Leeches

Hardcover, 309 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $24 | purchase

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  • David Albahari and Ellen Elias-Bursac

Book Summary

In 1990s Serbia, a journalist discovers a mysterious manuscript and enlists the help of an eccentric mathematician to translate its contents; but the translation leads the journalist to see signs of anti-Semitism, which he rails against in his newspaper columns.

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Excerpt: Leeches

Leeches

 

Now, six years after the fact, I realize things might have gone differently, but back then, on Sunday, March 8, 1998, when it all began, it was impossible to imagine any other way for events to unfold. Also perhaps I made no effort to imagine something different, believed I had no choice, no choice at all, but was instead looking at the inevitable, which I could not have influenced even if I had wanted to. It no longer matters, because what was happening, whether I chose it or not, became destiny, which nothing will ever be able to change. The apple drops from the tree, red and firm, and is nearly hidden in the dense grass, but the ants, snails, and wasps find their way to it, and in the end nothing is left of the apple; the grass will right itself in time. I must be mentioning an apple now because that Sunday, six years ago, I left the house holding an apple, not a red one, true, but yellow, which I later ate, all of it, even the seeds and the stem. To be fair, I didn’t actually eat the stem, I held it between my teeth for a time, mashing and nibbling at it slowly, until it finally came apart. I always took a walk on Sundays along the Danube, no matter what the weather, in rain or the blustering kosava winds. Not even the snow stopped me. It wasn’t snowing that day though, nor was there much of a wind blowing: the clouds tumbled across the sky, the sun gleamed from time to time, then slipped again behind a cloud; all in all, it was an ordinary, though chilly, March day. I went out after lunch, at about two in the afternoon. I took the first bite of my apple when I crossed the square, and choosing the shortcut between the new high-rises, came out onto the quay. As I bit into it, the yellowish peel, dotted with golden freckles, resisted for a moment, then burst. Three drops of apple juice sprayed my face: one on the forehead, two on the left cheek. I moved my hand to brush them off, and between my fingers as I was touching my forehead I caught sight of a young man and woman standing at the water’s edge. My eye wasn’t drawn by their proximity to the river, which could be reached only by wading through the mud or hopping cautiously from stone to stone, no, it was something in their gestures that set them apart from their surroundings, as if they belonged to another world, a realm completely alien to the people strolling on the quay. Whatever it was, it stopped me in my tracks. I sat down on the nearest bench, pretending to stare off into the distance at the outlines of the buildings of Belgrade, at everything but those two people. All that was left of the apple at that point was the stem. I mashed it between my teeth, savored the bitterness, and just then, with no warning, the man slapped the woman. The slap may not have been hard; from where I was sitting it looked as if he had swung more from the elbow than the shoulder, but it might have only looked that way from where I was sitting, the angled trajectory of my gaze; the woman staggered, swayed to the right, as if she were combining the force of the blow with a lunge to evade it, then carried by inertia, sloshed back with her right foot into the river. One could clearly see how the water splashed at her ankle, how her sock soaked up the wetness, how her leg sank into the muck. The man raised his hand as if to slap her again, then dropped it, turned, and walked back to the riverbank. I too turned, but no one else seemed to have noticed anything. The man was soon on the path. He passed close by me on his way toward Hotel Yugoslavia. I watched him until he had disappeared in the crowd. Meanwhile the woman hadn’t budged: her right foot was still in the water, her body twisted, her hands at her chest. I thought she might be in a state of shock and that I ought to help, and I was ready to start down the steep slope that ran from the edge of the promenade to the riverbank when I noticed a man in a black trench coat. He was standing next to a seesaw in a playground, staring straight at the woman. To this day I am not sure whether it was the same man I ran into later, but he was why I decided not to go down to the river’s edge. Gnawing at the mashed apple stem, I knelt and pretended to be fiddling with my shoelaces. When I looked up again, the man in the black trench coat had gone. The woman had moved: she was wading through the mud, skirting the rocks, until she reached the steps that led to the promenade. She carefully made her way up, one step at a time, as if reluctant to get to the top. Between us was a small playground with a shabby little merry-go-round, seesaws, and a train tugged by a grinning caterpillar. I paused there for a moment, a group of fathers and mothers cheered on the children in the battered little green wagons and on peeling horses, and over their shoulders I watched the woman’s progress. The train had made a full circle before her head appeared. She ascended a few more steps, turned to look behind her as if she were afraid of heights, and finally stepped onto the pavement. She glanced over at Hotel Yugoslavia, then looked the other way, toward Venezia Restaurant, and just as a child began to howl when his mother took him off a black-and-white horse, she started walking in that direction. I waited for her to get ahead, then set out after her. I wasn’t thinking at all, I didn’t pause to wonder what I was up to, I didn’t say to myself that I should follow her, I simply put one foot in front of the other, and followed her. I don’t know why. I was bothered by the way she had been slapped, though I had no right to be. I knew nothing about her, or about the man she had been standing with in the water, and countless possibilities might have led to that slap, though none, in my opinion, could justify it. She walked faster down the quay, and when she got to the restaurant she began to run. I saw her get beyond the building that used to house the Harbormaster’s Office and then I too began to run, but along the other side of the building, certain that I would be shortening the distance between us. When I reached the farthest corner of the building, however, I could no longer see her. I went around to the front, peered into the gallery that had replaced the Harbormaster’s Office, looked out over the boats. She was gone. I went back to the restaurant, from where she might have gone in any number of directions while I was circling the building and checking the gallery. I was furious at myself for having made that mistake, though meanwhile insisting that I shouldn’t care one way or the other. It was not as if something consequential had happened: a slap, wet socks, silence, a chase. In the context of what was going on in the world, these were niggling details. Exactly, I thought to myself, and gave up. The next afternoon I was back at the corner of the Harbormaster’s, ready to scour the streets down which she might have escaped, having persuaded myself that she had seen me following her and that she was not running away from the horror of the slap, but from me, and that I must find her and explain my role, which was not really a role so much as the position of an involuntary extra. I didn’t run into her anywhere, of course. I glanced into two or three doorways, ventured into a yard, stopped by an open window, studied some crumbling façades: all of it pointless, I knew, but I couldn’t stop myself. I had barely slept the night before. I’d lain in bed looking at the ceiling, and every time I closed my eyes, I saw the man’s hand slapping the ¬woman’s face. I fell asleep just before dawn, and when I awoke, I was more tired than I was when I’d gone to bed. I drank my coffee and had a piece of bread spread with apricot jam. My hands felt heavy, my thighs wobbled, there was a buzz in my head, and it was clear that I would not be getting any writing done that day. I called my editor and told him not to worry, that he would get the piece in time for the coming issue. Fine, said the editor, and hung up. I lasted in my apartment until lunchtime, then went out to the quay. From the place where I’d been standing the evening before, there was nothing to see along the riverbank, at least not where the woman and man had been. I went over to the steps the woman had climbed, but found nothing there either. Several chunks of dried mud might possibly have come off her shoes, as well as a crumpled leaf resting on the highest step, however, the mud and the leaf could tell me nothing that I didn’t already know. I went across the quay, all the way down to the Venezia, and then circled back to the Harbormaster’s. If she had seen me, or if she had somehow figured out that I was following her, where might that have happened? I never came too close, and anyway there were lots of people walking along the quay and many going in the same direction as the two of us. Why would she think that I, of all people, was following her? Then I remembered the man in the black trench coat. Maybe he was the one who had drawn her attention to me? Nonsense, I thought, but the more I tried to forget the man, the more I thought of him. And later, as I walked the streets where she might have slipped by me, the man in the black trench coat was, so to speak, there with me. I went down Gospodska, Zmaj Jovina, and Karamatina streets, and the streets that crossed them. The only one left for me to explore was the street that ran parallel to the promenade, toward the Golden Oar café. Just then, as I was turning, I noticed a button on the sidewalk at the corner of Zmaj Jovina Street. Black, shiny, a winter coat kind of button, with wisps of thread still in the buttonholes, it lay by a crack that spread across the asphalt like a root. Both the woman and the man had been wearing dark navy blue or black jackets, of that I was sure, but I was also sure that the jackets had had zippers, and not buttons. Besides, the button on the sidewalk was too big for a jacket, so it couldn’t have been hers. I started off for the Golden Oar. After a couple of steps, I stopped and spun around. The button was still there, in the exact same spot. I picked it up, then noticed a little sign under it, probably written with a felt-tip pen: a triangle inscribed in a circle, and inside it, another triangle pointing the other way. I put the button down and stood up. I was baffled, I admit. Maybe it was a sign, maybe it even had something to do with the woman, but the tricky part was that the triangle was pointing in three different directions at the same time, to Zmaj Jovina Street, to the Harbormaster’s, and to the street that ran to the Golden Oar. The café, in fact, didn’t mean the end of the woman’s possible movements, even if she had gone that way, because the street ran on, by the power plant, all the way to a newly constructed apartment building. The kind of embarrassment she must have felt heals best in isolation, and if she lived there, she would have run straight across the street and into her building. It’s possible of course that she might have turned right by the Golden Oar and come out on the square that is on the way to the open-air market and the Zemun city center, but that struck me as making her route unnecessarily long, since she would have reached the center of town more easily and quickly if she had gone along the streets that fanned out from the Harbormaster’s. No one, however, was at the Golden Oar. The door was locked, the windows shrouded with curtains, the stoop littered with trash. For a moment I considered picking up each piece of trash to see if there was still another sign under it, but I soon gave up and started home. The day was drawing to a close, and I needed to work on the article I had promised the editor. These last few months I had been writing short essays and commentaries for the weekly paper Minut, and that, with the occasional literary translation, was my chief source of income. Several of my pieces had elicited quite a response from the readers, which led the editor to raise my fee, especially when the debate over my piece on the pillaging of the national museums had spilled into the rest of the press and onto television. Most of what I wrote, I should add, was not so sharply intoned, and that piece, which made my reputation, so to speak, had originated with a good friend of mine who worked at one of the ransacked galleries. The thieves, as I put it, were not criminals in the employ of some rich art lover or the black market, but rather public figures who used their connections to borrow paintings and art objects, then simply neglected to return them. I named a few names — some actors, directors of large companies and members of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, politicians and bureaucrats — and that seemed to draw attention to my column, which virtually no one had bothered to read before. Who cared about my angry tirades on ecological neglect, the lack of investment in culture, the knee-jerk predictability of juries in awarding the most prestigious literary prizes? The list of the people prepared to help themselves to things that belonged to others, things that, as I pointed out, belonged to us all, had far greater appeal. I was pleased, because the editor upped my rate, even if I hadn’t produced another story along those lines since then. The obligation to write the articles remained, however, and, like all obligations, became increasingly arduous: it used to take me fifteen minutes to write a piece, and now I would labor over the opening paragraph for an hour. 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; the piece wouldn’t sound like a cohesive whole, but rather like a series of discordant, differing positions that often contradicted themselves. That evening, however, I wrote my article without a hitch. I sat down, turned on the computer, double-clicked on my word-processing program, and began to write. At first I wasn’t sure what to write about, but then up came mud, then the river and the riverbank, the bridges, the quay, and in closing I lambasted our mindset, our traditional aversion to water, and the municipal authorities who have not embraced the fact that the Danube and the Sava rivers define our city. Not a particularly original argument, but there was a certain passion to the tone and rhythm of sentences, which gave me a special satisfaction. Also, that I wrote the piece as fast as I had written the early ones was cause for celebration. I thought about rolling a joint, but it was still early in the day for hashish, so I went into the kitchen and poured myself a little brandy. Outside it was dark. The light of the street lamps shone across the street, reflected off the traffic signs, melted into the passageways and dark entrances. Should I go back to the Harbormaster’s? Sometimes one sees things better in the dark than in the light of day. I took a sheet of paper, an old compass and a plastic ruler, and started to draw the sign I had stumbled on under the button. I used the compass to draw the circle, and then marked six equidistant points along the periphery of the circle, and connected every other point, which gave me an equilateral triangle. I measured the sides of the triangle, marked the midpoint on each side, and when I connected those points, I got a new triangle, which was facing in the opposite direction, so that its apex intersected the base of the first triangle. I stared at the geometric figure, sipped the brandy, and shook my head. If there was any meaning in all this, I was not getting it. And besides, why would it end here? There was yet another new little triangle that could be inserted inside the inner one, or, indeed, another circle, and such additions could, at least theoretically, go on forever, and nothing would change, of that I was certain. Or should I, perhaps, have been less certain, should I have been more skeptical? Again I looked at the geometric figure on the piece of paper. By placing the smaller triangle inside the larger one I had actually created four like-sized small triangles, and when earlier I had inscribed the larger triangle inside the circle, I had made three pieces in the shape of apple slices. My grasp of mathematics had always been weak, but perhaps these combinations of geometric shapes, their surfaces, or the proportional ratios had some hidden meaning? The longer I chewed on this, the more convinced I became that the explanation for the events on the quay and the woman’s disappearance lay in these mathematical relationships, and that if I were to penetrate their secret, they would lead me straight to her door. I remembered that Dragan Misovic, who had attended gymnasium with me, went on to study math and, as I had heard at the most recent alumni gathering, he was working at a scientific institute. Dragan had not come to the gathering himself, nor did he come to any of the earlier ones, and the person who had mentioned him said that no one had seen him and that apparently he lived in isolation, a kind of hermit. Winter and spring, he wore the same coat and the same shoes, though his shirt was always clean and ironed and the cufflinks polished to a high sheen. If someone came up to him, the person continued, they could never be sure whether Dragan would respond or just stare at them in silence, regardless of how long they had known each other. Sometimes, out of the blue, Dragan would start screaming at whoever he happened to be speaking with, insult them and threaten to sue them or call the police, and then only a few minutes later he would grin and offer them the mints he always carried in his pocket. I understood his passion for mints because I shared it, I remember I said at the time, but as for the rest of it, all I could do was tap an index finger to my temple and shake my head sadly. I did precisely that, and the laughter that erupted brought any further conversation about our old schoolmate to an end. I slightly knew the person who had spoken of him; I looked up her phone number and gave her a call. The darkness outside had thickened, it was night. The phone rang once. At first she said she didn’t know who I was, then claimed she had never said anything about Dragan Misovic; then, when she remembered what she had said, she said she didn’t know where he lived; when she realized I wasn’t going to go away, she suggested I look at the lists of tenants in the New Belgrade high-rises located near where there used to be an underpass. She said she ran into him there from time to time, but not since she’d moved to Banovo Brdo a few months before. This cannot be a good sign, I thought. I go looking for a person who is supposed to help me find someone, and then it turns out that, in a figurative sense, I am looking for that person, too. What kind of a world is this, in which so many people go missing? And if they are all lost, what guarantee do I have that I myself didn’t get lost long ago? If I had smoked that joint I had in mind earlier, I would understand the questions that were assailing me, but after a little brandy the only thing I felt was my head aching. I got undressed and lay down. Amazingly, I fell asleep instantly and didn’t open my eyes until nine the next morning. The sun was shining, and clouds were skittering across the sky, as if racing one another. I got up, and I looked for the piece I’d written the day before. Reading it first thing in the morning, when my mind was empty like a Zen priest’s, was the best way for me to gauge whether I’d written a decent piece the day before. A fear of water, I read at the end of the text, is the beginning of all our other fears and a source of general malaise, and until we learn to control that fear, we will be forced, like Sisyphus, to keep going back to the beginning. This was not a particularly original insight, as I said before, but the piece roused the emotions, and when I read it out loud, to feel its rhythm, my voice trembled and some of the sentences crumbled and broke. I didn’t know what to attribute such sensitivity to that morning: after all, if someone doesn’t like the river, it is not the end of the world. It struck me then that in writing about the muddy riverbank, I was actually writing about the man and the woman, about his hand slowly lifting, then swinging down fast on her cheek, and about how when she came up the steps, she was like a diver rising from the river bottom, anxious about coming up to the surface. The piece of paper with the combined geometric figure on it lay on the table. Nothing had changed, the circle was still guarding the triangles, the triangles were still silent, the apple-slice pieces held their balance on the slippery sides, the peaks pointed in different directions. Had I been at all reasonable, I would have crumpled that piece of paper and tossed it in the basket. Instead I got dressed and decided to go look for my gymnasium friend among the high-rises in the periphery of New Belgrade. But first I had to go to the Minut editorial office to deliver my article, which meant heading the other way, since the Minut office was in the center of Belgrade, but I saw nothing wrong with that, in fact it seemed to be in sync with what the triangles were suggesting. You must be mad, I said to myself in the mirror as I was shaving, otherwise why would you believe in something that has no meaning? Because nothing can exist with no meaning, I shouted over the buzz of the electric shaver, and because everything speaks to us, it’s just that we are not skilled enough to hear and understand. The face in the mirror shook its head but said nothing. I rubbed my face with lotion, combed my hair, licked my lips. I picked up the envelope with the article in it, slammed the door behind me, shoved my keys into my pocket, and dashed down the stairs. In the crowded bus I remembered that I had not given the piece a title, but pressed from all sides, surrounded by unpleasant smells and the stench of sweat, I couldn’t come up with one. Fear of Water, said the editor after he’d read the piece, there’s no better title. I didn’t like it personally, but I kept my mouth shut. You’re getting back into form, said the editor, keep this up, and feathers will fly. I had no idea what he meant, and I hoped he was not expecting me to write about a chicken farm. Of course the grim reality in which we were living didn’t give me much leeway. Today a river and the river mud, tomorrow chickens and slippery chicken shit, the day after tomorrow who knew, but as long as it was possible to write about something, and as long as Minut was willing to print what I wrote, there could be no giving up or complaining. I left the editor and went over to the accounting office. Mirjana, in Payments, was waiting for me with cash. I signed for the money, kissed her on both cheeks to the giggles of her office mates, and hurried off to the Zeleni Venac bus stop and the buses that ran to New Belgrade. The railway line no longer ran between Zemun and New Belgrade, but I knew which high-rises the person who met Dragan Misovic from time to time had meant. The minute I got to the first building I had a problem: the light in the stairwell was out, and the tenant list was hung up high on the wall above the mailboxes, lit by a feeble light that shone wanly through the glass front door, impossible to read. I had to go to the nearest newspaper kiosk to buy a box of matches, then, striking match after match, I studied the handwritten list of names. There was not a single Misovic among them. In the next high-rise the light was working but there was no tenant list. I had to climb all the way up to the top floor, the sixteenth, if I counted them correctly, reading the names on all the doors. Some of the doors, on the third, fifth, and eleventh floors, had no nameplate, so I had to ring the doorbell and ask whether a Mr. Misovic lived there. He didn’t live behind any of those doors, nor did he live in the makeshift apartment at the top of the building, adapted from rooms designed for communal use. There was a family by the name of Misovic in the third high-rise, but no Dragan among them. I rang their doorbell, just in case. A boy, about ten years old, opened the door, and when he heard my question, went to ask his mother, then returned with the news that Grandpa Dragoslav was away in Montenegro. Impossible, I said, but the boy had already shut the door. There was one more building that met the loose description offered to me, but after the possibility that Dragan Misovic might have moved to Montenegro, if he was indeed the grandfather the boy had referred to, I wondered whether there was any point in going into the third building. In I went, nevertheless, driven by the urge to be systematic in everything I did, which compels me to line up the books on my shelves in alphabetical order and arrange the plastic bags, cans, and glass jars by size. None of the other entranceways had been clean, but this last one was sickeningly filthy. Heaps of trash carpeted the floor, old newspapers were piled in the corner, cigarette butts strewn everywhere. The stench of urine hung over it all like a thick curtain. Despite the state of the entranceway, there was a framed list on the wall with the names of the people who lived there, and on it, as I struggled to hold my breath, I found the name I was looking for. Dragan Misovic lived on the eighth floor, in apartment number 42. I pushed the button to summon the elevator, but it didn’t appear even after several minutes had gone by, so I started up the stairs. When I had made it to the sixth floor, I heard the clang of the metal elevator door slamming shut a floor or two above, and the lit elevator cabin shot by me, hurtling toward the ground floor. For an instant, through the translucent glass, I caught sight of a dark silhouette. I couldn’t be sure whether the person was a woman or a man, but I was certain that he or she was wearing a cap. Not until I’d made it to the door of apartment number 42 did it occur to me that perhaps the person in the elevator had been Dragan Misovic. If he wore the same coat winter and summer, why wouldn’t he be wearing a cap on this balmy March day? It was too late, of course, for me to race down after the elevator, though I could have called it and checked whether I could detect a lingering whiff of mint. I pressed the doorbell and it announced: Ding-dong. I rang again, waited a little longer, though I knew I was waiting in vain, and then slowly, gripping the banister, I headed downstairs. About halfway down, on the fourth or third floor, the elevator passed me on its way up, dark and empty. So it goes in life, I said to the person who had run into Dragan Misovic from time to time, while some are on their way down, others are on their way up. I was thinking of the woman clambering up the muddy bank to the paved promenade, but this I didn’t say out loud. There are some things we can always rely on, the person said, adding she was especially gratified to hear that since she had moved to Banovo Brdo nothing had changed in the vicinity of the former underpass. Now at least she knew that she could go back there any time if it turned out she didn’t like life in Banovo Brdo, because there was nothing worse than going off somewhere and then, once you had decided, for whatever reason, that you wanted to go back, finding that the place you had left behind was no longer the same place that you had, in symbolic terms, taken with you. Did Dragan Misovic, I asked the person, wear a cap, and if he did, exactly what kind of a cap was it? The person said nothing. Hello, I said. No, answered the person. She didn’t remember a cap, though she might well have been wrong and his coat might have so distracted her that it prevented her from registering other details. But the cap, I said, you had to have seen it, unless it was an invisibility cap, in which case the whole person would have been invisible, the coat would have been walking by itself. But that is just how it looked, said the person, because the coat was so oversized it nearly reached the ground, and when Dragan turned up the collar and pulled his arms into the sleeves, it really looked as if the coat were walking by itself. One should keep in mind, said the person, that Zemun is a damp place, and dense fogs are not uncommon. And if Dragan Misovic was sensitive to the cold, and the person thought that he was, though she didn’t say why, then he withdrew into that coat as a turtle did into its shell. Didn’t I remember, the person asked, how Dragan was always closing the windows in our classroom, even after the teacher had opened them? As soon as the teacher turned around, the person went on, Dragan would sneak over to the window and close it, which would, of course, have all of us in stitches. I didn’t remember that, the part about the windows or the part about the stitches, but I didn’t let on, just as I didn’t know why I’d called this person again and told her how my search for our schoolmate had turned out. My guess is that I simply wanted to talk to someone, and no one else came to mind. Should I ever run into Dragan Misovic, the person said, I must certainly give him her regards, though he might not remember her.

 

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