Sunday, April 22, 2012

David Albahari’s Leeches

I’m back at last, albeit with a book—David Albahari’s Leeches, in Ellen Elias-Bursac’s translation from the Serbian Pijavice—that I find rather confounding, with a diabolical combination of minutiae and whatever you call the accumulation of all the minutiae. Leeches is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read but didn’t particularly like... One of my difficulties is that Leeches is written as one 300-page stream-of-consciousness paragraph. But I admit it’s not Albahari’s fault that I couldn’t give Leeches the attention and concentration it deserved because cold viruses were replicating in my respiratory system, much like the obsessive thoughts about a plot that plague the book’s narrator, a Belgrade newspaper columnist who witnesses a man slap a woman down by the Danube on March 8, 1998. (I can’t help but notice that March 8 is International Women’s Day...)

Our hero, who never seems to record his name in his manuscript, finds, all over, clues to the meaning of the slap that lead him to seek out clues for understanding the clues, which lead him to corners of mathematics and the Kabbalah a bit esoteric for my head, virus-infected or not. Meanwhile, of course, the conflict over Kosovo is heating up in Serbia, something our unnamed hero notes regularly; chaos is personal, political, and literary in Leeches. The narrator mentions the strangeness of the political aspect of life, writing, “The encounters with the unbridled nationalists were so surreal that I didn’t even feel them to be a part of that reality.” The absurd and surreal aspects of the book—and the accompanying humor—were highlights of Leeches, particularly after my experiences living in post-Soviet Russia.

That’s probably why one of my favorite passages in the book describes a visit to a room where a portrait of Tito used to hang: “It felt as if that portrait had had its day a century ago, though only fifteen years has passed since then, and now it seems, maybe because I no longer live there, that its day never happened.” Questioning reality and history—particularly given nameless hero’s frequent pot smoking in the first half of the book—may not be the freshest theme in Leeches but it certainly feels right in this novel… and in many other books I’ve read about places, like the Former Soviet Union, where the countries and people caught up in geopolitical breakups seem to sense something akin to phantom limbs.

My very favorite passage in the book, though, is a favorite because of a personal connection. Our hero’s friend Marko, who disappears during the course of the novel, had a poet girlfriend who, during “a sudden and extremely unpleasant breakup… hit him on the head with a Benson English-Serbo-Croatian dictionary, until streams of blood were coursing down his forehead and neck…” This personal scene, I should note, takes place during a theatrical performance, in front of an audience, though it’s not scripted as part of the show: art, life, and imitation are all on display, with the audience “convinced it was part of the performance.”

Of course this mention of the Benson dictionary, written by the late Morton Benson, who attempted to teach me about the history of the Russian language when I was in grad school, gladdened me by reminding me of a professor who seemed to find it curious that his dictionary had made him a minor celebrity in what used to be known as Yugoslavia. Focusing on the Benson dictionary also gave me a framework for understanding one thin layer of Leeches: we have a breakup, bloodshed inflicted by a book of words from multiple languages, and even a language with two alphabets. Plus, of course, the meaning, significance, and impact (ouch!) of words, which our narrator tells us, later, “don’t count; they’re something else, as someone wrote recently, they never say what the speaker means for them to say, but what the listener wants to hear.”

That thought doesn’t feel particularly fresh, either, even within the context of the narrator writing his crazy account of crazy happenings, hoping to finish before his pen runs out of ink. He also tells us he won’t write “burn after my death” on the first page of his manuscript… there’s no guarantee, he says, that anyone would heed the command and he could burn the damn thing himself anyway. His exchange with himself reminds me, by the way, of Master and Margarita: both books take up the topic of (un)burning manuscripts and both feature heroines named Margarita/Margareta.

I could go on and on, just like Leeches itself, but let’s just say Albahari offers lots of chaos and humor in a long, long stream of words that talks about Jewish history, World War 2, manuscripts, math, violence, and trying to figure out how everything all fits together. Plus a few assorted mentions of leeches, which are cited as something to be gathered in swamps during the nineteenth century and compared with guns (both are “bloodletting”) a bit later. I’m not sure I have the patience to read Leeches again to get a better grasp of its mathematical and Kabbalistic corners, though I recommend it highly (no pun intended) to readers who enjoy novels where curious souls try to understand their broken-down societies on micro, macro, and mystical levels. Leeches was quite enjoyable. Even if I didn’t particularly like it.

I should also note that I thought Ellen Elias-Bursac, whom I enjoyed meeting at a literary translator conference last November, did a nice job translating what must have been a difficult text. Slavic tones came through the translation in good ways, and the text itself is very clear and readable.

For more: I’ve only touched on a few aspects of Leeches. For a deeper look at the story and its various histories:
Nina Herzog on Words Without Borders
Amy Henry on The Black Sheep Dances

Disclosures: Amy Henry gave me a review copy of Leeches that she received from publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And I’ve met translator Ellen Elias-Bursac, as noted above. Thanks to all!

Up Next: Walkabout, by James Vance Marshall.