Checkpoint is a tornado of a book. David Albahari, a noted Serbian author who lives in Canada, muscles this Kafkaesque short novel into the war-is-absurd literary tradition in one tremendous 183-page paragraph.
A small unit is assigned to a forested checkpoint during a conflict resembling the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Though it’s ostensibly narrated by one of the soldiers, the story mostly takes the point of view of the unit’s sensitive, indeed weepy, commander. The unnamed narrator seems to vanish into the metafictional ether, an avatar rather than a character, as the days go by and the men are killed, one or a few at a time, in a series of violent and sometimes unexplained incidents, finally leaving only the commander. “So we guarded a checkpoint where nobody was checked and peered through our binoculars at landscapes through which no one passed. If there was a war still on somewhere, we knew nothing about it.”
Comic and absurd scenarios alternate with episodes of fear, confusion, and horrific violence as the 30-man unit tries to make sense of a mission they don’t understand. They can’t communicate with their central command to get updated orders or news. They encounter enemies and refugees whose nationalities and languages they can’t identify. Amid all this haze, the narrator is free to free-associate. As a stream of refugees approaches,
Silence ruled, only disturbed by the thud of the footsteps of those leading the column, and then they stopped, and, as someone remarked, there were no sounds for a few moments but the buzzing of bees. There’s a whole other story to be told about the bees, or wasps, actually; the buzzing had come from wasps. We’d seen bees on field flowers and clover…Bee-keepers are watchful, perhaps overly so, but that’s how parents behave…
Wait, where were we again? Time and space are as fluid as the mind. It rains “for hours, days perhaps.” The commander makes his way home in seemingly magical fashion as the tale visits the phantasmagorical realm: “And who knows what would have happened here if one of the soldiers hadn’t charged with his bayonet and hacked through all the finer and coarser filaments of darkness, which had latched like leeches to the commander’s back, arms, and legs.”
Throughout the novel, the dirty realities of war mingle inextricably with such intrusions from the mystical and the imaginary. In the midst of slaughter, rape, and betrayal, the commander is visited by images from movies, literature, his past. When his men die he cries, he vomits, he collapses. Yet they remain as respectful and loyal as soldiers in a fairy tale.
If Albahari’s main point is that war is a nightmarish comedy of errors, it’s one that’s been made many times before, by the likes of Tolstoy and Stendahl as well as many chroniclers of the 20th-century armageddons. Stylistically, JP Donleavy and Gary Shteyngart come to mind at times, while imagistically one might think of Goya, Picasso, or the Surrealists. But Albahari has a distinctive voice, and it comes through vividly in Ellen Elias-Bursać’s able translation from the Serbian.