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Amid Strife, Chronicling The Little Details

Words are Something Else

By David Albahari

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Northwestern U.

215 pp., $15.95

A leading literary artist in the former Yugoslavia since the 1970s, David Albahari sets himself apart from other Serbian authors who see their writing as primarily political. True, there are conflicts aplenty in "Words Are Something Else," though not a whiff of nationalism or ethnic strife.

Instead, the stories fall largely into two groups. Many focus on a single family: two aging parents and an adult son and daughter who live along the Danube in a suburb of Belgrade. Most of their time is spent in conversation and reflection, often during the frequent strolls they take along the river. The talk is of history, identity, and their own Jewishness, topics that work more as pieces in a never-ending board game than issues to be resolved.

There is a curious charm to this group of stories, stemming less from what the characters say than how they say it. Each figure has a quirky personality; the father is profoundly nervous, the mother is psychic, the daughter is poetic, and the son, who reports their doings, is an oddly optimistic stay-at-home who looks ahead to happier days yet never seems particularly distressed when they fail to arrive.

In "The Damp," for example, the son falls in love with a neighbor woman who embodies the health and vigor that is absent from his own family life. "I think how pretty she is and how large - how large, pretty, and strong this woman is!"

But when he learns she is married, he simply starts thinking about something else. Far from breaking the narrator's heart, here love barely stirs it.

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A second group of stories involves an experimental examination of the act of writing itself. In this group there is a 10-page story that is one long paragraph, another that consists of 101 numbered paragraphs, and a third, entitled "My Wife Has Light Eyes," in which a husband and wife quarrel about what makes a good story.

In the end, she is triumphant: The husband, who is a writer, argues in favor of teary sentiment, but finally he yields to his wife, who, though not a writer, champions a self-referential and academic fiction, that is, a fiction very much like this story itself.

A little of this kind of thing - actually, a little of both kinds - goes a long way. No doubt the textbook companies will be including Albahari's work in forthcoming anthologies, in which case I recommend they choose "Buttons," easily the drollest and subtlest of these fictions.

Here the narrator goes to a tailor because all his buttons are loose. He falls in love with the tailor's daughter, but then complications arise: His friends want the tailor's name because their buttons are loose as well, but the narrator doesn't want his friends to meet the daughter and take her away from him. In the end, love is as doomed here as it is in "The Damp," but at least its presence is real and, this time, its demise hilarious.

Albahari's work lacks the fearful suspense that is Kafka's hallmark. A more likely comparison would be to a writer like Emily Dickinson. Like her, Albahari makes a virtue of shyness. He finds the significant within the trivial - a loose button, say.

*David Kirby is the W. Guy McKenzie professor of English at Florida State University.

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