In David Albahair's newest novel, Leeches, his protagonist battles with the concept of what is trivial and what is significant in his life. A common enough problem for anyone, but for someone having gone through the political and ethnic war in the Balkans, it's more complex. The novel begins with him witnessing a random act of violence: a woman is slapped by a man. The shock of it sears him, yet it seems tame compared to the violence perpetrated throughout the region during the conflict. Now obsessed, he tries to find out who the woman is and why the incident took place.
As he takes on his search, he finds himself looking for clues everywhere. Suddenly everything has a broader meaning, and he feels enlightened to recognize signs that others ignore. Graffiti, scraps of paper on the ground, the angle of a door opening; all appear to him as related to his search. His closest friend Marko tries to get him back to reality, cautiously but clearly pointing out the flaws in his thinking. Is he suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder or is he simply paranoid? Or could it be as they say, that even a paranoid person is right sometimes?
The novel proceeds rapidly with him consulting a mathematical expert, Dragan Misovic ("you must get over your fear of math"), and Kabbalah mystics in order to piece together what he can accept as a reality. The Belgrade setting is perfect for the labyrinth of the story, as he seeks answers through old and new portions of the city, amid ruins and new construction.
In one portion of the novel, I came across what is possibly the best explanation for why people become racist, and why ethnic hatred is so prevalent. It's a lengthy excerpt but worth the insight:
"Hatred of other ethnic groups is in effect hatred of oneself...It is not the other we fear, we fear ourselves, we fear the changes the presence of others may impose. When I say that I dislike Jews, or Roma, or Croats-the list is endless-I am expressing the fear that under their influence, or under the influence of what they genuinely or symbolically represent, I will be forced to give up some of the convictions that matter to me. Their uprooting of my convictions, no matter how irrational, represents uprooting of my personality. And so...if I am not to change, they must be branded, isolated, expelled, and, if necessary, utterly destroyed."
Given that the main character is Serbian in such a significant time frame (1998), it's surprising he doesn't discuss political issues more. Or does he? Maybe it's paranoia on my part, but one character's name 'Dragan Misovic' sounds an awful lot like Milosevic. Could he be saying that he is, in fact, Slobodan Milosevic, acting like a paranoid and irrational dragon? If that may be, it would given an imagined perspective on what the war criminal may have been thinking? Albahari creates two incredibly complicated characters no matter what, who can be wildly irrational and impeccably knowledgeable at the same time.
At times, the book seemed to sink into repetitiveness, especially in the early portions when he's seeking insight from the disingenuous Kabbalah teachers. At other points, the heavy-duty mathematical theories made my eyes cross. Yet about midway, the novel is propelled forward and feels much more lean. What I took from the book was that someone who is completely lost, whether idealogically or emotionally, will cling to whatever may comfort them or give them a sense of purpose, even if it may be destructive, shallow, or illogical.
Special thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the Review Copy.