SEPTEMBER 15, 2019
A FREELANCE WRITER based in Sarajevo, Faruk Šehić produces journalism and opinion pieces for the weekly magazine BH Dani [Bosnia-Herzegovina Days]. Under Pressure, his first book-length work of fiction, was originally published in 2004 as Pod pritiskom by the now-defunct publishing house Naklada ZORO (Sarajevo-Zagreb). It received a rapturous reception and won the former Bosnian soldier many admirers and literary prizes across all parts of what is now referred to as “the former Yugoslavia” and beyond.
Šehić’s next book, a volume of poetry called Transsarajevo, published by Durieux (Zagreb) in 2006, was greeted with further euphoria. The Croatian critic Mario Grgić, reviewing the book in Zarez magazine, was the first to describe Šehić as “predvodnika pregažene generacije,” which can be loosely but usefully translated as “Leader of The Mangled Generation.” Transsarajevo was, in fact, Šehić’s third published volume of poetry. Pjesme u nastajanju [Acquired Poems], published by Omnibus (Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina) in 2000, was followed by Hit depo, published by the cult Bosnian bookshop and publishing house Buybook (Sarajevo) in 2003.
Though these days Šehić prefers to think of himself as simply a writer, Under Pressure is unmistakably the work of a master poet. His prose is a treasury of allusion, metaphor, and simile describing his participation on the “government side” in the Bosnian conflict between 1990 and 1994. That forgotten war resulted in over 100,000 dead Europeans and created such surreal atrocities as the current failed state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, its neighbor and sectarian sibling “republika Srpska,” as well as its human survivors — the so-called Mangled Generation. This generation, born in the 1970s and growing up in the 1980s, went to war with and against their school friends in the 1990s; it now conducts what amounts to a continuing dialogue of truth with the power structures on all sides of the multi-state kleptocracy in the former Yugoslavia.
Though originally conceived and published as a collection of short stories, this English version is presented as a novel in chapters, with new episodes added but the original title retained. To set the tone for the English-language reader, the translator, Mirza Purić, offers a short introduction entitled “It’s Complicated,” which provides useful historical background for the story. What follows is a beautifully blended collaboration, nicely captured in Purić’s English prose, between the author and the whispering influences of Ernest Hemingway and Ismail Kadare.
Under Pressure begins by summarizing the Book of Genesis as “in the beginning was Eden, whence we were expelled,” wherein Šehić surveys his corner of the world before The Fall. It is a world of bright lights, summers devoted to river swimming, and a childhood that took Paradise for granted. This warm idyll is quickly destroyed two pages later when the author appears at the frontline in the Bosnian winter: “[C]harred beams are falling off roofs, sizzling in mud. We trudge up a big slope. The grass slimy with fog.” Here and throughout the text, Šehić displays his poet’s eye for the beautiful in the profane.
The reader is then introduced to secular European Muslim soldiers, unfamiliar Slavic place names, and quotes from Erasmus, Henry Miller, and the soldier-author’s favorite, Jean-Pierre Melville (who sought “[t]o become immortal and then die”). Šehić’s battles continue with a “hierarchy of things”:
5. War again
Within this hierarchy, War is episodic, fought hand-to-hand by friends against neighbors dehumanized as “autonomists.” The third chapter begins:
Zgemba is flicking bits of brain off the filo pie with his fingernail […] Five minutes ago this trench was occupied by the autonomist rebels. […] A still warm corpse is hanging over the breastwork. A burst blew half his skull off. I turn him on his back. From the inside pocket of his army jacket I take out his wallet. I look at a passport-size photograph of him. He had a receding hairline. Large melancholy eyes. With the sharp edge of the photograph I floss out bits of apple from between my teeth.
Later in the same operation, Šehić’s comrade Deba
lit a fire behind one corner of a house to dry his socks. He had left his rifle leaning against the wall at the other end of the house. The autonomists counter-attacked. They caught Deba alive and unarmed. Tied his hands behind his back with steel wire and shot him behind the shed.
Alcohol follows: “That evening, after we were relieved, we went to a kafana. We drank at the expense of the Fifth Corps, meaning for nothing.”
It is, however, with the third element in Šehić’s hierarchy, Poetry, that this novel comes alive and truly grips the reader. Quoting from his haiku diary, Šehić tells us that “morning gives us an illusion of a fresh start” and “warmth caught on the tips of my toes.” Later, his unit is advised that another comrade “had been KIA,” but this proves to be wrong:
That night they brought him down on a stretcher. He woke up from cardiac arrest. He mumbled netherwords. Our hair stood on end as we listened to the dead man talking. They took him to the rear. He died in hospital after three days. I never got to know him well. I don’t remember his face.
Though Love is listed fourth in the hierarchy of things, it is described throughout the novel with great tenderness in all its varieties. There are snatched drunken fumblings in bars, texts exchanged from the frontline with a girlfriend, an erotic encounter by a river with the same young woman. Šehić also writes about his family as refugees in very moving prose: his mother gathering watercress for a soup that must have tasted of chlorophyll but that is described as a feast fit for an emperor. His father, also recovering from injuries sustained in battle, appears like the ghost in Hamlet.
Love spills into the final part of the author’s hierarchy of things, War Again. Šehić returns to the body of an enemy combatant. “He lay on his back where we found him. Birds had eaten his eyes and the soft parts of his nose and ears. His eyelashes looked monstrous, trimming two empty eye sockets like sunflower petals bordering the pistil.” He collects a hunter’s badge pin and camo vest as souvenirs.
At home, Mum soaked the vest in cold water to wash off the blood. The water took on the colour of rotting cherry with streaks of clay, the tub was a brimming blood bath. I left the pin in the drawer as a memento. I wasn’t thinking about soldiers’ superstitions. Everything was happening to me for the first time.
Šehić’s fine eye for detail serves to aestheticize atrocity without ever fetishizing it.
Purić’s disarming English translation is a work of gentle authority that grapples smartly with a wide range of linguistic challenges. His rendering of the uneducated soldiers’ banter into robust colloquial English isn’t for the faint-hearted; some readers might find it a little too bare-knuckled. Yet, magically, this dialect renders the foreignness of the setting as at once half-familiar and dissonant. A fine example of this complex tone occurs when a soldier named Elvis appears out of nowhere to divide a cigarette among three soldiers on night-time observation duties. Somehow, a soldier named Elvis (a common name for Bosnian Muslim boys) brings the conflict within touching distance of the Anglo-American world.
Getting this magnificent book published in English has been a long battle for Istros Books — almost as long as the last Bosnian conflict itself. Indie presses that seek to publish literary fiction in translation usually rely on grant funding and private donations, in a process that resembles Pandora’s Box guarded by Schrödinger’s Cat. Repeated applications for funding were either ignored or denied by institutions that will not be named here but that should have known better. Faruk Šehić is hardly an unknown author. His work has been published in 13 European languages (including English) since he won the EU Prize for Literature in 2013. In the end, Istros resorted to raising funds for the translation and production of Under Pressure via Kickstarter. That campaign ended with unexpected and happy outcomes: oversubscribed, with record numbers of advance orders and reviews in the Times Literary Supplement and the Guardian. It is a lesson for us all, and the result was well worth the effort.
Brilliant, insightful, poetic, and breathtaking as Under Pressure is, it remains only a snapshot of this great writer’s early work. English-language readers need not fear, however, since what amounts to a follow-up novel, Quietly Flows The Una, was already published by Istros in 2016. Šehić himself has not rested on his laurels. In addition to his journalism, four more collections of stories and poetry were published between 2007 and 2018. He is currently working on a new SF novel called Cinnamon Letters, set in an imaginary Europe without borders. I can hardly wait to read that as well!