Review: Learning Cyrillic by David Albahari

There are writers skilled at transforming seemingly banal, everyday matters into literature, and then there are writers who take these same moments, elevate them, and shift them slightly, resulting in work that reads a bit like a dream: still showcasing the beauty and complexity of the everyday while raising larger philosophical questions resulting in a story – or, in this case, an entire collection – that speaks to the complexity of identity.

Such is the case with Serbian writer David Albahari’s remarkable short story collection, Learning Cyrillic (Dalkey Press, $15.95). These tight, every-word-matters, twenty-seven stories (available together for the first time in English) explore the beautiful complication of what DuBois coined double consciousness: when an individual’s identity is made up of several facets.

In Albaharis’s stories we have recent immigrants torn between two cultures; we have a man wanting to be both his son’s father and his friend; a man who wants children but who also supports his wife, who despises them. Large topics to be sure, but Albahari brings readers in immediately by focusing each story on one small, very common moment – say, a party with colleagues, a class taught in a church basement, or a neighbor’s house going up for sale – then shifts the storyline slightly in the direction of the absurd in order to fully explore the depths of these situations. This is all done with candor, grace, and plenty of humor.

It’s easy to get caught up in Albahari’s work. Most of the stories are just a few pages long, and they are so beautiful it’s tempting to binge on them like episodes of a favorite show. But instead it’s best to approach Albahari’s collection like moving through a museum of fine art: move slowly, be present, and take some time for reflection. The result is well worth the effort.