LEECHES by David Albahari

Book Quote:

“All I want, I said, is to understand what’s going on. Not the war,  I hurried to add when I saw Marko’s raised eyebrows, not the war, I will never be able to understand that, I gave up trying long ago, but the thing on the Danube, the reality and absurdity of the slap, the meaning of the circle around the triangle, the song I heard in the courtyard on Zmaj Jovina Street. Marko sat there, silent.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (APR 29, 2011)

Marko’s silence is understandable. His best friend, the unnamed narrator of the novel, is about to embark on a narrative of 309 pages, all in a single paragraph, navigating from trivia to arcana and back again, as he tries to make sense of the apparent senselessness around him. Besides, most of the time they are together they smoke pot, entering a state not known for coherent objectivity, though the protagonist’s pot-smoking declines as the situation around him becomes more fantastic; when life itself supplies enough conspiracies for the most rabid paranoiac, who needs hashish? The run-on writing style is actually appropriate, and once picked up, the book is difficult to put down. The narrator is a professional newspaper columnist with an engaging voice. And the absence of any visual breaks in the text makes any decision to stop reading entirely arbitrary: why stop here when you could go on for another page, for twenty, to the rainbow’s end?

David Albahari, a Serbian writer now living in Canada, used the unbroken-paragraph technique to wonderful effect in his short novel Götz and Meyer, a meticulous study of two petty functionaries of the Final Solution and one of the best Holocaust books I have ever read. This time, his target is less clearly defined and his scope is bigger.

The setting is Belgrade in 1998, following almost a decade of war in the former Yugoslavia, but prior to the NATO bombing of the city during the Kosovo crisis. Ethnic tensions abound, but Albahari’s focus is on the anti-semitism arising as a perverted offshoot of nationalist sentiment. His protagonist, a Gentile, catches sight of a man slapping a woman on the banks of the Danube, an act that, despite its violence, seems to have a ritual quality, almost as though staged. He begins to see curious symbols chalked on sidewalks: triangles within circles enclosing more circles. He responds to an ad in the paper saying “Sometimes a slap can change the entire cosmos.” A few days later, he comes into possession of a Jewish manuscript that seems to change its contents every time he opens it. He looks up old Jewish friends and meets new ones. He becomes involved in the study of the Kabbalah and its enumerations of the Divine Presence or Sephirot. He meets a woman who combines mystic knowledge with sexual allure. He visits her apartment for a conversation lasting the entire night: “What did she talk about? About the Kabbalah, the system of the Sephirot, the emanation of divine substance, about the system of everything in existence, the notion of good and evil, the migration of souls, the harmony of the spheres, the influence of the planets, prayer, and silence.”

The specific area where the narrator lives is Zemun, on the opposite side of the River Seva from Belgrade, and the historical settlement of Jews expelled from the city in the early 18th century. (One of their permitted occupations was gathering leeches, hence the book’s oblique title.) The unique properties of this nine-block area are explained by the narrator’s manuscript, a translation of “a Kabbalistic text written some two hundred fifty years ago at the crossroads between two empires, the Habsburg and the Ottoman, and between two worlds, this world here and the one beyond.” He begins to believe that he is hosting the translocated soul of an 18th-century mystic named Eleazar, and may personally stand on the bridge between the two worlds. Meanwhile on the practical level, he publishes articles on anti-semitism and witnesses the scourge at first hand, in vile attacks on the community and against his own person. Strange though this all may seem, I found myself increasingly drawn into the novel as events accelerated, let down only slightly by an ending that fell unaccountably flat.

Kabbalistic mysticism has made several appearances in novels of late, such as Myla Goldberg‘s Bee Season and Dara Horn’s The World To Come. It parallels, I suppose, the trend in Christian writing exemplified by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose and carried to the point of absurdity by Dan Brown. Albahari’s aim is serious, I am sure — this is far from a mass-market book — but he uses his erudition (including several excursions into higher mathematics) to mystify rather than explain. Indeed, there is a nightmare air to the whole book, recalling the alternative reality of Kazuo Ishiguro‘s Eastern Europe in The Unconsoled. But I have to remind myself that the reality faced by Albahari is not alternative at all, but bitter fact: strife and persecution in his home country that would cause his emigration a year later. If he cannot yet find a clear focus, it is only because the wounds are too fresh. As reactions to political dislocation, pot-smoking and paranoia have a dazed authenticity. And if Albahari has to resort to mysticism and fables to address it, he is doing much the same thing as his fellow countrywoman Téa Obreht was in her equally recent but more normal novel, The Tiger’s Wife.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 5 readers
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (April 28, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: David Albahari
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Götz and Meyer

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Translated Bibliography:

April 29, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Balkans, Literary, Unique Narrative, World Lit

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.