In Ferenc Karinthy's Metropole, a man named Budai takes the wrong flight and ends up trapped in a mysterious city in which the inhabitants speak an unplaceable dialect and the city itself seems to conspire against his escape. The novel bears the marks of Kafka, in particular Kafka's depiction of bureaucracy as an unsolvable maze, a.k.a. The Trial and The Castle. Except in Metropole, it is not a mysterious government-like organization inserting roadblocks but language — even though Budai is a linguist, he cannot unravel the peculiar dialect nor find familial resemblances to other languages — and, more importantly, the city itself blocks his path.
Roads are roundabout, never leading to the airport; shuttles cannot be found, the city blocks stretch on endlessly with no direct signage to guide him to boats or trains or other means of transportation. Geography, and specifically the geography of a large urban center, becomes a kind of prison, much like Joseph K's prosecution and land-surveyor K's village constrict them.
David Albahari's Leeches also bears the marks of Kafka, albeit not the indecipherable bureaucracy, but the Kafka of signs and over-interpretations. It's Kafka via conspiracy theory. The jacket copy plot: In Leeches, a Serbian journalist witnesses a woman being slapped on the banks of the Danube, and follows her down a rabbit-trail of Kabbalism, anti-semitism, pot-induced hazes, newspaper column rants, and obscure mathematical equations. Every signs begets yet another sign. It's paranoia, it's conspiratorial, and yet the protagonist wavers between two conflicting beliefs, often erring on the former: the connections between all these things are real and all these connections are a figment of his drug-tinted mind. In his own words: "Either everything is interconnected with everything else, I replied, or nothing is interconnected with anything."
In Leeches, the entrapments come not from external sources such as bureaucracy or a city, but from the very act of interpretation. The journalist's relentless hunt for symbols such as the triangle around a circle enclosing a smaller triangle and his conviction that the slapped woman possesses a grand meaning boxes him into a limiting framework.
Even though I chose Kafka as a leaping off point for Leeches, a number of other authors are likely candidates for comparisons. He offers Pynchonian symbols and paranoia, as well as Murakami-esque magical realism. Plus, inside the text there are references to Alice in Wonderland, Yoda, Salinger and Nabakov, among others. In addition to all those, Albahari's strongly points the reader in the direction of Borges. He does this by direct name-checking ("the infinite book of sand that Borges had so desired") as well as allusions ("I didn't know whether the whole manuscript was an account of a dream–the writer's or, perhaps, why not, mine.") But the abundance of possible influences and references leads me to feel that Albahari does an excellent job transcending his forebearers rather than merely appropriating them. He manages to accumulate enough so that what he creates is wholly new and his own.
Leeches and Metropole share another adjacency, as their language of origin shares a Eastern European border: Metropole was written in Hungarian; Leeches in Serbian. Kafka's native Czech sits atop their two countries — a nice little triptych of connected countries and novelistic ambitions. It's that proximity to the death camps that lends itself to writing about anti-semitism (as all three writers do — all are Jewish), as well as trying to parse the bewildering array of signals from the 20th century.
Leeches comes out in English in April of 2011, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac, and before I got carried away with analogies, it was supposed to be the primary focus of this post (check out Bookeywookey for more story details). But let me say this: it's a very heady, intellectual read, but simultaneously playful. In this case, it's a book that you definitely should judge by the cover — the spheres upon spheres of puzzling concepts sprouting from a transparent skull give an excellent idea of the books' interior.
Throughout the book, there are prose gems that embody in miniature the kind of metaphysical mind-play occuring in the novel:
- "Is that, I later asked the cab driver, the sound of alcohol in my bloodstream?"
- "When I knelt down, the entire room knelt with me, and when I bent my head to peer into the basket, I felt my brain touch my forehead on the inside."
- "I felt myself sinking. It was not, in fact, a real slump, but a sensation of unexpected shrinking, as if the hashish had set something off in me, a little switch that had totally changed my perspective, making me see everything from a low, bottom-up angle, as if the people and things surrounding me, and even whole realms, loomed suddenly large or, at least, unpleasantly elongated."
- "And that instant something moved in me, came unstuck inside my skin, and I felt like one of those figures they carve in India, an identical smaller figure inside each successive figure, until the last one is so small that no one notices when it steps out into the world."
There are many more examples of excellent writing in the novel, but I chose these four because they share similarities: each one describes intimate sensations that bear witness to a psychological shift. The great danger of the thoughtful novel is that the sensual details become overwhelmed by conceptual frameworks, but these are wonderful marriages of the two. Even the sensations are new — feeling like nesting dolls or sensing the shift of your brain inside your skull.
With the first two quotes, the readers senses the haziness of the consciousness of the character, a kind of disorientation, a loss of equilibrium. In the third and fourth quotes, the character change of perspective is not spelled out as much as embodied: the changing POV, with the elongated bodies seen from below, beautifully dramatizes a literal change of perspective, while the nesting dolls signals a divided self, or a self that parses itself into oblivion.
Enough — I have no more time to write. But put the book on your wish list, because it's a rewarding read.