that I think David Grossman gives in his book, See Under: LOVE, when he actually—the Jew who could not be killed. In the last segment of—the commander of the camp takes him as his personal Jew, because he is the writer of children’s stories that he liked when he was a small kid. He takes him—he is, as they said, they called him personal Jew.
And what the Jew is trying to do is, is to teach him humanity. And the moment the commander goes back to humanity, which he somehow managed or somehow was made to forget, when he remembers that, he immediately kills himself, because he realizes that from the point of humanity, he is as terrible as the way we see it.
But then you have to be really human to understand—
AF: To understand.
Albahari: To understand this. And I also, I am reminded of a little story by (inaudible), a Hungarian author of beautiful collections of very short stories. And he has one story in which—and Jewish professor is digging something that will obviously sounds as—that is if he is digging his own grave. And there’s a German soldier waiting for him to do this. And the professor stops from time and time and asks him questions like, have you ever read Goethe in your life? And the guy, the soldier doesn’t just—go on and dig. Then he mentions Helderlin (sp?) for example, and do you know how Helderlin was? He said, go on and dig. And then, do you know who this and that other writer was? He said, go on digging. And then after fourth, fifth or sixth question, the soldier just takes the gun and kills him, because he understands that if it goes on, he would be able—he would feel so much ashamed that he would become human, I guess, in the end. So the only way to fight against it is to kill the poor professor, who is digging his own grave.
AF: Hmm. And are you working on that? I mean, is there a sort of—you said you were looking, and there are elements of hope in Leeches. Is that sort of also—I mean, it does seem to me that you’re working with the idea that maybe there can be some humanity coming—I mean, there’s some hope for Serbian culture? It’s a historical novel where essentially, you’re saying history sort of—not come to an end, but it has essentially become very, very barbaric and bleak.
Albahari: I must admit that I somehow avoided to give almost any answer in the book. And the book, actually, I believe—at least, I see the book as without hope in the end, at least on a personal level of the narrator, because it still remains alone, hidden somewhere with only one pencil, that once the pencil is dead, he is dead, because he is the language. If— when he stops speaking, the whole world in the book disappears. It’s gone.
So the—so in a certain way, he is God himself. He is the creator of what’s going on. And that’s the idea that I remember reading in a—there was a novel by Robert Coover—whatever happened with Robert Coover?
AF: He’s—I—he’s around. He’s still doing some writing. I saw him at (inaudible) maybe last year, I think, he was here. So he’s around.
Albahari: So yeah, because almost all of those metafiction (sp?) writers have disappeared, and unfortunately, some of them (overlapping conversations; inaudible).
AF: Well, there’s a—well, this is—you know, a critical backlash against them as well. In other words, they’re seen as out of fashion, and—
Albahari: Yeah, I know. Yes.
AF: It’s a longer discussion. But I mean, there’s an attempt to rewrite that tradition. He’s being—they’re being written as marginalized, and—
Albahari: But he written—he wrote a novel many years ago, something about—what was the novel? Jay (sp?)—I know that it was actually—it—you could read (inaudible) in it.
AF: I can’t remember the name—I know some of his novels, but I can’t remember the title of that one.
Albahari: Oh, it doesn’t matter, but the idea was that the main character in the novel was the creator of everything in the novel, because he imagined his own baseball league or something like that.
AF: Oh, yeah, yeah. What is it—the baseball association league? What is that? I know there is—
Albahari: Yes, but—
AF: He’s a god and creates his own baseball team.
Albahari: Yes, yes.
AF: He uses dice, and the idea that the dice eventually—he can’t control the way the dice goes.
AF: So players end up—he wants them—
Albahari: So that was one of the ideas that I had in my mind while writing this book. So as you can see, it is—for me, it is also sort of a catalogue of different influences for me. So nobody will know this thing about Robert Coover, because it’s—it didn’t mention him in the book, but not everything is mentioned there.
AF: No, I know.
AF: I’ll try to forget.
Albahari: You don’t have to.
AF: Maybe I won’t mention it. I’ll keep it quiet. It will be our secret.
Albahari: All right. We won’t tell Robert Coover. We won’t—
AF: (overlapping conversations; inaudible) don’t tell Robert Coover.
AF: He won’t get any bragging rights.
Albahari: No, no. But he was a great—I mean, he still is, of course. But in a certain respect, because as you said, people do not like this type of writing anymore. He was—I believe that he was one of the greatest short story writers in that period. I don’t know about (inaudible) of course, and Robert Coover.
AF: (inaudible) William Gass, although he didn’t write many—he wrote some short pieces.
Albahari: He wrote in the (overlapping conversations; inaudible).
AF: (overlapping conversations; inaudible), wonderful, wonderful, wonderful book.
Albahari: Wonderful book but then he—I think, wrote more—he stopped writing fiction, I think, at one point, and wrote more some sort of a—
AF: He’s still writing novellas, and he wrote the—I can’t think of the huge—he wrote a huge novel that came out in the late ’90s—
Albahari: Oh, I know that.
AF: About the—sort of the neo-Nazi in middle America (sp?). It’s called The Tunnel.
Albahari: The Tunnel.
AF: And that was—I mean, that was a huge book. (inaudible), must have been 800 pages. (overlapping conversations; inaudible)
Albahari: Yes, it was a huge book.
AF: And it was (overlapping conversations; inaudible).
Albahari: But it was not received well. That was already the end of metafiction in American literature, and that was, I think, the time when Raymond Carver became the big name, and then influenced—made the big—actually, he made—I think he made—his stories made the big change in American literature, at least, the way I see it. But then he was, I still believe, a great (inaudible) writer. But so many writers who wanted to write like him after that destroyed the beauty of Robert—of Raymond Carver’s writing.
AF: Well, he’s easier to imitate, and he was easier to teach in creative writing programs. Like, a Carver story, rather than to imitate or look at a Coover story, that would be more difficult to do. It was easier to teach.
Albahari: It was easier to teach, but he was a poet, first of all, I think. And the beauty of his short stories is that there is some sort of hidden poetry in there. But all those imitators who came after him, they were not poets themselves. So something that—I love the beauty—I love the idea of his short stories, because you could use—there was such a huge amount of silence in each of his stories, things being unsaid and unspoken. And many, many writers who wrote similar stories after him, they couldn’t repeat that. They didn’t—they had no feeling for that.
AF: Do you see yourself as a bit of a poet, say, as a writer? You mention it as Carver writes it. We certainly see it in some of the earlier works. There’s some wonderful passages here, too, (inaudible) translation.
Albahari: Do I see myself as a poet?
AF: Yeah, do you—as Carver, he was—started as a poet, and was a poet, he wrote some poetry, and then wrote short stories. Do you see yourself as a poet (overlapping conversations; inaudible)?
Albahari: I see myself—sometimes I see myself as a poet, although I’ve never been a poet myself. I did write a number of points at the very beginning, when I was, so to speak, learning to write. But then, I decided to write only fiction, and maybe a number of years ago, I did write a small number of poems, maybe 10 or 15 poems. And I didn’t know what to do with them.
So I wrote a story about a young poet going to an editor of a literary magazine and giving him his poems. And that’s—and then I used those poems in that story. And then the poems are rejected by the editor in that story, so I—but I managed to publish them (overlapping conversations; inaudible).