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David Albahari: Pijavice (Leeches)

Our unnamed narrator is a writer. He writes articles, often contentious, for a magazine called Minut. For example, one article which received a lot of attention was about various celebrities who “borrow” items from national museums and then never return them. He also translated and is currently translating a Pinter play.

At the start of the novel he is in Belgrade, near the river. He sees a man and a woman by the river’s edge. Suddenly the man slaps the woman, resulting in her stepping forward into the mud. He looks as though he is going to slap her again but then walks away. Our narrator is thinking of intervening, when he sees another man watching the scene, a man in a black trenchcoat. This causes him to hesitate. Meanwhile, the woman walks off. He starts to follow her but loses her. He returns the next day to the scene, to see if he can find her but has no success. While walking away, he sees a button on the ground. Under the button, there is a strange sign, a circle with two equilateral triangles inside it, one the right way up, one upside down.

He decides to contact a former fellow student, Dragan Mišović, who was a mathematician. The problem is that he does not know where he lives and has learned that he has become both a recluse and decidedly strange in his behaviour. Eventually, he does find where he lives and, as he is not there, leaves a letter for him. The next day he finds a letter from Dragan, which is full of abstruse mathematical theories as to the meaning of the symbols, of which our narrator (and the reader who is not a mathematician) cannot understand a word. Indeed, Dragan is highly critical of our narrator. What could possibly be hiding in such a simple geometric figure, the letter went on, except the futile desire to make reality different from what it is? Reality is reality, and no path can bring one to its other side, he comments.

Our narrator sees the woman again in the street but again he loses her, this time when she disappears into an art gallery. However, gradually, the story changes and the woman becomes increasingly irrelevant, though the man in the black trenchcoat will be seen on several occasions, adding to our narrator’s increasing paranoia. The story now becomes one of conspiracy and paranoia, of the Kabbalah and abstruse mathematics, of anti-Semitism and numerology, all, in part, fuelled by the marijuana that our narrator and, in particular, his friend, Marko seem to smoke on a large scale. (Albahari initiated the first formal petition to legalize marijuana in Yugoslavia).

Various trails lead him to the Jewish community in Belgrade. The narrator is not Jewish, as he tells us several times, but Albahari is. He finds that their knowledge of both the history of the Jewish community in Belgrade, particularly the Jewish community in Zemun, now a suburb of Belgrade, as well as their knowledge of the Kabbalah are integral to his investigations.

What are his investigations? Even he is not sure. The lady who was slapped seems to have faded from the picture. The man who slapped her may or may not be the man whose body was found in the river. The mysterious signs, which leads him on all sorts of strange trails, including the history of Belgrade, the history of the Jewish community and complex mathematics, as well as contacts from other mysterious figures, are clearly key, though key to what is even more difficult for him to grasp than for the reader. Mysterious manuscripts, phone calls and cryptic messages, as well as people who may or may not be following him, are all regular occurrences.

One factor, however, is clearly important and that is the strong current of anti-Semitism in Belgrade. The narrator writes an article for Minut on the topic and suffers for it. He is beaten up and threatened, urine and faeces regularly appear in his doorway and he receives threatening letters and graffiti on his door. Other members of he Jewish community also suffer. The Jewish cemetery is desecrated, with anti-Semitic slogans scrawled on the tombstones and a Jewish art exhibition is attacked. All of this brings the narrator closer to the Jews he meets. Incidentally, the title of this book comes from the fact that the Jews of Belgrade, as those of other cities in other countries, were forbidden to practice certain professions. However, leech collection and sale was open to them and as there was a huge demand for leeches during that period, to the extent that leeches almost became extinct, Jews did corner that market.

Our narrator realises that all of these issues he now seems to face need some sort of solution. He looks at three ways of finding a solution. The first is mathematics. Is there a mathematical solution? Dragan Mišović continues to help him and, though much of what he says is above our narrator’s head and above the average reader’s head, he does offer some kind of way out. The second is the signs and numerology. Do the numbers mean something, as the Kabbalah experts claim, and do the signs mean something and, if so, what?

Finally, there is religion. The essence of everything is contained in some aspect of the Kabbalah he accepts but how does he get to it? The Kabbalists tell him that evil had been created so that the very act of overcoming it would bring people to understand the oneness of God. His Jewish friend Margreta says the lunacy of evil is growing, and there is nothing left for us but to take on the fight with evil, not just individually, each in our own heart, she said, but more broadly, just as the sons of light battle the sons of darkness. Even though I must accept the possibility that everything is interconnected, that nothing exists in isolation, that everything is part of a whole, which means that what I don’t know and don’t understand, the questions and dilemmas I am up against, it is all too much for him. His friend Marko is much more of a pragmatist. The greatest secret, Marko once said, is that there are no secrets.

Our narrator says Life, to put it mildly, is chaos, a chaos that is not without an order of its own, I agree, but that order is so complex, so tangled, that even with the best of intentions we cannot divine it as order, which, more or less, sums up this novel. The style is definitely chaotic – no paragraphs and long, confused sentences. Our narrator’s life is chaotic. The whole events last some nine weeks and he is writing six years later when, like Albahari himself, he is well away from Serbia. But it is this chaos that makes this novel so interesting. Life in Serbia in that period (early 1990s) was chaotic and was also distinctly unpleasant, particularly with the rampant anti-Semitism. Albahari superbly shows us a society, a country, where disorder, the unexplained and the nasty prevail, well within the East European tradition of Kafka and other writers of that region.

Publishing history

First published 2005 by Stubovi kulture
First English translation Harvill Secker in 2011
Translated by Ellen Elias Bursać