Quill and Quire

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Snow Man

by David Albahari, Ellen Elias-Bursac, trans.

The fourth novel by David Albahari to be translated into English is a meditation on the immeasurable gulf that separates the ideas of exile and refuge. Refugees tend to come en masse, and even away from their home nations, they somehow manage to find community, solace, and hope. The exile, however, finds only loneliness, and for the unnamed exile who narrates Snow Man, this sense of isolation and statelessness is a vacuum from which he cannot escape.

At the beginning of the novel, Albahari’s exile, a novelist, has just fled his war-ravaged nation and arrives to take up a position of at a Canadian university. It immediately seems clear to him that in deciding to leave home, he has made a terrible mistake. In addition to the sorrow of displacement and the overpowering strangeness of starting a new life, he abhors the intellectual puffery of the academic world. The omniscient certainty of the professors and the rapid indoctrination of the students leave him profoundly isolated. As the exile’s sense of alienation becomes overpowering, the one thing that relieves his anxiety is orange juice. It’s a simple elixir that reminds him of the fragility of life and the care it took to cultivate oranges in his homeland before it was torn apart.

Writing without paragraph breaks, and in a slow, sidewinding style that is constantly looping back on itself, Albahari manages to craft a voice here that goes beyond stream-of-consciousness into a unique style. The work is hypnotically compelling: simultaneously capable of communicating obsession, sadness, and beauty.

As the exile’s sense of alienation grows, he finds a collection of old maps in the house he rents. Thus starts the novel’s central meditation on the nature of history and geography, and the natural boundaries that start and finish wars. Redemption, he finds, is possible in something as simple as snow, something white and beautiful that can rewrite a landscape and, in so doing, let us begin again.