Leeches, by David Albahari

Article published on October 7, 2011.

Not so long ago Serbia was the pariah of Europe. The wars that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia were shocking in the degree of hatred and brutality between different ethnic groups who had lived in uneasy peace with one another for most of the century. The separatist ambitions of Slovenia, Croatia and other regions were opposed by the centralist regime in the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, Belgrade. The result was isolation for Serbia, introversion and a siege mentality that were fertile ground for nationalist and extremist groups.

There are long memories of injustice and oppression in this area where armies and cultures have frequently clashed, and ethnic pride runs deep. From being the most powerful kingdom of south-eastern Europe, Serbia became a part of the Ottoman, then the Austro-Hungarian empire, ending up as a truncated province in the “South Slav Federation”. As in other parts of Europe, the Jewish population was badly treated. Prohibited from most forms of employment, money-lending was their principal occupation. The Serbs of Belgrade were more cruelly imaginative. Jews were restricted to the trade in leeches – valued for their medicinal applications, but indicative of the common view of Jews as parasites. Jews (and other “undesirables”) were persecuted during the Nazi occupation, but Serbs were targeted even more by the collaborationist Croat regime. While not excusing the violence of the 1990s, this puts the conflict in a larger perspective – one where both Jews and Serbs have suffered. Perhaps the author is comparing and contrasting the response of these groups to persecution…

Leeches is a story about conspiracy and paranoia. It is written as a single stream-of-consciousness block, without chapters or paragraphs. The narrator describes his movements, his actions, his thoughts, moving from one to the other without a break. Between one sentence and another there may be only a few seconds or a number of days. This absence of structure makes it a hard book to read – there are no obvious breaks where the reader can draw breath and summarize “the story so far”. It also give the narrative a surreal, “spaced out” quality. Indeed, we can wonder if the unusual happenings derive more from the narrator’s frequent alcohol or drug intake than from any magical or mystical effects.

Set in and around Zemun, the old Jewish quarter, this is the account of one man’s journey into an unknown world. A journalist, he sees something unusual one day and decides to investigate. A woman and a man are talking by the river; the man slaps the woman. He follows her but loses her in the city. Shortly afterwards he receives a package containing a manuscript. A computer print-out, rather than an ancient tome, but one that seems to change each time he looks at it. The Kabbalistic references it contains lead him to consult members of the Jewish community, and to wander the streets searching for clues to the mystical Sephirot. At first his searching reveals past and present anti-Semitism in Serbia, and his newspaper column becomes a voice calling for justice. As he gets drawn deeper into the puzzle, he believes himself to be in some way chosen to unite the Sephirot and open a way for the Jews to a new world through “The Well”, the title of the manuscript. He identifies himself with one Sephirah and the mysterious woman with another, imagining their future sexual union to be the key. As his articles become more outspoken, he attracts unwelcome attention from nationalist thugs (the story is presented as a memoir written in exile.) At the height of the furore, he takes part in what he believes to be the rite that will open the well – but the woman does not appear as expected. Has the plan failed?

Leeches is a detective novel, a history lesson, and a mystical fantasy rolled into one. Obsession  and fear mingle with observations on the political and social scene. Conspiracy lurks on every page – but who are the conspirators? If you have the time, read it in one sitting, or as few as possible. The thread of consciousness suffers if there is too long between sessions. That said, the pace is uncompromising, and it will take more than one reading to properly understand.

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