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from the May 2011 issue

David Albahari’s “Leeches”

Reviewed by Nina Herzog

As one clue unravels into another, flirtations with chaos and order form the backdrop for a reflection on post-war Serbia and anti-Semitism.

David Albahari’s Leeches, which was first published in the author’s native tongue in Serbia in 2006 and has just now made its way into English, is a comedic study in interconnectedness. It is a lavish, conspiratorial murder mystery set in post-war Serbia in the last years of the previous century. As one clue unravels into another, flirtations with chaos and order form the backdrop for a reflection on post-war Serbia and anti-Semitism. Ultimately, the book becomes a meditation on the novel as a living paradox of chaotic order.

Our narrator is a nameless journalist, who spots a woman by the Danube being slapped by a man. The journalist grows obsessed—with the woman, the circumstances of her relationship with the man, and the meaning of that mysterious slap. The aggression against the woman, who is Jewish, soon points to a complicated anti-Semitic conspiracy set in motion by the Patriotic Army of Unity and Salvation (PAUS) and a defense by a small community of Serbian Jews.

A few days after witnessing the altercation, the journalist is sitting on a bench close to where the incident occurred when an unknown old man places a large envelope next to him and then disappears. The manuscript turns out to be an old book called The Well, filled with Kabbalistic teachings; strangely, its words change each time the journalist opens the book to read it. Meanwhile, there is a disturbing increase in anti-Semitic assaults in Zemun, just outside of Belgrade, beginning in the spring of 1992, when Jewish refugees from Sarajevo migrated to Belgrade after the outbreak of the Balkan war. Paintings by a Jewish artist are ruined at a gallery exhibition, and the Jewish cemetery is defaced. The journalist, who has a weekly column in a local newspaper, denounces the attacks and begins to devote his column to the topic, thus agitating PAUS, who promptly brand him a sympathizer with the Jews. The protagonist’s doorstep is routinely urinated on and defecated on; one day an eviscerated cat is left at his door, and swastikas are scrawled all over his apartment door. The Well offers an otherworldly plan to respond to the fascist PAUS campaign, leading the journalist to symbols under litter on the ground, a key in a bouquet of flowers, complicated mathematical equations, cryptic notes (“A dream uninterpreted is like a letter unread.”), and an unconsummated love affair with Margareta, the Jewish woman he saw being slapped. Together, these bizarre details converge and ultimately serve to unlock the secrets behind the terror unfolding in Zemun.

The writing style strongly echoes the novel’s thematic fixation on chaos and order: there are no chapters, no paragraphs, just an uninterrupted stream of words, as in this musing by the journalist, seemingly a stand-in for Albahari himself: “Stories are orderly, the threads in stories are harmoniously arranged, what I am doing here is more a reflection of life, which is chaotic, with too much going on at once.” The anti-Semitic conspiracy theory set in a soul-ravaged Serbia draws a parallel between the predicament of Jews and the Serbs, both of whom can’t shed identities that have been “permanently branded as negative.” For the Jews it is related to broad anti-Semitism, for the Serbs, it is an identity born of their role in the Balkan War of the 1990s, which Margareta’s character explains as an identity imposed by the media and the West.

Conspiracies demand that threads of plot and relationship linger and interconnect, and the details that Albahari furnishes toward this end provide much of the charm of the book. There are moments, however, when an excess of detail leads to unnecessary tangents that drag down the otherwise driving narrative pace (“I settled into the armchair, clenched my buttocks and released them, and then shut my eyes, anticipating a yawn.”). As if by way of explanation, the author writes, “But I, like most people, remember pointless details better, the circumstances leading to a goal, while the goal itself, even when I reach it, tends to elude memory, as if in a dream in which, no matter how far we walk, or run, or ride a white stallion, we cannot get close to the outline of walls on the horizon or the shore of the emerald river.”

The second half of the book picks up as the mystery begins to unwind, leading ultimately to a murder of one of the main characters and beginning the book’s dénouement.

Albahari’s clearest explanation of the conspiracy demonstrates the complexity and confusion of the plot itself which can be hard to follow, even after a close read. The journalist finally tracks down Margareta, who seduces him as a means to further embroil him in the unfolding plot:

I looked to the left, I looked to the right, as if I were getting ready to leave, yet I didn’t. Margareta stopped reading and said that now I certainly understood how all the elements were interconnected, and then, feeling my doubts, she enumerated them: he in whom the soul of the ancient Kabbalist now dwelled recognized the slap; that way, others recognize him, and they start preparing incantations for the defense shield in a process by which letters are written out with bodies; the last words are created on the eve of Shabbat, hence on Friday evening, then they mark the system of the Sephirot in the part of the city, which thereby becomes an emanation of divine holiness, making it possible for the celestial King and his Queen to unite; this act then raises the defense shield and opens the door of the Well.”

The question of anti-Semitism in Serbia dates back to far before the Second World War, and has a sordid past. During the Second World War, Serbs were murdered in far greater numbers than Jews by fascist Croats; their victimhood thus provides a historical precedent of sorts for linking in people’s minds the Jews and Serbs, who have both suffered savage violence. However, this historical relationship between Serbs and Jews includes another, darker dimension: the Serb history of oppressing the Jews. In the 1830s, when leeches were in high demand for all sorts of medical interventions, Jews were given next to no economic opportunities other than the gathering and selling of leeches—a constant reminder meant to literalize a deep-seated belief that the Jews were parasitic blood-suckers, and one summoned explicitly in the novel’s title. In the novel, Albahari uses the old vocation to offer a complex portrait of Jewish-Serbian coexistence: on the one hand, drawn together by common suffering, and on the other, pulled apart by violence and bigotry. The title also brings to mind the dire economic situation in post-war Serbia, where unemployment is high and the country is shunned by the international community. Their economic opportunities are limited though they may not be relegated to selling leeches.

The book is, ultimately, both compelling and original, a postmodern meditation on souls living and dead, the interwoven nature of relationships of both hate and love, war and order, religion and politics. The Kabbalistic elements of the book serve as a trope for the chaos bred by hatred, and ignited by limited economic opportunities, fomenting an environment of xenophobia and bigotry. Its translation is smooth, and lets this ambitious, pulsating book run its course without stumbles. Despite its sometimes confounding concatenation of detail, Leeches is a grand contemplation of the novel’s role in a society that is equally confusing. In the book, Albahari himself explains both the chaos and the order of the book: “No one can convince me that real life is as orderly as a novel, and that in real life everything is tidy and purposeful, that people appear precisely when their arrival fits into the plot, not a moment too soon or a moment too late, and that all else leads to a climax and a resolution, after which, there is nothing left unexplained.”

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