||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
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
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."