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Friday, December 23, 2011

Thoughts on "Leeches" by David Albahari and "The Third Reich" by Roberto Bolano (by Liviu Suciu)

Order Leeches HERE

"The place is Serbia, the time is the late 1990s. Our protagonist, a single man, writes a regular op-ed column for a Belgrade newspaper and spends the rest of his time with his best friend, smoking pot and talking about sex, politics, and life in general. One day on the shore of the Danube he spots a man slapping a beautiful woman. Intrigued, he follows the woman into the tangled streets of the city until he loses sight of her. A few days later he receives a mysterious manuscript whose contents seem to mutate each time he opens it. To decipher the manuscript—a collection of fragments on the Kabbalah and the history of the Jews of Zemun and Belgrade—he contacts an old schoolmate, now an eccentric mathematician, and a group of men from the Jewish community.

As the narrator delves deeper into arcane topics, he begins to see signs of anti-Semitism, past and present, throughout the city and he feels impelled to denounce it. But his increasingly passionate columns erupt in a scandal culminating in murder. Following in the footsteps of Foucault’s Pendulum, Leeches is a cerebral adventure into the underground worlds of secret societies and conspiracy theories."

"Leeches" is the first David Albahari novel I finished - I tried Gotz and Meyer a while ago but it did not hook me so I marked it for later. The novel has a very striking beginning that takes you in and from there it proceeds in a continual "whole book as one paragraph" manner. At times there is a feeling of being overwhelmed by the words as they seem to come in a deluge, so you need to put the book down and reflect on what you just read.

The book's main conceit is in the grand tradition of conspiracy theories, though of the literate Eco kind not the junky Va Dinci (!) ones, but its Eastern European setting and the author's superb literary skills - and of course the translator's skills as the novel reads very naturally and smoothly - kept me interested despite my "meh" feelings towards this genre.

While a relatively slim 300 pages length, Leeches packs quite a lot of stuff and it reads like a book twice its size. There is action and drama and quite a lot of tense moments while the ending is very good. If there was one small niggle, I would have loved the book to be present tense rather than be narrated from six years later as a little suspense (eg the final outcome for the narrator) is lost.

Overall a dense but very rewarding read and a highly recommended novel of 2011.


"On vacation with his girlfriend, Ingeborg, the German war games champion Udo Berger returns to a small town on the Costa Brava where he spent the summers of his childhood. Soon they meet another vacationing German couple, Charly and Hanna, who introduce them to a band of locals—the Wolf, the Lamb, and El Quemado—and to the darker side of life in a resort town.

Late one night, Charly disappears without a trace, and Udo’s well-ordered life is thrown into upheaval; while Ingeborg and Hanna return to their lives in Germany, he refuses to leave the hotel. Soon he and El Quemado are enmeshed in a round of Third Reich, Udo’s favorite World War II strategy game, and Udo discovers that the game’s consequences may be all too real."

The Third Reich is quite a disappointing novel by Robert Bolano as the "main thread" of the novel dealing with Udo's narration of his Costa Brava eventful sejour is excellent, but the Third Reich game interludes are utterly distasteful not to say obscene for reasons I will not enter into great detail, as they are obvious. WW2 was a catastrophe that cost uncounted lives and blighted even uncounted more and to make a game of it is just disgusting. War porn which is not even serious but a game. So 2/3 an A book and 1/3 that is not even F, but just utter disgusting junk.


Jason Doell said...

Unfortunately, you misunderstand the game 3rd Reich. It is not a game of the destruction caused by WW2 nor a glorification of anything Nazi but rather a strategy game that thousands of guys play. There is a whole genre (Squad Leader, Twilight, 3rd Reich, Days of Decision etc etc.) that are still played today as board games. For someone not familiar with this, fine, we do not expect everyone to be interested but to equate this with war porn is utterly incorrect. I am sadly disappointed with your comments with what is usually a very good site to come to for Sci-Fi reviews.

Liviu said...

I am sorry, having a strategy game based on the recent suffering on millions is morally wrong in the nth degree at least today; maybe 200 years for now, who knows, as I would not find say a game based on the Napoleonic wars offensive.

But this is very offensive to me as my family has been impacted quite heavily by WW2.

Liviu said...

And to add one more thing - modern wars at least are total wars so having something where you move armies around without consideration for the "home front" - eg Germany sustained their war effort by essentially looting on the biggest scale possible and running their mil-industrial complex with millions of slaves from the occupied teritories (including French, Poles, Czechs..) and so did later the USSR - is truly war porn as it has no real significance.

So when Udo plays the "german offensive" of 1941, does he also play, "catch the escaped slaves"?

If no - war porn; if yes,well,...

Brett Ellis said...

I'm confused. Having a strategy game based on the recent suffering of millions is morally worng, but having one based on the suffering of millions 200 years ago is fine? What's the difference? Your family not impacted, only other people's?
Of course, the game is not based on the suffering of millions, but the military strategy involved. If that is war porn to you, then fine, but you do not occupy the moral high ground you think you do.

Liviu said...

As I do not want to get into a rant, I will reiterate that I find any WW2 strategy game offensive, but if you choose to play one, it's your choice so to speak and i do not hold an opinion for or against you as a person based on that.

I remember someone essentially repeating my position here and me taking your position as for example in reading books that are not politically correct like say Tom Kratman or John Ringo and I reiterate my opinion that reading (or playing) something that others find offensive is not something i want to judge on or be judged by.

So the moral high ground is not against the person reading and enjoying (or playing) Third Reich but against the book and of course feel free to disagree as i disagree with someone that holds Watch on the Rhine say in contempt

Liviu said...

And as for French Revolution/Napoleonic wars vs WW2, the main difference is that everyone involved would have been dead for ages anyway now and the respective events have been diluted to be only a ripple in the present.

For WW2 a lot of the dead (say children) could have been easily alive today, while the events have strongly influenced the lives of many others living including me for example

I like thought experiments and i offer you one - suppose that somehow Caesar would have lost at Alesia and then Vercingetorix would have go on with the united tribes and conquered Rome, built a civilization that lasted another 500 years and from which a a major part of the dominant world civilization descended culturally some 2100 years later too.

What would Caesar image be - I bet it would be of a Hitler-like monster who killed 1 million Gauls (as he bragged in his memories after all) and tried but failed to extinguish the vibrant civilization, blah, blah.

Well history happened differently and Caesar was quite admired for a long time and even today to a large extent.

So morality (like most anything else but the physical universe) is very contingent

Jason Doell said...

You are correct in that these games are thought experiments, just more recent. It is more akin to chess on steroids, with thousands of variables rather than a glorification of war. Is this not what science fiction though is all about. I grew up in an atmosphere where reading science fiction was akin to worshiping the devil. These people made snap decisions without knowing or wanting to understand the subject matter. All we ask is that you have an open mind and do not condemn that which you do not understand or which you have no interest. You read and enjoy Sci-fi, some of which is morally objectionable and you mentioned a few. I am sure you do not condone slavery or mass murder, which sci-fi is rife with, but you can enjoy the telling (or in my case the playing) of a particular subject. Read Guy Sejer's book "Forgotten Soldier" and try not to empathize with the German soldier in WWII while still condemning what the system represented. I am sure over a glass of wine we could rationally talk about our views but unfortunately, we have only this. I may disagree but I will continue to read your reviews as I (mostly) agree with you.

Liviu said...

You are very right about sff;

one of my favorite quotes is from Adam Roberts and it goes like this:

“A realist writer might break his protagonist's leg, or kill his fiancee; but a science fiction writer will immolate whole planets, and whilst doing so he will be more concerned with the placement of commas than the screams of the dying.”

But there is something "unreal" about most sff versus the all-real WW2 which as mentioned still reverberates with me directly


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