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The Speaking Cure

by David Homel

Shot through with gallows humour and a brand of wartime slapstick, David Homel’s The Speaking Cure communicates a subtle and powerful anti-censorship message while blurring already shifty lines between right and wrong, victim and oppressor. Smoking dumpsters rife with raw graffiti, gypsy street musicians philosophizing next to kebab kiosks, a decrepit man staring vacantly through the window of his underground cell – Alexandar Kovic stumbles upon them all in his beleaguered city.

The city is Belgrade in the 1990s, and Alex, the narrator, is a 48-year-old Serbian psychologist. An atheist and a dissident (in thought if not in deed), he is also married – a bond based more on Pear William liquor than emotional intimacy – and the father of a teenage boy suffering from a debilitating kidney disease. The psychologist’s life takes a fickle, then a volatile turn when he becomes romantically involved with one of his patients, Tania, a forensic scientist who’s had some shady dealings on the war front. This transgression – of the patient/doctor relationship as well as the husband/wife bond – serves as metaphor for Homel’s exploration of the costs of civil war on a country’s psyche.

Sounds like heavy stuff, and it is, but what makes The Speaking Cure a success is its wry, unaffected tone. Alex’s dry, often fatalistic voice is infused with black humour and a bittersweet quality reminiscent of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s absurdisms. The empty-eyed refugees Alex encounters at the distress centre where he works are never funny, but they are offset by the antics of the two Dragans, specious grad students Alex suspects of being government spies.

Alex is a learned, compassionate man, which makes him a pleasant narrative companion, but also one who asks some tough philosophical questions. How to survive the doublespeak and shrouded violence of war and speak hard truths? An empathetic and multilayered story of suspense, The Speaking Cure beautifully articulates “the art of living with the damage done.”