The Speaking Cure

by David Homel
ISBN: 1553650190

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A Review of: The Speaking Cure
by Steven W. Beattie

The shifting moral ground of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia is the subject of David Homel's novel, The Speaking Cure, which tells the story of a psychoanalyst named Aleksandar Jovic who is recruited by the government to oversee a distress centre for traumatized soldiers returning from the front lines. It is a weighty subject, and to Homel's credit he doesn't try to simplify matters by reducing the conflict to a Manechaean separation of good and evil, heroes and villains. In Homel's conception the burden of guilt for the atrocities of the civil war is shared by both sides, and practically everyone has at least some blood on their hands. It is a daring vision, and if the novel is not entirely successful in its execution, one can't help but admire the attempt.
Homel depicts Belgrade in the 1990s as a place with a thriving black market, trading everything from Italian suits to bananas, which, not being native to the country, are expensive and have become a status symbol of sorts: "Which is what explained those fashionable young ladies in their clinging, flame-coloured dresses and push-up bras indolently strolling the boulevard, a banana peel dangling nonchalantly from one hand, our version of the Cartier watch." Jovic has a particular interest in the black market, since he runs an illegal private practice out of his home. He finds it an easy matter to excuse his traffic in under-the-counter therapy:

"Is the black market always a bad thing? I had no trouble justifying my participation in it. If the instruments of war, the means of murder and maiming, could be sold, often right out on the street, why shouldn't there be a counter-market in the practice of curing? Or, if not curing, at least the art of living with the damage done?"

The war casts an inexorable shadow over everyone and everything in the novel, rendering morality a mutable commodity and blurring the lines between acceptable and unacceptable practices. "With the years of endless conflict in Croatia and Bosnia, and on our own streets," says Jovic, "the war had devoured everything. Every emotion, every energy. It was impossible to think your way past it, outside its evil framework, to a time when it didn't exist."
One of Jovic's patients is Tania, a forensic scientist by training, who has been recruited by the government to work with the "Bone Brigade", a group of soldiers who exhume the corpses of dead Croats from massacre sites and systematically transform the bodies into Serbs, to make it appear as though the Muslim Croats were responsible for the massacres. Tania explains her methods with almost clinical detachment and dispassion:

"Actually it's pretty elementary. You switch the religious medals. You take off the Roman crosses and put on Orthodox ones. You plant a few icons on them. Or false papers, you know, ID cards, but you have to make sure the original bearers are dead. Or photos from some place in Serbia. Or move their rings: Croatian men wear their wedding rings on their left hand."

Tania's account seems fantastic; after she and Jovic embark upon an adulterous affair, he decides to write a case study based on her experience. But a colleague who edits an academic journal of psychiatry balks at the notion that such a tale could ever be published unless it was done in the guise of fiction. When Jovic finally does find someone willing to publish the book, the publisher calls it a "story" with a "fabulous fantasy effect." It is left to Tania to explain that the story is "real in the most banal sort of way."
One doesn't have to look very far to recognize the symbolic heft of the themes Homel is exploring: The distance between reality and the politically sanctioned fictions that proliferate as a result of government censorship and propaganda; the country as a gigantic lunatic asylum; the therapist trying to heal wounded minds and souls even while he is unaware of the true purpose of his assignment. If there is a degree of triteness here, particularly in the metaphor of war as an asylum, he can surely be forgiven: Joseph Heller covered this ground in a blisteringly satirical way in Catch-22, but Heller's tone was comedic, whereas Homel plays his material more or less straight; he is closer in spirit to Graham Greene than to Heller.
Greene is perhaps The Speaking Cure's most immediate and significant literary ancestor. Moral ambiguity was his stock in trade, and in novels such as The Quiet American he examined the confluence of the personal and the political in much the same way Homel does here. This is lofty territory, and for most of the first half of The Speaking Cure Homel acquits himself admirably. The pace of the novel falls off in places in the second half, where the focus shifts to the government's censorship of Jovic's "novella" and his subsequent arrest and imprisonment. Some of this material goes on too long, and the final scene in the novel seems too neat for a book that deals so insistently in ambiguity and relativism.
But if its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp, The Speaking Cure is nevertheless a powerful reckoning with the moral landscape of war. When Jovic and his driver discuss the origins of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, there is the uncomfortable notion that they could easily be discussing another, more recent conflict in the Persian Gulf:

"So why are we having this war? Why don't we just stop it?"
"I don't know why we started it. Because we could. Because we were bored. And now that it's started, well, you know how hard it is to stop."

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