An army unit has squirreled itself away in the woods, where it waits. Neither soldiers nor commander know where they are or what they’re guarding. Nor are they certain that the war is still on; perhaps the war has ended, or another begun. And who is the enemy?
“A language with no mystery is not much of a language,” David Albahari writes in his latest novel, Checkpoint. And also: “Some questions should never be asked, that’s a lesson for everybody.” The soldiers have a lot of questions. To begin with, they were dropped off at this checkpoint in the middle of the night—but what, exactly, is their assignment? And why won’t their radio equipment work? They have no way to contact the command center.
The novel is narrated by a collective “we,” a mostly undifferentiated mass of soldiers. For example:
[W]e guarded a checkpoint where nobody was checked and peered through our binoculars at landscapes through which no one passed. If there was a war still on somewhere, we knew nothing about it. No shots were fired, there was no zinging of bullets, no bomb blasts, no helicopter clatter, nothing. “What if the war’s already over,” we asked our commander one morning, “shouldn’t we be going home?” He was implacable. “We’ll go home when they send us home. Until then, here we stay.” The soldiers protested, stood there, cried, “Release us, send us home!”
He refuses. The commander is one of only a few forms made individual. Another is Mladen Sova, a soldier whose sole distinction is that he’d once “lived on a mountainside.” The others are from the city, so Mladen is their resident expert. In fact, “it may be that our whole platoon was assigned the task of guarding the barrier and checkpoint because of Mladen’s knowledge of forest flora.”
Likewise, the unit’s designated priest is “a soldier who, after three years as a seminary student had transferred to the school of natural sciences and mathematics to study physics and chemistry.” When one morning a sentry is found slumped over in the latrine, murdered, it is the “priest” who later stands over his grave, “mumbling and chanting,” before the dead man is rolled into it.
So much is hazy in Albahari’s world. The soldiers don’t know where they are or who they’re fighting, and we don’t know who the soldiers are: neither their nationality nor their individual forms. In the midst of a war—any war, every war, Albahari seems to say—irrelevancies like identity and purpose are sloughed off. Individual soldiers become a formless mass. War becomes an end in itself.
Albahari has a fervid, intent style, which is heightened by the fact that Checkpoint, like earlier works, unfurls without a single paragraph break. And yet Albahari is also exquisitely attuned to the minute: see how much cynicism, how much dubiety, he stuffed into the priest’s “mumbling and chanting”?
To get a sense of Albahari’s style, the breathlessness of his rhythms, it’s necessary to quote him at some length. With regard to that same commander mentioned earlier:
…Esperanto had been the commander’s great love when he was a child. How many days had he spent dreaming about a peaceful world, where everyone spoke the same language, as they had before the Tower of Babel! Esperanto seemed the most noble dream a human being might cherish. He considered saying a word or two to these army brats on the history of Esperanto and, of course, about the man who’d invented it, but he was afraid he might get carried away with the story and lured into an anti-war discourse, which would, he was certain, easily persuade the soldiers to accuse him of spreading pacifism and a negative attitude toward the armed forces, not only in our country but in general. At a moment when every chance for resistance should be glorified and patriotic ideas fundamentally encouraged, he, the commander, might be seen as a subversive, obliquely suggesting surrender. An anti-war discourse? I think not, concluded the commander, who would’ve been happiest sending this crew packing…
I should mention that David Albahari was born in Yugoslavia, that he continues to write in his original language. He left for Canada, with his family, in 1994. I should say that in Yugoslavia, before the wars of the 1990s divided the country, “everyone spoke the same language, as they had before the Tower of Babel.” In Belgrade you might ask for a cup of kafa while in Zagreb you would say kava, but if you asked for kava in Belgrade, or kafa in Zagreb, you would be understood. You would be understood unless your interlocutor was of nationalist bent, in which case he might pretend not to understand.
How risible—and sweet—is the commander’s dream of Esperanto. Almost nowhere in this book is nationality mentioned: the commander, his soldiers, could, theoretically, be from anywhere; same for their opponents. But this is a particularly Yugoslav story, one where even the idea of a single language is potentially dangerous: “he was afraid he might get carried away with the story and lured into an anti-war discourse…” Not even the commander wants to fight, but the larger forces of history have a way of sweeping you along with things.
In Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia in the 1990s, villages, neighbors, and even families that had for decades lived in peace suddenly erupted. And while there were some who fervently believed in the stated reasons for going to war, there were many more who found themselves caught up in a chaos with no clear enemy and no clear purpose. By the end of the decade, Yugoslavia had split into pieces.
A few pages from the end, a specific language is finally named that points to a specific nationality. But this is beside the point; where else would you find someone called Mladen Sova? And when, running into a few enemy soldiers, the commander seems to recognize one, and says, “My, my, are you one of the Dejanovićes?”—where else, after all, would you find a Dejanović?
At one point, the commander is reminded of a popular song, “Marina,” which makes him think of how “once long ago at the seashore he’d held a girl with ashen hair by the hand while that very song drifted their way from a hotel… Then, for the first time, he wondered what point there was to a war in which you don’t even know who your enemy is, or why you’re fighting, or whether a peace treaty has already been signed, or who will end up envying whom: the dead—the living, or the living—the dead.”
I don’t want to say that Checkpoint is a kind of cheap allegory for the Yugoslav wars. It’s not; like any fine novel, it can be understood on several levels at once. But it is also darkly reminiscent of the country and context from which its writer came.
When the commander runs into Dejanović, he is astounded to find that he recognizes his speech. “[H]ow did you learn my language?” he demands. “The soldier laughed: ‘Your language? This is my language!’” “He should have killed them then and there instead of inquiring about their language,” the commander later thinks. The writing continues:
One speaks the language one speaks and everyone will always speak the language they speak, and the language of the victors will always be on top, and so it goes. Besides, it would be funny if the victor were to speak the language of the loser, just as it was entirely natural for the loser to speak the language of the victor. But what about when the victor and loser speak the same language? What then?
Well? Albahari writes in Serbian, which, before the wars, would have been called Serbo-Croatian. (Checkpoint was translated into English by the magnificent Ellen Elias-Bursać.) These are now referred to as two separate languages, and Bosnian yet a third. But they are mutually intelligible—more than that: they are the same language, with minute differences of grammar and pronunciation, even if, during wartime, those differences are exaggerated. In Checkpoint, Albahari makes a farce of all this: everyone speaks the same language, and no one does; the soldiers have an enemy, or maybe they don’t. “Language betrays us when we least expect it to,” his narrator reflects. Does it?—or do we inscribe in our language the betrayals we’d enact anyway? Either way, we go on writing.