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from the October 2014 issue

David Albahari’s “Globetrotter”

Reviewed by Daniel Goldman

“I have always wrestled with what is missing, and my paintings depict absence rather than scenes of presence,” says Globetrotter’s nameless narrator early in the novel. This is both a statement of the book’s primary thematic concern and something of a warning: David Albahari’s Globetrotter is the sort of book where the reader constantly worries that she is missing something very important. This makes concretely describing the book’s contents a bit of a challenge. Bear with me.

Serbian fiction writer and translator David Albahari’s fluid novel — which has no paragraph breaks, chapter divisions, or quotation marks—takes place at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada. During a literary gathering, the unnamed narrator, a painter from Saskatchewan, takes an interest in a Serbian writer, Daniel Atijas. The two of them discover a signature in a museum guestbook that reads “Ivan Matulic: Globetrotter from Croatia.” They become intrigued by the signer’s decision to reference the territory as Croatia, since on the date it was signed, the territory was officially Yugoslavia; perhaps, they speculate, they are looking at an early seed of the country’s dissolution. Eventually, they are able to track down Ivan Matulic’s grandson. Much of the book consists of the three men getting to know one another by sharing intellectual ideas, particularly about nationality and personal identity, while underneath it all, some sense of tension seems to be rising between them.

If it sounds like I’m being a bit coy, that’s because I am. Right from the book’s bizarre epigraph, “Everything in this book is imaginary, only Banff is real,” the reader gets the notion that things aren’t quite what they seem. On the surface, the novel’s plotline can be seen as a love triangle; the narrator quickly falls for Atijas, and grows jealous when Atijas shows more interest in Ivan Matulic’s grandson. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that our narrator is less of a courter than he is an obsessed stalker: When not with Daniel Atijas, he is back in his studio alone trying to perfect his portrait of him; he is constantly describing the type of person that Atijas “struck him” as, impressions which, the reader will notice, are unfounded and downright wrong. This obsession drives the novel forward, though it is never quite directly acknowledged. Nor is the ostensible homosexuality of any of the characters ever so much as mentioned. Most bafflingly, some of the most important events are passed over so swiftly that it’s easy for the reader to completely miss the oddity of their near-absence. The initial meeting of the three main characters, for example, which involves intense intellectual discussion, alcohol, and possibly more, is essentially skipped outright and only later partially narrated in conveniently murky retrospect.

This sense of absence pervades the characters’ ideas of national identity—all of them are personally defined by things they lacked in their pasts, either symbolically, literally, or both. The narrator seems to attribute his whole outlook on life to his growing up on the plains of Saskatchwan, an area whose sole defining feature, he keeps reminding us, is simply its lack of mountains. Both Daniel Atijas and Ivan Matulic’s grandson (who is only ever referred to as “Ivan Matulic’s grandson”) were forced by the crumbling of Yugoslavia into perpetual migration. In a long monologue at the book’s center, Ivan Matulic’s grandson relates what he knows about his past, which includes his suspicions that his grandfather had ties to the Nazi party, but he is never able to find any sort of closure. Like many of the book’s threads, the conversations about nationhood are deliberately structured to intrigue but never quite resolve:

In all these years, nothing had found its way to him, least of all the articles appearing from time to time in the daily and weekly press that claimed to be espousing an objective, historically founded interpretation of events in Croatia and Yugoslavia. Ivan Matulic’s grandson nibbled at his scone and sipped his tea. History had never, he said, meant much to him, for, after all, he had grown up in a time with no history, in a country without a history, on a continent where study was more and more often seen as assembling fragments; there was no interest in the past, only in the present and possibly the future, since the past, history, could exist only as continuity, as a totality in which everything, whether a person wanted this or not, was interconnected.

What ultimately makes Globetrotter so effective, however, is how, despite all of his diffusiveness and formal experimentation, Albahari maintains masterful control of the narrative. The novel always maintains a thriller-like energy, even when there isn’t much actual plot development going on. Though it isn’t always easy to see what Albahari is up to—some of the weaker sections of the novel have digressive conversations about seemingly random ideas, like collectivism and technological growth—the constant suspense keeps driving the reader forward.

According to the afterword by the book’s translator, Ellen Elias-Bursac, Albahari takes an interest in American metafiction; he has produced Serbian translations for books by John Barth and Robert Coover. Globetrotter never quite takes a full metafictional turn (though the fact that it features a Serbian writer with the initials DA suddenly seems worth mentioning), but Albahari, like the American writers he admires, does have a way of letting his book provide its own analysis. Globetrotter’s many discussions of literature seem to be hints at how the novel itself should be considered. Daniel Atijas, for example, talks about his experience reading a novel by starting in its middle, and needing to flip back and forth to figure out “why some of the characters were saying or doing things,” a nod to the hazy motivations of Globetrotter’s characters. The narrator later says that the advantage that literature has over painting is that “literature can merely suggest by playing with presentiments,” whereas “painting must articulate fully.”

The more obvious and direct literary precedent for Globetrotter would be Thomas Bernard, another obsession-obsessed European fond of eschewing his tab key. The comparison is inevitable, but reductive. While Bernard’s narrators tend to not so much tell a story as pontificate in circles and spiral into insanity, Globetrotter’s narrative stream is mostly linear and follows a coherent passage of time. Ellen Elias-Bursac’s translation avoids arcane vocabulary and complex syntax; stylistically, the language tends to be relatively direct and easy to parse. Albahari’s disorienting effect is more indirect; the narrator, at one point, seems to describe the effect of the novel’s straightforward, paragraph-less form: “All these days merge into a single whole, and sometimes, no matter how hard I try, I cannot draw even the slenderest dividing line between them.” The book’s relentless forward narration and apparent simplicity misdirect from its thornier aspects, particularly the increasing unreliability of the narrator, which reveals itself over time.

Ultimately, Globetrotter reads as a kind of mystery that we’re not necessarily supposed to solve. Like in the novels of Thomas Pynchon, another writer Albahari admires, the ambiguities of the text force the reader into the same bind as the book’s narrator; without an objective foundation, we are left to project our fears and our suspicions on the gaps left in front of us. If the experience is at times unpleasant and unsatisfying, that might just be the whole point.

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