By David Albahari. Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac. Douglas & McIntyre, 120 pp, $18.95, softcover.
Everything about David Albahari's slim novel suggests solemnity: its stark cover, its subject matter (a Serbo-Croatian academic in exile), the review quotes on the back ("Sad and beautiful")-it's all so sombre it might as well be poetry.
And yet Snow Man is a funny book. The unnamed academic narrator is suffused with misanthropy, and who can blame him? The students are ignorant ("I thought it would be best for me to shut myself in the refrigerator and come out when all this was over") the faculty is pompous ("Perhaps I was overly hasty, I thought, in not allowing myself to tell a person I hate him"), and the writing is going nowhere.
Everyone in this unnamed new Canadian city wants to tell him the meaning of his former country. He despises this impulse as much as he does the university, itself "a system of learning that, supposedly, allows a person to see things more clearly than anyone can from outside that system".
Albahari overturns everything-our bland sympathy for the exotic other, our kid-gloves respect for a "serious" topic-even the sentence itself: "If I hadn't been in the house, if I had still been standing in front of the house despite the snow, which was still falling, at the place where the concrete front walk began, now invisible, that led between the conifer and the birch tree, visible yet transformed, I would think that someone else, some big man, much larger than I am, had passed this way recently, striding towards security, warmth and light, but I was in the house, in security and warmth, though not in light, and no matter how I tried, I couldn't remember a single leap."
Provocative insights abound: into the making of meaning, the stability of history, the arbitrary nature of division, be it person from person or country from country. Snow Man is the easiest difficult book you will read, Albert Camus by way of Josef Skvorecky, a single paragraph running over its 120 pages and as blackly, existentially comic as you could hope.
David Albahari takes part in the SFU Symposium on the Novel Saturday (July 23). For tickets and information, visit www.ccsp.sfu.ca/pubworks/symposium.htm.