By Faruk Šehić
Faruk Šehić was born in Bihać, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1970, just in time to experience the war (1992-95) as an officer in the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, leading a frontline combat unit. A poet forced to be a warrior, he strives in his work to recover the value of life and literature destroyed by violence. His sentences are sharp because he wants to stab us with them so we too can feel the pain. They are relentlessly beautiful because the world does not need us to exist. His first novel, Quiet Flows the Una, won the Meša Selimović prize for the best novel published in the former Yugoslavia in 2011, and the EU Prize for Literature in 2013. His novels, stories, and poetry have been translated in many languages, published in dozens of countries. He is a devout fisherman.
—Aleksander Hemon, author of My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You (FSG) and professor of creative writing at Princeton University
Nađa is a kid. Greta is an elderly woman. Nađa goes to secondary school, she’s not quite a kid but that’s how I refer to her. From time to time, her friends visit our refugee home. One of them has a fair complexion, blue eyes. I sometimes think she eyes me furtively, but I pretend not to notice because I am a soldier, a grown man, although I am only about twenty. Then again, it’s not proper for kids to fall in love with young adults. I’ve no time for love; I’ve devoted myself to other things. Amongst them war, but I’ve mentioned that more times than one. Comradeship with other soldiers, friends, acquaintances, rakia and weed, but I’ve mentioned that, too. One might say it’s a case of fraternal love between young men, but that’s quite beside the point now.
I soon forget about Nađa’s friend, for one must press on, one must be mature as long as there’s a war on; I’ve no time for by-the-ways like love. Love, at the moment, is a bit stand-offish towards abstractions such as homeland or nation. There is, however, such thing as true love for things quite concrete and tangible, like home, street or town. Here I mean the lost home, the lost street, the lost town. The town has lost us and we are alone in the universe. It’s not the town’s fault, and it isn’t ours, either.
I don’t know what Nađa is thinking about and I don’t take her seriously. Nađa spends time with Greta. The two of them live in a world of their own. Greta raised Nađa, she is like a second mother to her. Greta is an elderly woman, very wise and knowledgeable. Nađa and Greta play patience and listen to Radio Rijeka on a set connected to a car battery. Greta is a passionate smoker, she loves crosswords but there aren’t any in wartime. Inside the radiobox Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman sing "Time to Say Goodbye."
It’s as though Greta and Nađa were two dispossessed noblewomen. Greta, of course, is a countess, Nađa her right hand. They have now been expelled from their county. Nobody knows them; the faces in the street are strange. None treat them with due respect. In turn, the two of them don’t much care what people in their new town think about them. Greta and Nađa listen to the news, remembering the number of shells that have fallen on such and such town on a given day. They remember the number of dead and wounded, because we all do. It’s an informal sport of sorts, it may become an Olympic discipline someday, and it consists of a radio speaker informing us in a distraught voice that such and such number of howitzer, mortar and cannon shells were fired on town XY during an enemy attack on the very heart of the town. Greta and Nađa are able to tell howitzer and cannon shells from one another, because the former fly a lot longer than the latter and you have time to find cover. They learnt this from our father. At times, radio reports made mention of surface-to-air missiles, which are used – ironically enough – not to shoot down aeroplanes but to destroy our cities and towns. For nothing is the way it may at first seem in war. The missiles have poetic names: Dvina, Neva, Volna. The surface-to-surface missile Luna has the prettiest name. One missile landed near our house, the blast lifted a few tiles off the roof. Dry snow seeped through the hole in the roof onto the concrete steps carpeted with varicoloured rag-rug. The cold falls into our home vertically.
Greta & Nađa remember all that. Nađa goes to school. Greta stays at home with our mother. Father and I are on the frontline all the time. The radio-sport of remembering the body count and the destruction of towns and cities spreads to every house without exception, be it inhabited by locals, or by refugees. It goes without saying that we, being refugees, couldn’t have possibly brought our own houses along on our backs like snails can and do, so the houses we’ve moved into have become the way we are – homeless, with few possessions and many human desires.
Suada, our mother, is the barycentre around which all things and living beings in our home orbit. Apart from Greta & Nađa, there is also a little tomcat, as well as a dog that has survived distemper and twitches a bit as he walks. His name is Humpy Horsey, after a character from a Russian fairy tale. Father and I are optional subjects in our refugee family portraits, as we are seldom home.
Suada looks after our civilian lives. Every year she takes a horse cart to a remote village where she plants spuds. The yields range from 500 kg to 700 kg. This guarantees that we won’t starve, in case we also don’t die in some other way, and the ways to die are many, and they form part of life.
Once I was detailed to spade up a patch of the green behind our house. I was at it until Mother saw me toiling and moiling, my face flushed, pushing the blade into the hard soil with the sole of my boot. She snatched the spade from my hands and did the job herself. I was dismissed, and I could go out, where my mates were, were the alcohol was.
Suada procured not only victuals but also articles of clothing to meet our modest needs. Thus I was issued a terry robe with an aitch emblazoned on the chest, and I called it Helmut. A kind-hearted Helmut donated his robe and helped me feel a bit like a human being. It’s not advisable to feel like too much of a human being though, lest your being assume an air of haughtiness, and you become toffee-nosed, as they say in the vernacular. A being could get all kinds of ideas into its head. It might lust after this or that, and there is neither this nor that to be got in the new town. Unless you have a lot of money. Still, even with money, many pleasures remain out of reach, and all they do is feed our fancy and lend us faith in a future better than counting shells and remembering body counts.
That is the main sport in our County. It’s just about to go Olympic.
Nađa grows and goes to school. Greta is always the same. Patience, news and Radio Rijeka playlists shape their time. They have a room of their own – they may have been expelled from their lands, but they’ve retained some trappings of nobility. Greta sends Nađa out to survey the prices of foodstuffs on the black market, things such as oranges, juice, chocolate. Nađa returns and briefs Greta, who decides what will be purchased. Sometimes Nađa fetches ingredients and Greta bakes a cake. This happens when Greta receives money from her relatives in Slovenia. The two of them have a special nook in the wardrobe where they stash their goodies. Inside the radio, the blind Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman sing "Time to Say Goodbye."
Suada looks after the house and all the living beings in and around it. The little tom is becoming less and less little. At some point I can no longer remember what happens to him, he vanishes into a mysterious feline land, far from the radio reports, far from the laundry soap with which we wash our hair, far from the bath tub mounted on four bricks, far from the cold tiles of the toilet in which I often see my face, distorted with weed and alcohol because it cannot be otherwise. It is the same bathtub in which Mum washed the shot-through blood-encrusted camo vest I strutted about in during nocturnal piss-ups, flaunting my spoils. I’d stripped a dead Autonomist, as if I was about to wash him and wrap him in a white shroud for funeral. But he remained lying on the melting crust of snow on a slope overgrown with stunted conifer. Almost naked, in his pants and boots with socks showing. He lay there for a few days before somebody thought we should bury him, then dig him up again to swap him for victuals. For we were made by nature, and to nature we shall return, naked like the day we were born.
Nađa goes to school, and school, like war, drags on forever. Greta plays patience, feeds Humpy Horsie, feeds the tom who pops down from the mysterious feline land every now and then because he misses us (at least I like to think so), and the birds, for Greta loves all living beings.
Suada picks pigweed in the dales and meadows. She is a pigweed gatherer, in pigweed dwelleth iron, and iron we need to keep the blood red. Greta and Nađa may well be blue-blooded, what with that room of their own, whilst Mum, Dad and I sleep in the sitting room. The tom slept there, too, before he broke away to live a life of roaming and roving. When he was little he would stalk me, and when I blinked in my sleep he’d give me a brush with his paw. Humpy Horsie is growing up and twitches less and less. Prognoses are good for Humpy, even the end of war may be in sight, but we cannot afford to have such high hopes, we are not accustomed to such luxury. Therefore we cannot allow ourselves to entertain fancies and reveries about a better world that is to come. We are wholly accustomed to this one, like a lunatic is used to his straitjacket. Although all fighters are wont to declare that they would get killed on the frontline eventually, deep inside I believe I will survive, but I don’t say it because I don’t want to jinx myself.
Smirna is a pal of mine. She works as a waitress, rumour has it she moonlights as prostitute, which is of no consequence to me as I’m not interested in rumours, even if they’re true. I’m interested in human beings as such, and Smirna is one, and so am I. Majority opinions don’t interest me, I don’t cave under peer pressure, I rely on what my heart tells me. The only difference between the two of us is that she isn’t a refugee. Smirna likes to read, I’ve lent her a copy of Mishima’s novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. She’ll likely never return it, there’s a war on, who would remember to return a borrowed book in times like these? I remember the closing sentence: Glory, as anyone knows, is bitter stuff.
Zuhra, known as Zu, is a friend of mine. We’ve known each other since before the war. When you say since before the war, it’s as though you remembered that you once used to live in a lost kingdom, the same one in which Greta & Nađa had been noblewomen. In the days of the Kingdom of Before-the-War, Zuhra worked at a video rental, I rented tapes at her shop. We listened to the same music, we patronised the same regal café. She once sent me a beer with a dedication note to the frontline. Zuhra is young and combative, she doesn’t lack optimism. We listen to grunge music, we drink beer and rakia. It makes us happy. Although we are young, we know full well that there’s something missing. Someone has taken something from us and refuses to give it back. We don’t know what that something is called, or what it looks like, but we do know it’s something very important for our young lives. Older adults feel the same way, they, too, have had something taken away from them, they, too, don’t know what it’s called or what it looks like. When someone takes something like that away from you, it’s too late for common sense. The only thing you know is that there’s a hole that’s getting larger and larger and there’s nothing you can fill it with.
Zuhra is strong enough not to think about these things. That’s what we’re both like, that’s why we’re friends. We’ve known each other since the days of the Kingdom of Before-the-War. We like to spend time together because it makes us feel that the hole in and around us is shrinking, if only by a smidgen.
Azra, too, is strong and upright. She is tall and beautiful in a special way. I was on a perilous line once, beech and hornbeam trees outside were crackling with cold, Azra phoned me via the brigade phone exchange. One flick of the switch on the switchboard, and we were transported to a realm of magic where nothing was impossible. She was at home, her civilian receiver in hand. I was in a dugout, holding the olive-green receiver of a military field phone. I keep it away from my ear; the phone is prone to tiny electrical surges that zap the ear-lobe. During my stint at that line on Padež Hill I wore Azra’s turquoise scarf. It held the smell of her skin and the swoosh of unknown seas, a memory of all the kingdoms we lost, and all the ones we might someday regain.
I envy her for the fact that her family home is intact. All things inside are in the same place all the time: the photographs on the wall, the telly, the sofa, the armchairs, the tables, the doors, the shelves above the basin in the bathroom. Immobility is a virtue. When you get uprooted from your pot and forcefully transplanted into another one, all you want to do is strike root and stay put. Books gather dust as if the war never happened. Azra’s house keeps the memory of a bygone peace. It is peace. When I come over and talk to her parents I feel like a phantom. As if I’m making things up when I say that we, too, had a house and a flat before the war, a family history of our own, that is now undocumented, since we no longer have any photos.
Azra works at a café, I’m constantly on the frontline. Sometimes, on leave, I drink at her work and I don’t pay. With her wages she’s bought a pair of Adibax trainers, and we admire them, although the brand name betrays a counterfeit. Matters not, the trainers are new, fashionably designed, worthy of admiration. Sometimes she buys a Milka chocolate and a can of proper coke for each of us, and we give our mates a slip. We hide behind the wooden huts where smuggled consumer goods are sold, and we greedily eat the chocolate and drink the coke. That is also how we make love, furtively, in places secret and dark. Azra keeps me alive by loving me. I have a higher purpose now, something loftier than bare life and the struggle for survival.
Dina is a strong, brave young woman. She has a child with the same name as me. I used to see her around in the Kindom of Before-the-War. I was younger than her and we were never formally introduced, the great generational gaps that existed in that realm were difficult to close. Black-and-white was the kingdom, it was the eighties, films with happy endings, New Wave.
Dina works in catering, like Azra and Smirna, due to the circumstances. We’re sitting in the garden of her refugee house. We’re drinking instant powder juice from jars: glasses are superfluous in war. All glasses are broken, all hands bloody. As Azra and I kiss feverishly, our bodies intertwined like in the sculpture Laocoön and His Sons, Dina’s son darts towards the road wanting to hug a car, but Dina catches him in the nick of time and my little namesake is safe. Azra and I were charged with keeping an eye on him, but our kisses took us far from reality. We drink Step Light instant juice from pickles jars, because we’ve been expelled from our empires, and now we can be barbarians if we jolly well please. We’re entitled to all kinds of behaviour, and getting a-rude and a-reckless is just our style. We all fight in our own way. Women’s war is invisible and silent, but it is of vast importance, though we men on the frontline selfishly think we matter the most. There are women medics and women fighters on the frontlines. I can never forget a young female fighter I once saw, and her firm, confident gait. From one of her shins, through a tear in her uniform trousers, jutted out the nickel-plated bars of a fixation device.
Greta & Nađa play patience. Suada manages the planets of our household solar system. Azra, Dina and Smirna work at their cafés. Zuhra waits for her brother to return from the front. She also waits for us, her friends, to return so we can hang about. Somehow, all things grow and eventually collapse, like a great big wave when it finally reaches the shore. Someone in us plays patience, goes to school, does chores, washes up in a smoky boozer, goes to the front, digs spuds, someone in us laughs at us and our lives. We have an ancient life force inside, and it refuses to leave us. The blind Andrea Bocelli and Sara Brightman sing "Time to Say Goodybe."
Translated from the Bosnian by Mirza Purić.
This story originally appeared in Under Pressure (Istros Books). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.