‘As soon as you make a world, a house or a hut of sticks, it is doomed to failure; it was already doomed when it was a black and white sketch in your head. That’s why I began to believe in words’. Thus Faruk Šehić, in the penultimate chapter of his book, gives his reason for writing it. As a traumatised veteran of the Bosnian War (1992-1995) he’s been used to seeing the cyclical destruction of material life around him, and is eager to find something that will outlast it – something to keep, that will even outlive him. Recreating his pre-war memories and experiences of war through ineradicable words will allow him to transcend his trauma and become whole once again.
The chapters in the book could be read as individual stories set in Šehic’s childhood and his life after the war, with some of the narrative set in the Bosnian battlefields of the early 90s. In a style almost resembling stream-of-consciousness, the chapters have no clear plot, meandering instead around a theme phrased in the stories’ title. In the second chapter, ‘Mariners of the Green Army’, where Šehić juxtaposes the innocent childhood world of the narrator, hiding in a blossoming bush and imagining himself ‘a mariner of a green army‘, and the grey adult world of communist Yugoslavia, it’s a contrast that becomes clear – in the absence of an obvious plot – only through the imaginative descriptions of spring: ‘There was a flash in the air, a festive explosion, and the circus of nature would announce pollen in the flowers and the triumph of green in the town’s park’.
Seeming to mingle childhood imagination with memory, the stories sometimes allow the brutal reality of war to break through, without ever distorting the dreamy narrative. This style doesn’t leave space for any real characters: there’s only the constant switch between the first-person narrator and Šehić’s alter-ego Mustafa Husar. Apart from this, Šehić’s grandmother reappears throughout the book, or rather his grandmother’s house along the river Una – exactly the kind of material object prone to that cyclical destruction he’s spoken of. What justifies this style of writing, and indeed connects the stories themselves, is that they’re supposedly the result of Šehić’s hypnosis session with a fakir.
This stream-of-consciousness never flags or sags, but brings about surprising twists in the narrative and creates imaginative metaphors as it goes. Special credit too must go to translator Will Firth, who’s been able to capture the essence of Šehić’s poetic language, occasionally making you want to read whole paragraphs a second time.
Šehic rightly says that ‘every tiny detail I saw in my memory or reimagined in a random flashback can be made into a colour in life’s fresco’; and indeed, ‘life’s fresco’ is a good way of describing the book. Those looking for a straight, objective narrative will be thwarted, for this is more like a Freudian journal of someone’s dreams. Yet however personal Šehić’s meditative prose, his depictions of childhood impressions and emotional, adult states are universal and, above all, readers who simply enjoy beautiful language will relish this book.
Houses will be destroyed and rebuilt, while the river Una keeps on flowing. So does Šehić’s stream of consciousness, and thanks to these elemental, indestructible words of his, we have it here.
Faruk Šehić’s Quiet Flows the Una is available from Istros Books, priced £9.99. Carousel image for this review is by Julian Nitzsche.