“Memory is the greatest liar.” – Leeches, David Albahari
For his follow-up to Götz and Meyer, Serbian David Albahari plunges forward in time to Belgrade, 1998. Another war is going on, although the nameless narrator is not directly involved, he becomes increasingly aware of the proximity of the Serbian-Yugoslavian war. Yet, instead of writing about those events, he chooses to write incendiary pieces about Anti-Semitism in a weekly column for local paper, Minut. This obsession with Anti-Semitism begins with an incident along the Danube: he witnesses a woman being slapped by a man.
He is drawn to follow her, but doesn’t find her. He continues his search day after day, until he responds to a message in the personals section that he believes was written by the mysterious woman. Instead, he is given manuscript of a book, The Well, by an old man in the same spot where the woman was slapped. After taking the envelope, he waits to read until later that evening. The first sentence reads, “A dream uninterpreted is like a letter unread.” From there, it leap frogs from historical narrative to a history of dreams to a variety of Kabbalistic exercises. He then digresses into a life devoted to finding the woman as well as figuring out the message of The Well.
He eventually finds the woman, Margareta, and becomes involved in some type of mystical relationship with her. His preoccupation with Anti-Semitism grows from its mention in the manuscript. He realizes, after searching the city for the circles and triangles and their symbolism in connection with mathematics and Kabbalah, with each time he that opens the manuscript, it changes. Throughout his process of figuring out the manuscript, he meets several people who are key characters to the novel as well as solving his mystery put forth by The Well. Meanwhile, as his essays become more provocative about Anti-Semitism, he receives threats, has human feces left at his doorstep and is kidnapped. Ultimately, he equates the struggle for identity of Jews with his own struggle for identity as a Serb.
In terms of symbolism, there is so much going on it is difficult to dismiss any of the symbols. The apple makes several appearances, along with the color yellow, the eponymous leeches, numbers, shapes, and even words and language:
Sometimes so many words are on the floor that I have to lift my feet high as I cross this sparsely furnished room from end to end. One of these days, it occurred to me, I might slip on a squashed word, fall, and lie there, buried under the detritus of language, an no one would find me until we started to decompose, the words and I, one corpse next to the others.
Not to mention the exploration of Kabbalah and Judaism. Along with the interpretation of symbols, are the ideas and images presented in his dreams, which illicit even more thought because it is delivered to him in a surreal consciousness of his dream state.
What makes all this seem less daunting is Albahari’s narrative style and the conversations he has about the incidents with his friend, Marko. Because the story is told in a conversational, quotidian style, the fact that it is a 300-page paragraph actually enhances the continuity of the tale. The pot-fueled discussions with his friend Marko add humor and a stability that serves as a touchstone for the narrator and also the reader.
Despite the focus on the Kabbalah, Judaism, numbers, shapes, words and conspiracy theories, the novel is about the loyalty to identity when another force attempts to erase it from history, the malleable use of memory and to the ever-changing aspect of language, as illustrated here:
The Belgrade Hebrew scholar Eugen Verber first elaborated on the notion of the manuscript as a living organism, which, as I just said, said Margareta, the interpreters and translators had already ascertained. According to Verber, the author of the manuscript had based the text on the Kabbalistic techinique of bringing to live nonliving matter, hence creating a golem, which had been modified in such a way that the text itself came alive, was designed to be self-sustaining but not also physically mobile. In other words, the manuscript was not a bizarre ambulatory creature, but it did possess the capability of refashioning itself, as if it were searching for the most apt structure for its meaning.
Although there are some parts of the novel that could seem too technical or informational about mathematics or the Kabbalah, Albahari manages by the ardent nature of his style to keep us locked into the story. Albahari is an inventive and exhaustive writer, not only looking at the story but what lies pulsing beneath the symbolism of the words used to tell the story. His analysis of images and signposts doesn’t scratch the surface, but scrapes the floor, walls and corners until there is nothing left for us to imagine. A read of originality, Leeches triumphs in helping the reader to see that what we know and how we know can change at any moment. And then again.