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Publication: Review of Contemporary Fiction
Author: Pinker, Michael
Date published: October 1, 2011

David Albahari. Leeches. Trans. Ellen Elias-Bursac. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 320 pp. Cloth: $24.00.

Leeches begins with its Serbian protagonist startled by the sight of a woman being slapped by a man on a riverbank, an incident he cannot explain or ignore. Witness as well to the larger calamity of the Milosevich regime in Belgrade, this unnamed hack subsists as a columnist for a local paper and generally hangs out with Marko, whose response to all problems is to roll another joint. Pursuing the slapped woman leads the writer to discover a slew of apparent signs that he seeks help to fathom, but his school classmate Dragan's abstruse mathematical hypotheses prove even more baffling. Then, out of the blue, an old manuscript falls into his hands, the tale of Eleazar, a Kabbalistic adept whose successive appearances presage some portentous event. Meanwhile, as tensions rise with a proliferation of skinheads, anti-Semitism threatens the local Jewish community. Disturbed by what he sees happening around him, the writer shares his concerns and the peculiar manuscript with a Jewish artist friend, Jasa, and his companions, whose suggestions leave him fascinated if increasingly bewildered. As his apprehension over these interwoven intrigues is aroused by further developments pointing to an underlying complex order, the writer encounters the slapped woman and, of course, falls for her. Urged on by her allure as well as her developing role in the drama in which he seems fated to star, the writer seizes upon the manuscript itself, a "living document" in which passages move, disappear, or change with a turn of the page, as the key to his self-realization. As these disparate strands knit together, the writer unexpectedly finds himself at the center of the Jewish community's attempts to defend itself against resurgent ethnic hatred. Albahari's seemingly offhand depiction of a mysterious web enveloping an unwitting, susceptible spectator is a subtle, brilliant achievement. [Michael Pinker]

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