May 2011

Christopher Merkel



Now, well past the immediate fact of reading the book, I realize, even for as quickly as I planned this piece and expected to write it, that procrastination might have been in my favor. Though I'll admit that that's a favor that procrastination does usually manage to do itself: "It no longer matters, because what was happening, whether I chose it or not [I did, for better or worse], became destiny, which nothing will ever be able to change [regardless now as far as this column is concerned]." It may not be its central theme, but Leeches, written by David Albahari and translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać, is as diaphanously about writing as anything else. That its narrator is a writer, and a culture columnist at that, made it an irresistible subject for a column on literary culture. Looking back, I wonder if it was simply a folly of hubris to think that I could weave together the various narrative threads in Leeches to produce a solid and appreciable interpretation of the book by the simple means of my own cultural experience, but, insofar as I experienced the book with that task in mind, I can't convince myself otherwise but to write until I've exhausted my conviction. Having not written my mind immediately, however, I wonder if something essential wasn't lost in the meantime. Then again, I can't now imagine this column having happened any other way.

Fortunately for me, the columnist in Leeches lets himself be distracted from his own writing by a certain manuscript, and although the books with which I distracted myself from writing on our shared story might have only the most circumstantial relevance as far as that story is concerned, there is at least the parallel of experience. What's more, regardless really, "the obligation to write my articles remained… and, like all obligations became increasingly arduous: it used to take me fifteen minutes to write a piece [unfortunately for me, almost never so], and now I would labor over the opening paragraph for an hour." It's a painful admission, but I have to come clean and make it too. The night I planned to begin this column, I let my mind wander over the possible interconnectedness between several of my other preoccupations and the struggles described in the book, "and it was clear that I would not be getting any writing done that day." If the difficulty of my process to introduce the intellectual and spiritual adventure of the columnist in Leeches isn't already painfully apparent, at least I have the solace of borrowing his words to inspire your sympathy: "I spent most of the time staring at the flickering blank screen of my computer, miserable that I had to write at all. I yanked sentences out of myself as if I were extracting molars, then raged because I couldn't link them together."

I can't, however, claim to have been under emotional stresses equal to those experienced by my counterpart, whose story takes place in Belgrade in the weeks immediately before the war in Kosovo, and who finds himself encouraged more and more by forces both internal and external to write against the corruption, racism and ethical bankruptcy of Serbian society. He also finds himself at the center of a conspiracy -- although at the outset he isn't sure if the conspiracy is at work outside of his head -- to leverage the mysteries of the Kabbalistic tradition of the Jews of Zemun, just upriver from Belgrade on the Danube, against a rising tide of neo-facism. At the beginning of Leeches, the columnist witnesses a slap, the parting gesture between a man and a woman at the shore of the river that surely struck no one else as particularly significant but that sends the columnist, who perceives something naggingly unreal in the gesture, in pursuit of the slapped woman. The columnist then pursues her onto the trail of a collection of dubiously related symbols that ultimately leaves him in possession of that certain manuscript. It's as difficult for me to describe the contents of that manuscript as it is for the columnist in the book because the contents change; but it's that very mutability, and its implications for our understanding of the nature of words and the transmission of knowledge and history, that are the intellectual crux of the novel  -- and that make the novel such an enticing subject for discussion at a venue like this one (though maybe also irritating in its tendency to remain open ended). It certainly seemed so to me as I was reading it, although I can't deny that my speculations weren't due in part to my own conspiratorial fantasies. I recognize that the sign of the slap wasn't meant for me personally. Still, that doesn't mean that Albahari didn't hide something for me in his book. "How to find the common denominator for events that belong to different categories, histories, and beliefs?" Questions like those plague me now as much as they did both myself and the columnist in Leeches as I was reading his story. The whos, whats and wheres are endless. Of course, the possibility of an absolute and essential connection between them all ("Perhaps conspiracy is not the most apt word, but none other occurs to me") isn't diminished by their seeming disparity. In fact, it obsesses me. "But I should hold to some sort of sequence, though I'm no longer sure how valid certain road signs are."

It happens that Leeches is structured as a single paragraph, just like Mathias Énard's Zone (translated by Charlotte Mandell), and anyone who has read both books can't have helped but identify the similarities between the two. Énard's protagonist isn't a writer, but he is, like the columnist in Leeches, a native of the former Yugoslavia whose cynical worldview is the direct result of the political, spiritual and ethnic conflicts epitomized by the continuing conflicts in his homeland. Both take up the forced movements of the Jewish population in the Balkans as a framework for their testaments on the present. The historical and intellectual zone of the two narrators is remarkably similar, even if they navigate it differently. That same intellectual zone also appeared to me to encompass the characters of Orhan Pamuk's The Black Book (translated by Maureen Freely), set not so far from Belgrade or Zagreb in Istanbul. The Ottoman empire never stretched as far as Zagreb, but its history is ineluctably tied to the history of the southern Slavs, and in no small way the Jewish ones. The protagonist of The Black Book begins the novel as a lawyer, but in the course of his search for his missing wife he assumes the identity and responsibilities of his wife's half-brother, a newspaper columnist who has also gone missing and whose columns (or are they the narrator's?) are interspersed with the lawyer's story. The mutability of narrative identity in The Black Book seemed to me to uncannily mirror the nature of the conspiratorial manuscript in Leeches. There were also the parallels of the maddened urban womanhunt and the cryptic literary clues. Not to mention the columnist thing.

The protagonist of The Club Dumas by Aturo Pérez-Reverte (translated by Sonia Soto) isn't a writer, but he is a book hunter and a literary detective. The goal of his hunt is to interpret the signs he reads into the manuscripts that serve as the clues he needs to foil a conspiracy to raise the devil, which isn't exactly the same as the conspiracy of the Jews of Belgrade to manifest a spiritual golem through the Kabbalah in Leeches, but the difference is just another question of categorization. Don't different mysticisms still share the pursuit of universal mysteries? In any case, The Club Dumas takes place very much within Énard's Zone, as conflict in the Mediterranean region is very much the historical background of the novel, even if war isn't its immediate backdrop. The protagonists of both The Club Dumas and The Black Book have a keen interest and expertise in forgery and its bearing on the transmission of culture, so although he may not be Slavic or culture writer himself, the book hunter in the The Club Dumas is equatable with the columnist in Leeches by means of the simplest principle of mathematical transitivity. Book hunter equals lawyer-cum-imposter columnist equals op-ed writer, and so the equation of the first and the third. The Kabbalah is concerned as much with mathematics and numerology as it is with any of its other languages, so there's that connection too. I read Leeches and couldn't shake the thought that the world's literati were united in a mystical conspiracy beyond just the act of writing but that the clues to understanding the secrets of that union were buried in their books. All I had to do was find them. The "all elements, including the slap, the mathematical calculations, the linguistic-physical structures, the migration of souls, and the revival of the union of the heavenly King and his Queen, all had to be brought into a harmonious whole." That didn't seem especially difficult despite its complexity, rather more a matter of translation: identifying the pieces and arranging their coherence based on its suitability to my situation and understanding.

I was curious then as to whether Ellen Elias-Bursać found translating Leeches to be more or less demanding given Albahari's obvious fondness for the fluidity of language and culture. His book insists on it in no uncertain terms. But did his translator insist more on preserving his meaning or the frankness of his style as a result? What kind of forgery was hers? It was at the point of that question that I realized I'd reduced all of the potentially transcendent material in Leeches to circular, self-reflexive absurdity. I hadn't even settled on an interpretation of the title. "Had the time come, I wondered, to admit that I was at a dead end, that somewhere I had taken a wrong turn and found myself on the wrong path, and the only way to change anything was to go back to square one?" So I put this off. Why dash off something off that I understood to be unconsidered. "Words are the goods that rot the fastest." The more I thought about what I'd planned to write, the more I thought that the only thing the columnist in Leeches and I shared was a column, and we didn't even share the same one. What we had in common was simply writing. Writing and the confoundingly simple question of what to make our subjects. "Yes, writing is work, I repeat that for all those who think of writing as pleasure, and when sometimes, like now, I look up and out the window into the night, I see the face of a tired man." I repeat that myself because I've been sitting in front of this flickering screen for hours and have to admit that I've enjoyed myself, despite being resigned to knowing that it would have made no difference had I not postponed writing my original mind. Just to be sure, I go back through one of my notebooks and find a triple folded brown paper napkin with “persiflage” written on it pressed between two of the pages, one page of which is dated around the time I would have been reading Leeches. I want that napkin to be the key, but I’m also committed to giving up the search when the power in my battery runs out. "Words… they never say what the speaker means for them to say, but what the listener wants to hear." I look to the left, I look to the right, and I’m relieved at the thought that no one might be listening in at all.