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David Albahari: Kontrolni punkt (Checkpoint)

A platoon of soldiers – thirty-seven men to be precise – have been told to set up and guard a barrier. They (and we) are not sure what lies either side of the barrier, whether it is between two countries or two villages. Indeed, as they were taken to the barrier in trucks at night, they have no idea where they are.There may be a war going on but it is not entirely clear what war and who is involved. They seem to have a mutually intelligible language and the two persons named have a Serbian name. We are, however, later told that the soldiers are part of a community of nations, which may be Yugoslavia, may be the EU or may be something else.

Clearly this boundary point is not new, as there are rudimentary buildings there – dormitories, kitchen, toilets. What there is not is a sign of any human activity. There are no houses or other buildings (apart from theirs) and nobody attempts to approach the barrier from either side. The barrier is surrounded by forest. Attempts to contact headquarters by radio are not successful. When later in the book, they do contact headquarters, the voice who replies speaks in a language that none of them recognises. In short they are as lost as castaways.

The book seems to be narrated in the third person by one of the men but it is not clear who he is and he seems to know a lot about the thoughts of his comrades. He frequently makes comments on the situation and what is going on, from condemning war as pointless to commenting on the behaviour of the many wasps in the area.

Initially, everything seems calm and boring. Then, one morning, one of the soldiers is found sitting on the toilet, dead, with a nasty gash across his neck. The barrier is on top of a hill and it is about the same distance to the bottom of hill on either side. The somewhat erratic commander sends out two patrols, one on either side. There are three men in each patrol but they do not send Mladen, the expert on forest living, as they want to keep him safe.

The patrols later return, each one carrying one of their comrades, who had been killed by an arrow. Neither patrol saw who fired the arrow. Neither patrol saw any humans, though one man in each patrol did see what he thought were houses in the distance but the patrol leader would not stop to investigate. There should have been no houses in the area, as it had been been flooded for a hydroelectric scheme (which was later abandoned) so there should have been lots of water. The men did not see this water.

Mladen is sent out on his own and he does find a house, with animals brutally killed and dead humans and one older woman who had been slashed and was dying. He saw no signs of the perpetrators.

Things continue to get worse, with more soldiers killed, and one soldier killing himself. Finally, a group of people approach the barrier, wanting to pass. The commander has strict instructions about what to do and they have to wait. However, the refugees tempt the soldiers first with cabbage soup and then with women. The outcome is not good, with deaths on both sides.

But there is a war going on and, eventually, it reaches our soldiers. Who is fighting whom is not clear. Indeed, there seem to be several different groups fighting one another. None of the groups is identified, though one group has a British tank, though it is not clear if the crew is British. The soldiers are attacked and attack but they do not know who is attacking them and they shoot at anyone who comes near and looks armed.

Albahari’s aim is clear. War is pointless is a refrain used several times during this book. More to the point, war is vicious and cruel and brings out the worst in the participants. The Geneva Convention is contravened on numerous occasions – the commander readily admits it – and all sides show unnecessary cruelty and barbarism. Inevitably, of course, it is the civilians who fare worst and not just the adults but woman and children, and, as mentioned, even animals are cruelly slaughtered.

Albahari does use satire. At one period, when things are not going well, a jeep turns up with the mail for the soldiers (one parcel containing food has been rejected). Yet no-one thinks to ask the driver where they are, how to get out and what is happening in the war. There are other, much darker examples of his satire.

The book is clearly based on the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Two Serbian names, oblique references to Belgrade and the fact that country borders are not clear all support this. However, Albahari is presumably damning and criticising all wars. Most war books aim to show the horror of war, with woundings and deaths, cruelty and barbarism, and civilian populations subject to unspeakable treatment but this one is slightly different, partially because Albahari really gives us graphic accounts of the barbaric behaviour of all sides but also because there is no clear Us and Them. Everyone seems to be both Us and Them. Everyone is the enemy. Even when they meet some soldiers who speak their language, which causes them considerable surprise, they still see them as the enemy.

Albahari was caught up in the 1990s Balkan wars, worked for the evacuation of the Jewish population from Sarajevo and eventually emigrated to Canada, presumably because he had had enough of what was going on, so it is not surprising he has written such a book. It is a book that shows war in all its horror and its pointlessness and will surely be added to the roster of great anti-war novels.

Publishing history

First published by Stubovi kulture in 2011
First English translation Restless Books in 2018
Translated by Ellen Elias Bursać