Monday, 28 March 2016

The Lure of Water

Faruk Šehić – Quiet Flows the Una
Translated by Will Firth

Published by Istros Books
ISBN 978 1908 236 494


This is an extraordinary book by the Bosnian writer Faruk Šehić . The language is lyrical and poetic. The writing cannot be categorized, it escapes all definitions, one form metamorphosing into another, just like the river that is the central character and forms the constant, a paradoxical constant, for even as it is always there, a presence that is both reliable and loved, its nature is shifting and protean.
'Our town grew out of people's bond with the river' he writes, in The Smell of the Burned Town. 'All the people of this town are believers in the water. They know very well that most problems vanish by simply watching the flow of the river.'

Each chapter in this book is self-contained, a story, a dream, a memory from childhood, an imagined conversation, and, towards the end, a description of how the book came to be written, that process from initial ideas (and he lists the possible titles he started with) to the decisions about content and subject matter and approaches. In The First Words of the Book he writes 'In the end, I've resigned myself to the journey, guided by instinct, that most reliable of compasses, towards uncharted land.' 'Objects couldn't last' he says. '..I began to believe in words....Words are above destruction. If you erase them they are right back on the tip of your tongue again. That's why I started describing just things that were important to me, like a maniac.'

So he includes the process, as it too, is part of the story and it too has a place in the landscape, just as the river is both constant and changing. The river is an emotional geography, and Šehić describes its varied aquatic and plant life, the people and houses that live close to it, the memories that are formed by it and washed away with it, on its journey.

In 2007: According to Gargano, he gives a description of the town, Sarajevo. 'You're now a phantom town' he writes. This is what it has turned into, and he describes too what it was before the war – you realise that the past is utterly persistent, living in both the remembrance of good times (before the war) and the accentuated bitterness of what it has become. If memories are alive – and they seem to have that kind of living energy, a mood we wear, even if unchosen, uninvited, even if despite ourselves – they are part of the present, as it is affected by our feelings, as we create and contribute to the present or build the solid structures – the buildings, the meetings, our careers – that will become the future.

Although he does refer to the war it's not his intention to document that time in his life. Rather than a detailed description, Šehić's approach is an almost meditative wondering. In Growing with the Plants, when 'the war year 1992 was far away' he imagines putting questions about what would happen to his belongings, the TV, his letters, photos, books, cassettes, coins, his house. This focus on the life of objects, their tendency to be broken, destroyed and disappear, underlines the fragility of our own lives; there is an unstated but clear transference of identity through the associations we all recognize with possessions that are so much a part of our lives that they've come to share in our identity. This can happen through repetition and habit, can come about almost without us noticing it – until they are removed, stolen, destroyed.

This catalogue of objects is like an inventory of his identity ticked off, signed off, scored out. Lines through each one, a musical score of loss. Feelings are a series of bridges, always connecting us with someone or something else. Words become a little treacherous here, implying that we are separate from objects we own and people we love, that emotions are discrete 'things' whereas of course their nature is movement, they are like the river, the paradox of (apparent) constancy and change.

In fact, this meditation is very much on the nature of what is solidity and separateness, and what is change and movement. Each of these chapters forms a whole, a completeness in itself, yet there is also a continuity, as sinuous as any river, through dream-like associations, words as boats on water surface slipping past the wall-builders and plasterers, the artisans and sculptors of narrative. Of course there is a huge amount of craft involved, in this atmospheric, associative writing. At the same time it manipulates definition and disarms the categorizing mind.

To truly appreciate this writing you have to abandon, so I found anyway, ideas of what you are reading, (is it poetry, fiction, a memoir, a factual account, a dream?) allow yourself to be carried by the current. And you don't know where it will take you and you won't always feel comfortable with who you meet, or where you go. But that's part of the lure of any journey isn't it? Šehić hasn't just written about a river. He draws the reader in and it's the way of water to merge and join, to erase boundaries, so that you too become part of the river and part of his world.

And Will Firth has done a wonderful job of translating all these descriptions and tangled emotions, capturing the lyric sense of flow and the richness of the language.


Forest Dream Weaver said...

Thank you Morelle....enjoy your weekend!

Anonymous said...

Šehić’s ‘Quiet Flows the Una’ sounds an extraordinary book indeed, and one of great appeal. I dwell in the poetry/prose borderland myself, and rivers figure large in my meditative life, so I’d very much like to read it. Probably so would anyone keen on good writing or with an interest in Bosnia. A brilliant and enticing review, Morelle; I much enjoyed it.

My very best,


dritanje said...

Thanks very much Ruby and Paul. It was only after writing this that I read that in Bosnia they don't have the strict categories of fiction and non-fiction that we do here. These boundaries seem to be being erased, which gives a sense of freedom I think.