The Una is a 212 km long river that winds its way across Bosnia and Herzegovina, forming at times, a natural boundary between that country and Croatia. Bosnian writer Faruk Šehić’s EU Prize winning novel, Quiet Flows the Una, allows the passage of this river – gentle and violent as the seasons turn – to carry the narrative of his burdened protagonist as he seeks to heal his troubled past.
“Here at the beginning, it would make sense for me to go back to our origins: to the water we’re made of and the swirling currents of the underwater epic, where I’ll hearken to the anarchist trout and their fulsome chatter. You’ll find out later why the trout are anarchist. ‘Fulsome chatter’ is Rimbaud, I’ll be a hypnotized boat, and the rivers will carry me wherever I wish.”
Although the term is frequently evoked, rightly or wrongly, this is a novel that can truly be called hypnotic in the absolute sense of the term. The narrator has surrendered to the direction and influence of a fakir during a sideshow hypnosis session, allowing his thoughts, reflections and memories to be pulled to the surface and recounted under the hypnotist’s guidance. Our Bosnian protagonist, Mustafa Husar, is a haunted man, his wounds run deep – the war and his role in it have sundered the continuity of his existence. To bridge the rift between the leisurely days of his youth and his new life amid the shattered remnants of a world where he is trying to find his adult footing, he knows that he must uncover and bring to light the dark memories that rest uneasily beneath the scars that mark his face and body. By revisiting the bleak, brutal years of the Balkan wars – facing the crimes he witnessed and those he perpetrated – he hopes to find some measure of redemption.
The progress of this novel is not chronological. The narrative, which reads like an extended prose poem, dips in and out of seasons; moves between scenes of idyllic childhood reverie, accounts of wartime brutality, and images of postwar destruction and loss. The river is a persistent presence, it carries the the story. Its relentless flow and the creatures, both natural and supernatural, that inhabit its green waters form the landscape and the mythology by which the young protagonist learns to understand himself. Along the way, his journey is accented with literary and pop culture references – he is a budding poet, he is an earthbound spaceman. And even when the war takes him away from his hometown and the river on which it is anchored, nature is never far from his imagination. Here, for example, his account captures the fragile coexistence of faint beauty and coarse ugliness:
“The sun shone through the leaves covered with transparent-green aphids. It rarely reached the ground, where brown leaves lay rotting in the mud and puddles. Imprints of soldiers’ boots plotted pastel labyrinths, with our lives and deaths in the centre. Our camp lay between wet, forested hills in two valleys connected by gravel paths like spilled intestines. . . . The wind brought whiffs of shit and piss from the latrines on the sides of the hills, where fat white maggots multiplied in the slush. Mosquitoes slept like brooches pinned to the boards of those outhouses, satiated with our blood. A cow with deformed hips hobbled around in the large clearing where we used to line up for the flag salute in the mornings. Its meat ended up in the goulash we had straight before one raid.”
Quiet Flows the Una is an unapologetic indictment against war. The complexities and atrocities that marked the violent dissolution of the former Yugoslavia are woven into the narrative, even if the narrator sometimes affects a stance of emotional remoteness when he recounts his own involvement and ambivalence. His emotions are messy and conflicted. In the end, war reduces action to a matter of survival. He is haunted by a phantom self, an evil force that lurks beneath his wounded skin that, when given voice, spews contempt for the past and a life now lying in ruin, leaving his host with a feeling he vividly describes “as if someone is tattooing you on the inside, on the walls of your internal organs.”
As he grapples with the demons he carries, our protagonist occasionally slips briefly in and out of his hypnotic trance. His persistent efforts to articulate the dark, chaotic details of his experiences during the years of the Balkan War are accompanied by dreamlike, fantastic threads that meander like tributaries off the main narrative flow and by the whimsical illustrations of Aleksandra Nina Knežević that offer a striking visual commentary. The result is an insistent, engaging tale – a celebration of the simple pleasures of childhood, a memorial to the many towns of the region that have been reduced to rubble twice over, and an intimate portrait of a war that pitted neighbour against neighbour, divided along ethnic and religious lines. If there is meaning to be found once the dust of the destroyed buildings has settled, if redemption is to be achieved, Mustafa realizes that it will be found through words:
“I secluded myself among books and other beloved fetishes, and dust collected on them to warn me of the fragility of matter. As soon as you make a world, a house or a hut of sticks, it is doomed to failure; it was already doomed back when it was a black and white sketch in your head. That’s why I began to believe in words. They cannot be destroyed. If you erase them, they come back. Words float in front of your eyes and won’t retreat from the front line. If you set fire to them, they will burn with even greater ardour in your memory, and no memory-wipers like alcohol or narcotics will get rid of them. Words are above destruction. If you erase them, they’re right back on the tip of your tongue again.”
Faruk Šehić was born in Bihac in 1970, and grew up in Bosanska Krupa, a town straddling the Una in what was, at the time, still part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. He was studying veterinary medicine in Zagreb when war broke out in 1992. He voluntarily joined the army of Bosnia and Herzegovina in which he led a unit of 130 men. After the war, he turned his attention to the study of literature, publishing his first collection of poems in 2000. He has frequently drawn on his wartime experiences to inform his poetry and short fiction. Šehić lives and works in Sarajevo. His debut novel, Quiet Flows the Una (Knjiga o Uni), originally released in 2011, is now available from Istros Books in a crisp, lyrical translation by Will Firth.
An official launch featuring a discussion with the author will be held at the Headquarters of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London, UK on March 31, 2016.