by David Albahari
Reviewed by Jessa Crispin
Violence in the Balkans perhaps could be said to have opened and closed the Western 20th century -- from the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian dissident to the brutal splintering, in the 1990s, of Yugoslavia, which led to ethnic cleansing and Slobodan Milosevic's trial for war crimes. In the spring of 1998, the bloodletting in Kosovo reached a point where the international community could no longer turn its head, and tensions would mount until NATO's bombing campaign was begun a year later. And yet, in March of 1998, the young journalist who narrates David Albahari's novel Leeches sits in Belgrade, only one province over from the site of attempted genocide and the oppression of a people, writing opinion pieces about whether the citizens of his city really appreciate enough the river that cuts through it.
But then there's a difference between a tragedy happening out of sight to a group of strangers, and one playing out before your very eyes. Along the banks of the Danube, the narrator witnesses a couple arguing. Suddenly, the man slaps the woman and leaves. The act of violence shocks him so that the event is imprinted on his brain, from the expression on the man's face to how the woman's foot landed in the water as she stepped back in surprise. He obsesses over the event, wondering if perhaps the other witness was somehow involved, or if the whole thing was staged for some reason.
When a classified ad appears in the paper, "Sometimes a slap can change the entire cosmos," the journalist dives into investigating this small act -- and that this leads him into a world of anti-Semitic conspiracies, Kabbalist mysteries, mathematical trickery and the natural history of the common leech does not seem to surprise him.
The entirety of Leeches, 300 pages, is told in one rumbling, stumbling run-on paragraph. It's not stream of consciousness -- it's too coherent a storyline for that. It's more the way a child tells a story, barely stopping for breath until he's blue in the face. This energy gives Leeches its charm. It's dark stuff, but told with a "you are not going to believe this" tone that lures you down the narrator's every twisting path.
The conspiracy-minded narrator remains nameless -- but the Serbian-born Albahari has a penchant for anonymous narrators. In his bold and upsetting novel Gotz and Meyer, the Jewish teacher who recounts the story of two German officers who casually killed 5,000 Jews never gets a name. The effect is less immediate and devastating in Leeches -- the book's long discourses on Kabbalist thought and immersion in complex mathematics sometimes break Albahari's spell -- but it's still effective in pulling us deep into the mystery.
Neuroscientists believe that conspiracy theories are born of the pattern-making capacity of the human brain -- we're inclined to find connections between disparate events and hang too much importance on coincidence. But when everything is connected -- from the bloody legacy of the Balkans to the history of Jewish culture in late 20th century Central Europe to the casual violence between men and women -- you have a hell of a story. Albahari has written another investigation into the dark currents flowing just beneath the surface of human experience, and we should feel lucky to follow him down.