This brilliant book runs just over a hundred pages without a single chapter break or, for that matter, anything so pedestrian as a paragraph indentation. Amazingly, the unrelenting structure of the narrative poses no impediment to reading, except for the modest dilemma of not knowing when to put it down and go pick up the children or put soup on the stove. The novel, which won the NIN award for the best Yugoslav novel in 1996, purports to tell the story of the narrator's mother (Mamac, the title of the book in Serbian, is a play on words). But more importantly, it tells the thinly veiled story of Albahari's own dislocation from the self-imploding Yugoslavia he left in 1994. Not a political man, Albahari is an ambivalent exile ("I hadn't wished to leave, as I hadn't wished to stay"), an ambivalent Jew (as he once said of his father: "if [he] weren't a Jew, [he] would have made a perfect Christian"), an ambivalent lover of his mother tongue (a language, Serbo-Croatian, that no longer officially exists), and even an ambivalent writer. Precisely this existential uncertainty makes Albahari's narrator trustworthy—makes him the only messenger who could deliver the bad news to us and get away with his face intact. The bad news being that, yes, identity does matter. It's as inescapable as history. There's a confusing array of excellent writers in, and emerging from, Yugoslavia, a country that no longer officially exists. A thrilling place to begin reading them is Albahari's Bait.
Erica Johnson Debeljak, an American writer, contributes regularly to newspapers and journals in Slovenia, where she now lives. She is the author of Tujka v hiši domačinov (Foreigner in the House of Natives) and recently translated Barren Harvest: Selected Poems by Dane Zajc.