The 13th day of student protests. Bright sunshine. Rock music blares from the square in front of the Plato bookstore. Students sit around tables, stand around talking. A couple of students unroll a banner.
On corners all along the main pedestrian street stand groups of policemen. Or they buy ice cream. Or, as the day stretches on, they sit at restaurant tables under sunscreens.
Near the Hotel Moskva, Gypsy children play naked in a fountain.
In the newspaper Danas, part 16 of the series The Road to Dayton, Ričard Holbruk’s book in translation.
Žarko and I sit under big plane trees, drink lemonade, and write.
A young man with a knitted cap approaches and offers vegetarian cookbooks for sale.
Is it possible to be a Serb and a vegetarian? I ask.
Yes, he says. We are opening a vegetarian restaurant near here in less than a week.
Who is we?
Members of the Hare Krishna community, he answers.
Did you know, he asks, that of all languages Serbian has the most Sanskrit words? One professor found 1500 of them. Another 3000. Which makes Serbian the closest to the pure original language.
Is that good? I ask. What do you think about the war in Kosovo?
It’s Mafia controlled, he says. The Albanian Mafia lives by selling drugs, and they are driving the Serbs out. The Freemasons are involved as well, continuing the work they began in Bosnia.
That’s bullshit, I counter. I wrote a book about Freemasonry. You’re parroting the old conspiracy theory. People explain their economic downturns, their civil wars, their shocking lack of control, by dusting off The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In El Salvador it became a bestseller, as it is here. But it’s a patent fake.
No, he says, it’s true. The American dollar has a Masonic sign on the back.
Yes it does. The design is by Benjamin Franklin, who found Freemasonry a fine vehicle for enlightened international cooperation.
No! Many of the Freemasons are doctors. They arranged to get Tito into a hospital where they could kill him. There are hospitals all over Europe where doctors kill people. 45% of all the world leaders are connected to the Mafia.
I used to work as an industrial designer, he says in conclusion. But now I live a life devoted to spiritual pursuits like selling books. To give people the truth is a fine thing.
The afternoon heat builds. The policemen disperse.
Last night I finished reading David Albahari’s novel Leeches (Pijavice, 2006), translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac (2011). This morning, thinking about the novel’s protagonist who is drawn into a bizarre conspiracy against conspiracies, I remembered the experience in Belgrade with Zarko (recounted in our Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary).
Albahari’s character narrates his story from a later date and from exile, recollecting his life during the unsettled 1990’s in Belgrade. A pot-smoking columnist for a Belgrade newspaper, he was drawn by conspiracists into an elaborate Kabbalistic ritual meant to counteract the forces of evil.
By indirection and historical detour, through a focus on a peripheral set of figures (the Jewish citizens of Zemun who are increasingly blamed for the catastrophes of a disintegrating state), and with a brilliant psychological portrait, Albahari’s novel does what no journalist could possibly accomplish, letting a reader feel what it felt like to live through those events in that place.