“Every text, every document, every book, all that is composed of words, is made of sand or, better yet, of water. Nothing is less constant than words, yet nothing lasts as long as words do, and in that paradox lie the beginning and the end of all writing, and every human effort.” So writes the narrator in Serbian author David Albahari’s latest novel “Leeches,” translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac.
The novel is ostensibly an account of one young man’s efforts to unravel an ethnopolitical conspiracy developing beneath the tense surface of life in Belgrade under the rule of Slobodan Milosevic in 1998. Intrigued by one violent slap on the bank of the Danube, the alternately superstitious and skeptical protagonist begins to obsess over mysterious signs and black-clad figures that lurk in the corners of his experience. He soon embroils himself in a Kabbalistic plot to free the Jewish community from violence and marginalization. Although he himself is not Jewish, his involvement in the scheme spurs a series of progressively more violent and repulsive anti-Semitic hate crimes. Yet despite his submergence in the details of local Jewish history and the intricacies of mystic belief, the narrative of the young man—who works as a columnist for the weekly journal Minut—seems to transcend its association with a particular spatiotemporal point in history. “Leeches” emerges from its entanglement with Serbian politics as a powerful postmodernist struggle with the impotence and emptiness of language.
In a self-consciously heavy-handed yet surprisingly effective attempt at realism, Albahari’s novel at once avoids all literary tropes: the narrative lacks introductory descriptions, metaphors, and even lucid structure. Presented without a single paragraph break, the story seems almost like a stream of consciousness with a better sense of direction: the narrator recounts each mystifying symbol he encounters in great detail and with nagging doubt that any one of them really means anything. His everyday cognitive meanderings gel events together, and transitions from piece to piece are quite impressively seamless.
This structure, if it can be called that, also allows the protagonist to voice various endearing and comical reactions to the increasingly confusing world he inhabits. Of a piece of hate mail made up of newspaper letters, he writes, “it was long, and I felt a begrudging admiration for the person willing to spend so many hours with all that finicky cutting and pasting, probably while wearing plastic gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints on the scissors, glue tube, and newspapers.” His straightforward yet inquisitive voice, paired with the down-to-earth yet eerily apt remonstrations of his best friend Marko—who insists that he “had dropped acid and tripped”—make for quite an enjoyable read. This amusing interplay turns out to be not so much a boon as a real necessity, once we realize that our poor protagonist will not even approach the truth behind the symbols for hundreds of pages.
As the plot develops further, however, the naïve realism of the narrative is gradually supplanted by musings on the powerlessness of symbolic language. It is no accident that the scheme the narrator eventually discovers revolves around an old Kabbalistic manuscript meant to provide directions for summoning divine forces of protection in times of need. The plan is steeped in a rich mystic tradition that gradually opens itself up for interpretation. Various numbers, figures, and names begin to take on a vague but pressing significance in the narrator’s mind. Yet each new connection drawn fails to illuminate his situation further; his paths of investigation seem repeatedly to lead to dead ends. At the same time, engulfed as he is by tracking down the meanings of various signs and symbols, his own writing in Minut turns towards a focus on the terrible condition of the Jewish population in Belgrade and his neighboring home town, Zemun. The only response he receives is in the form of hate mail and threats. He opens his door one day to find that someone has defecated on his doormat; on another occasion, he finds the remains of a massacred cat lying in a bag.
It seems natural, then, that the narrator should bemoan the condition of the written word and our ability to understand it. “No one can convince me that real life is as orderly as a novel, and that in real life everything is tidy and purposeful,” he insists. He even incorporates subtle jabs at his own style: he hears, for instance, that “writing in brief, a subject swiftly plumbed, represents the pinnacle of writing, such as what the celestial beings practice, while writing in longer fragments is a trustworthy sign of a text’s inferiority.” His narrative is marred by self-conscious nods to its own construction; he regrets choices of verbiage, expresses his desire for the text to be burnt after his death, and even insists that he “never meant to write a book.” His uncertainty about his own use of language begins to mirror his uncertainty about how to synthesize the signs he encounters into one meaningful picture, and what emerges is a strong statement about the futility of the symbol.
Thus, from a web of confusions arises a clear conclusion about the limitations of language. It is refreshing and surprising to find such a cerebral theme couched in such nakedly straightforward prose, especially given that Albahari’s construction of suspense—if long-winded—turns out to be quite exciting in and of itself. Where the narrator’s own investigations into the intricate world of Kaballah may feel, by their end, to have been pointless, it is in this very pointlessness that they find their power: they are symbols, at least, of the impotence of symbols themselves. The “book of sand” still holds some weight.
—Staff writer Antonia M.R. Peacocke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.