Ana Brnabić, Serbia and the novel Leeches.

Now with craft beer. Thoughts, Jon?

I saw this article about the Serbian prime minister and remembered a book I once read.

First, the article.

Ana Brnabić: ‘I do not want to be branded Serbia’s gay PM’
, by Patrick Wintour (The Guardian)

The 41-year-old who has never been part of a political party has risen from obscurity and is working to change Belgrade’s image

The appointment of Ana Brnabić as Serbia’s prime minister aged 41 was accompanied by the sound of glass ceilings being shattered all around her.

Not only is she the first woman to take on the role, Brnabić is gay and has achieved high office without being a member of a political party.

Giving her first interview to a foreign newspaper after a month in the job, she said: “Serbia is changing and changing fast, and if you will, I am part of that change, but I do not want to be branded ‘Serbia’s gay PM’. The message we need to send is about competence, professionalism and trustworthiness” …

… She had little hands-on experience of Serbia’s unforgiving politics before becoming prime minister, a role that brings with it an imposing security detail outside her private office in Belgrade. In 2003 the then prime minister, Zoran Đinđić, was assassinated by an organised crime gang.

In her early 20s Brnabić spent six years abroad, mainly in London, from where she watched on TV as Nato planes bombed the defence ministry in Belgrade in 1999. To this day the buildings, over the road from her spartan office block, are a shell, a reminder of Serbia’s loss of Kosovo. They also highlight the dangers facing the Balkans as the west and Russia fight for strategic advantage.

I find this section interesting.

“I don’t think Serbia is that homophobic. I know that is one of the perceptions, and I understand attitudes are different in parts of Serbia. But some journalists were in a village in central Serbia where part of my family come from. They saw a couple of people just drinking beer in front of the local store and they asked them about me, and they replied: ‘Well, listen, in this part of Serbia we grow raspberries, fruit and vegetables, and we do not grow discrimination.’

“We just need to hear these kinds of people as well. The citizens of Serbia have a right not to be portrayed by a loud minority. We can have a culture where we disagree, as long as there is tolerance and no violence. We all have different views and values, but I don’t want to change people’s thinking by law.”

And finally, this.

“Joining the European community of nations is the icing on the cake, but the journey is just as important,” she said.

All of which made me think of the novel Leeches, which I reviewed here in 2011.

ON THE AVENUES: Leeches (A Book Review).

My only visit to Yugoslavia came in 1987, and it was an intensely evocative cultural experience for a young pup.

In fact, all those obscure parts of the Balkans (which include Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and the contemporary states succeeding Yugoslavia) I visited that summer seemed just as mysterious, foreboding and vaguely unsettling as previously reputed.

I had a blast.

Speaking in 1980’s geopolitical terms, the position of these nations as socialist buffers between East and West was only part of it. As a sometimes student of European history, I always recall the words of Metternich: “Asia begins at the Landstrasse,” the road leading from Vienna eastward, toward Hungary, Romania and eventually Turkey, which during its expansive Ottoman phase controlled much of the Balkans.

Metternich may have been referring exclusively to a physical sense of delineations and differences, but his viewpoint surely also was instinctive – and straight from the gut.

Irish novelist Bram Stoker felt it, too. Although Transylvania lies slightly outside the Balkans in modern day Romania, it is where Dracula reigned. In more recent fiction, it was in the Black Mountains of Montenegro that Sherlock Holmes fathered a son and gumshoe successor, Nero Wolfe, the latter returning to his birthplace in middle age to avenge a restaurateur friend’s death, and assuage author Rex Stout’s conflicted feelings about Communism.

Memories are bizarrely long in the Balkans. In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic rose to address a crowd gathered to commemorate Serbia’s defeat against Turkey in a battle fought 500 years before, and used the occasion to make a strident case for Serb pre-eminence in the province of Kosovo.

Did Milosevic release the malignant genie that Marshall Tito kept securely bottled? To western sensibilities, his nationalistic belligerence hastened the demise of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia, itself an artful geopolitical creation dating from the post-WWI peace settlement, spawning the horrendous civil war of the 1990’s.

The truth is not so facile, but Americans, insofar as we know or care about modern Serbia, persist in seeing it as somewhat more sinister than other darkly cantankerous locales in Europe, if not exactly as inexplicably dangerous as Rwanda or Somethingstan.

In his novel Leeches, Serbian writer David Albahari offers a meandering, maddening but ultimately fascinating examination of the prevailing mood in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital city, in 1998.

There was a lull, then. The almost medieval violence of the 90’s had gradually tapered owing to the combatants’ exhaustion and belated international intervention. Yugoslavia was irrevocably shattered, and Serbia, charged with instigation and aggression, was beset with sanctions and isolated from the world.

But because the future of Kosovo remained unresolved, a final act in the tragedy lurked just over the horizon, and worst of all, in 1998, everyone knew it. The scene in Belgrade was one of tension, expectation and feigned normality. Accordingly, to reinforce the claustrophobic anxiety, Albahari’s story unfolds in the form of a continuous, uninterrupted, 309-page-long paragraph. It is a very effective device.

Loitering along the Danube River quay in Belgrade on an entirely unremarkable day in 1998, the nameless narrator, who has no visible means of support save for a topical weekly column he writes for one of several rambunctious local newspapers, suddenly witnesses a man slapping a woman.

Within days, this seemingly trivial episode obsesses the narrator, drawing him into an ever-expanding network of otherwise unconnected events and people, to which he expends much time and energy ascribing order and purpose to what others would see as random chaos.

He meets an eccentric mathematician from school days, and later falls in with the city’s few remaining older Jewish residents, including the daughter of one, for whom his sexual attraction is frustratingly unrequited.

He discovers a mysterious old water well, documented in a strange book with magical pages that seem to change with every reading, a volume filled with Jewish history, Kabalistic theorems and the recipe for an actual Golem, the latter to be called upon to assure deliverance from anti-Semitic persecution.

He suffers a requisite beating at the hands of skinhead-like nationalists as internal ruminations pass from his fevered brain to publication in the newspaper, where they inspire an angry civic reaction.

As the story progresses, and the labyrinth of conspiracy grows ever more complex, the narrator smokes steadily increasing quantities of genuine Balkan countryside marijuana with his only true friend, Marko. They meet often to get high and to lament the passing of the wonderful Serbian stoner era, now lost as the preference of young urbanites to lubricate their souls turned to valium, not ganja.

Every session with his new Jewish friends ends in a staggering brandy drunk, and as the pages turn and the never-ending paragraph trudges ahead, the conspiracies overlap and multiply amid the escalating paranoia and haziness.

The narrator’s newspaper columns grow ever more provocative as he speculates in print as to exactly why the country’s going to shit – and, non-metaphorically, literal defecations constantly turns up on his doorstep, courtesy of the vengeful thugs now stalking him.

All the while, the dim outlines of impending dénouement become ever more vivid, because as hindsight informs us, within a year of the novel’s conclusion, Serbia will be bombed by NATO on the pretext of saving the Kosovars from the fate of the Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica. Numerous Serbs will be charged with war crimes, to be pursued until the present day, and Milosevic himself will fall just short of emulating Hermann Goering by dying (of heart disease) before the court’s verdict is delivered.

There finally comes a juncture where Marko disappears. It will be another hundred pages before it becomes clear why, because in the end, the conspiracy actually is real, and more extensive than the reader could have imagined. A brutal murder occurs, the fix is in, and the narrator – used and abused by all and sundry – finally realizes he’ll be blamed for it.

He hops the next Budapest Airport shuttle out of the country and into exile. Following the example of Serbia’s history, the shelling soon to follow in 1999 will purge the guilt and prime the next round of anger, but the narrator will be long gone, exiled to an unnamed place, fearing his heart has died.

Maybe it has.