"Leeches" by David Albahari [25 Days of the BTBA]
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next two weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Leeches by David Albahari, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Why This Book Should Win: For seven reasons.
Today’s post is by Vincent Francone, a regular contributor to Three Percent, and an author, reviewer, and reader for TriQuarterly Online.
My original intention was to write 25 reasons why Leeches by David Albahari should win the Best Translated Book Award. Though it is a damn good book, I could not think of 25 reasons. Numerology plays a part in the strange, gripping story, so I decided to take 2 and 5 and combine them into 7. So I give you 7 reasons why Leeches by David Albahari should win the Best Translated book Award:
1. Because everyone loves a 309 page paragraph.
(Seriously, despite the absence of paragraph breaks, the prose is fluid, breathless, and engaging. Albahari’s story flows from event to event not turning back onto itself, as in the novels of Bernhard, but pushing forward and moving the story of one man’s descent into the surreal underworld of anti-Semitism and conspiracy further away from reality, taking the reader along the many twists and turns.)
2. Because Ryan Gosling made anti-Semitism sexy.
(As mentioned above, the plot of Leeches revolves around anti-Semitism. The narrator witnesses a seemingly random event—a woman getting slapped—and from that moment becomes embroiled in conspiracies both real and imagined, largely dealing with the opposition to Serbia’s Jews, all while the neighboring cities swell with the nationalism that would erode Yugoslavia. By focusing on a different aspect of ethic, um, pride other than the Serbian campaign of the 1990s, Albahari creates a story that seems larger than the war itself. I am not one to look at the author’s biography as a means of understanding a work of fiction, but knowing that Albahari is of Jewish descent allows one to analyze Leeches, and its focus on anti-Semitism, as a synecdoche for the horror of ultra-nationalist politics.
As for the Ryan Gosling reference, well . . . he’s everywhere these days, and very much one of the top Googled public figures. So maybe his performance in The Believer will somehow rub off on Albahari’s novel, garnering the book some additional attention. [And while I’m at it, I’d like a billion dollars.])
3. Because Dan Brown proved conspiracies = $.
(The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons got people reading. I have not read these books [the movies sufficed] but I assume the reason for their popularity rests in the conspiracies Brown weaves over the course of several pages. Assuming I am correct, Leeches ought to make bank. There are many conspiracies and interconnections that boggle both the narrator and the reader. And, like that damn Da Vinci book, there are strange symbols. Well, one really—a triangle and some circles. When the narrator tracks down an old friend to assist with the decoding, the answers are not the illuminating sort, but rather answers that only raise more questions. Sorry to keep harping on poor Dan Brown, but unlike his pot boilers, the conspiracies, Kabbalist mysteries, numerological and symbolist deconstructions do not shed much light. The technique is less about immediate rewards and more about creating a tone of uncertainty and fear.)
4. Because a Serb has not won in some time.
5. Because there’s dope.
(The narrator of Leeches smokes a lot of hash and marijuana, leading readers to wonder about his reliability. The idea of the unreliable narrator is nothing new, but Albahari’s narrator begins to appear particularly unreliable as he sees signs everywhere, often after consuming a large amount of weed. The reader cannot help but wonder about the state of the narrator’s mind. Sure, there are validations of his increasing paranoia, but even these very chilling events are tinged with a sort of skepticism that comes from other characters [the narrator’s best friend appears rather blasé about it all] as well as the story itself, which is rather outrageous. Maybe the paranoia is justified? Sure, there are very real reasons why the narrator ought to fear for his well-being [threatening graffiti, angry letters, a late night beating] but as the reader walks in his shoes one can’t help but ask: is some of this just drug-induced paranoia?)
6. Because the violent break-up of Yugoslavia has not gotten enough fictional representation.
(This can be debated, of course, but to this reader the events of the 1990s Yugoslav Wars don’t get enough attention. Or, I should say, they may get plenty of attention—I am sure there are scores of novels and poems on this subject that I do not know of—but these books don’t seem to land on the BTBA list. Nothing against the great writers of the French language, but don’t we think it’s time to look at another side of Europe?
Anyway, this book, as stated above, is not the In the Land of Blood and Honey realist portrait of life during wartime that one might expect. Rather, the fractured reality that consumes the narrator seems to best mirror the reality of such unimaginable atrocities. The events of Leeches take place one town over from the real war, yet the characters don’t seem concerned—they are too busy getting high and falling into Kabbalist rabbit holes. From this skewed [lack of?] vantage point, Albahari constructs his compelling story, one that may not directly focus on Serb aggression and nationalism but, nonetheless, is informed by the events of the 1990s.)
7. Because I say so.
(Nothing more to add. Just give Leeches the award.)