“Götz and Meyer. Having never seen them, I can only imagine them.” This is the opening of David Albahari’s latest novel, first published in Serbian in 1998. And contained in this seemingly simple, seemingly casual statement is the intolerable paradox at the heart of the narrator’s life: the need to reconstruct a vanished reality and the impossibility of doing so.
Moreover, this vanished reality is one that defies comprehension: the Nazi genocide of the Jews. The narrator, a nameless, Jewish, middle-aged teacher, born near Belgrade in 1940, has recently been overcome by a longing to know who his relatives were and the exact circumstances of their deaths. As he combs records, his imagination becomes fastened to the men most directly responsible for the murders, Götz and Meyer: SS men who drove the Jews of Belgrade from the concentration camp where they were held, to mass graves.
Initially, it fell to such drivers not only to drive their massive trucks and to attach, partway through the journey, a device that piped carbon monoxide to the passengers, but also to unload the corpses at their destination. When that unpleasantness proved to be demoralizing to the drivers, the Nazi directorate devised the practical solution of having Serbian prisoners (who were subsequently shot) unload the corpses.
Such facts the narrator is able to glean from records. What makes the facts comprehensible, though, can never be recovered. Who were Götz and Meyer, really? What did they look like? What were they thinking as they sat in the cab of the truck, when they entered the camp where the starving prisoners waited, when they attached the hose that conveyed the poison, relaxed at the end of their day?
The narrator himself seems to take shape from an obscurity as his task of invocation and reclamation gathers urgency. The more he struggles to learn of his expunged family, of the milieu in which they were tormented and then murdered, of the apparently ordinary men who carried out the plans, the more feverishly he persists in reconstructing that which cannot be reconstructed. He seems at the beginning of the book to be a rather ghostly being, isolated in the present, but as he becomes possessed by the erasure of the past, he transforms—splintered and helplessly compelled by a shrouded history—into a sort of living theater of ghosts, and the book becomes a ringing chord of voices and beings, obsessively and futilely imagined in this way and that.
Albahari makes us feel how fiercely the present needs to know the past. The present is an expression of the past, whether we know what it was or we don’t, and when there exists only a void between us and our antecedents, he suggests, it is this void, rather than what ought to be our own lives, that will claim us. The book is a sophisticated meditation on the inextricability of historical memory and identity; it is also a gorgeous work of the imagination about an act of imagination. The tone is pure, as strange as can be, and hypnotizing.