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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



David Albahari

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To purchase Checkpoint

Title: Checkpoint
Author: David Albahari
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 183 pages
Original in: Serbian
Availability: Checkpoint - US
Checkpoint - UK
Checkpoint - Canada
Kontrollpunkt - Deutschland
  • Serbian title: Kontrolni punkt
  • Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective depiction of the absurdity of war

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ B 12/12/2013 Judith Leister
NZZ . 19/9/2013 Andreas Breitenstein

  From the Reviews:
  • "Albahari bietet einiges an Mitteln auf, um der Obszönität des Krieges künstlerisch habhaft zu werden. In den atemlosen verschachtelten Sätzen des Romans verschmelzen Traum und Trauma, Parodie und Paradoxie, Gewalt und Groteske in einer Weise, die an Kafka, Musil, Benn oder Beckett erinnert. (...) Albahari ist ein grandioser Erzähler: scharfsinnig und hochironisch. Dennoch überzeugt sein Roman nicht ganz. Aus der nicht enden wollenden Eskalation, die er anzettelt, findet der Text nicht mehr heraus. Die angehäuften Grässlichkeiten erscheinen im Einzelnen beliebig. Merkwürdig anachronistisch wirkt dieser Antikriegsroman." - Judith Leister, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Längst hat Albahari die Pfade konventioneller Phantastik verlassen und sich einer Phantasmagorie ergeben, in der sich Realität und Fiktion zu einem polymorph perversen Monster von Text vereinen. Der Roman spielt mit allen möglichen historischen Formen von Krieg und deren künstlerischer Umsetzung -- zwischen Aventiure und Apokalypse, Heavy Metal und Holocaust, Taliban und Truman Show. Hieronymus Bosch und Woody Allen, Kafka und Kubrick, Chaplin und Jünger stehen Pate bei der grossen Kakofonie, die auf grotesk-komische Weise alles vereinigt, was Literatur an Lächerlichem und Erhabenem, an Schönem und Schrecklichem, an Subtilem und Exaltiertem birgt." - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Checkpoint is a typical Albahari-work in its presentation, a single paragraph of story. It begins with an almost reasonable set-up -- a military unit of thirty-seven men is sent to man and protect a hilltop checkpoint -- but from the first the situation teeters on the absurd. Two roads, of equal length, stretch downhill on either side -- and, quite honestly, the soldiers have no idea which leads where: having been dropped off in the dead of night, they don't even know which side they came from. The radio goes dead the second day they're there, and so they have no way to communicate with headquarters; they don't really know why they're there, or the even nature of the conflict -- if there is one ... -- they might be involved in (or whether what they're involved in is something fundamentally different, some sort of "cruel experiment" ...).
       It's not very long before the commander admits:

We don't know whether the war is still on and whether one war might have ended and another begun, just as we don't know the main thing -- who our enemy is -- and this places us in a remarkably awkward position.
       No kidding.
       So, from the first, they find themselves: "as lost as castaways surrounded by boundless expanses of ocean". Which might not be so bad if this was just some forgotten island of calm. As it turns out, it's anything but.
       Almost immediately, soldiers start dying: a sentry is found murdered in a latrine, then two are killed (by arrows, of all things), and on it goes, a steady trickle of death. There's combat too -- snipers and tanks appear and attack -- and at times the unit gives as good as it gets; there are casualties on all sides. While headquarters doesn't seem to be able to coördinate much with those stationed at the checkpoint, there are a variety of arrivals: mail delivery; the occasional streams of refugees; at one point, a group of journalists. And there are also things such as the inexplicable sudden appearance of flowers (and a cactus) planted on each grave in the rapidly filling (while it stands ...) graveyard.
       It's a surreal and constantly shifting scene:
And then everything halted, it transformed, changed, we were left alone as we'd never been before, because everything took on a different meaning and the world became a backward mirror in which nothing was as it was, but as it might be.
       That description of one point easily applies to much of the rest: Checkpoint is a world-through-the-looking-glass depiction of the absurdity of war -- here barely even recognizable as war at all at times. Not just the rules but everything has changed in our modern times, and the predominant feeling in the novel is of being unmoored -- with characters unsurprisingly often dazed or in a fog:
Until the First World War, thought the commander, wars were a lot like chess, even the rulers and generals saw them that way. They perched here and there on the surrounding hills and watched how their armies advanced or retreated. Until then a ritual, a theater of manners, a well-rehearsed ballet or operetta, war was now verging on chaos, arbitrary unpredictability, slaughter for slaughter's sake.
       Albahari serves all that up, and more.
       The commander eventually emerges as the central figure, as the unit itself remains a largely amorphous 'we' that is quickly and steadily reduced in number. The soldiers are almost all interchangeable, and so the unit is presented as comprising a largely nameless lot; only one character is regularly referred to by name, Mladen, the one member of the unit familiar with living in the country (the rest are all city folk), while only two other soldiers are, eventually, named.
       The nature of any enemy is perplexing -- though as the commander realizes, facing yet another horrific situation: "His recognition would have changed nothing. Their actions would have been the same". The names, and the mention of a 'New Belgrade' (as someone asks at a bus station counter that suddenly, bizarrely finds itself in the middle of the forest (where, of course, there's: "not a single bus line in sight")), suggest a Yugoslavian setting, and there are allusions to the terrible post-Yugoslavian conflicts -- including the particular linguistic one faced then, Serbo-Croatian suddenly bifurcated (or trifurcated, if we toss Bosnian into the mix ...), as:
One speaks the language one speaks, and everyone will always speak [the] language they speak, and the language of the victors will always be on top, and so it goes. Besides, it would be funny if the victor were to speak the language of the loser, just as it was entirely natural for the loser to speak the language of the victor. But what about when the victor and loser speak the same language ? What then ? The commander didn't like these writerly tricks that threw him into doubt and required of him at least a measure of wisdom, but still he tried to wriggle free of the trap and said, "Then, quick, think up a new language. That, at least, is easy !"
       The novel abounds with linguistic confusion and unidentifiable languages -- fitting, too, for the altered reality the characters find themselves in: of course not even simple language can offer a solid hold or clarity here. As the commander realizes when confronting yet another absurd situation (someone rising from the very dead):
All these, he knew, might merely be symbols, pretense, empty lies and promises, nothing had to be substantial, obligating, genuine.
       Checkpoint is a novel of the absurdity of war -- familiar territory and material but still, Albahari insists, worth revisiting and considering. He shows -- insistently, and yet again:
War is so unnatural, so different from all else, that no one in their right mind can grasp why war would be a part of human culture.
       As a novel of modern war, Checkpoint is meant to show how baffling it is -- and Albahari succeeds well at that. Of course, much of this is familiar, but Albahari's single-paragraph spin, veering into the surreal and with a few nice twists (including as to the possible explanations of what this entire exercise might have been (for)), is a fine and appropriately horrifying take.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 October 2018

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Checkpoint: Reviews: David Albahari: Other books by David Albahari under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Serbian author David Albahari was born in 1948.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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