Memories have taken over the tangled thoughts of a narrator so haunted by his combat experiences that his only refuge remains his earliest sanctuary – vivid, recurring and at times fantastical flashbacks to his childhood. For him, life then was dictated by the seasons and their effect on the majestic, ever-changing Una river: “The water loses its green-blue colour and turns icily transparent, heralding the long, cold winter.”
The Una, which rises in Croatia and crosses into Bosnia and Herzegovina, then back through Croatia, is one of the natural glories of southeastern Europe. It is a world unto itself, alive with a complex fish community and the many folkloric creatures that feature in the traditional stories passed down through the generations.
Faruk Sehic is a Bosniak veteran of the Bosnian war of the 1990s (“the Serbs and Croats tried to persuade me to write ‘Bosnian Muslim’ because Yugoslavs didn’t really exist, they said”), and he has accepted that he has become two people. One is the boy who loved exploring the natural world of the Una, which dominates homeland and narrative. Sehic’s other, lesser self is the soldier who went to war and knew that “tomorrow we would be burning houses and killing people with the same names as us”. These personalities unite in the telling of this autobiographical novel.
Sehic’s theme is war, and he admits to having killed men who had become the enemy. But he reveals relatively little about what happened because he is primarily concerned with the psychological legacy of the conflict and the damage it did to him. On a wider level, the war left his homeland resembling “a battered film set from a movie about life after the apocalypse.”
This harsh recent reality, usually cross- referenced to earlier devastation and layers of previous wars, contrasts with the charming nostalgia of the childhood sequences.
“If it rains on the eve of Friday, the rain will fall for seven days, Grandmother Emina always used to tell us” . . . “I dreamed that the water surrounded us on all sides, and my grandmother’s house set out on its first voyage. Before we became Una-farers there was a mighty crash as the house tore loose from its earthly roots. Thus relieved of its foundations containing remnants of bomb casings and stabilizers from the Second World War, detached from the stones of the former house that burned down when the Allies bombed the town.”
Grandmother’s house began “a journey into the unknown.” The narrator recalls how his grandmother stood at the kitchen window with an uncle “who had served in the Yugoslav army”.
Past and present
Sehic has lived through history and here writes about his awareness of how being an active soldier made him a killer. Yet he is acutely alert to how the distant past continues to shape the present. Meanwhile, Grandmother is the captain of a ship, her former home, while the kitchen is now the bridge. In the event of a giant pike appearing, the uncle holds a harpoon at the ready.
It is all a dream. But no matter: dreams and surrealist impulses appear to sustain the narrator. He thinks of his other grandmother, Delva, now a purple bird “with clean, soft plumage”. As they walk down the street together, he is careful not to trip her: “I’m scared that the neighbourhood dogs and cats could dash up and pounce on the purple bird that talks.” He knows Delva is dead, but “that doesn’t disturb me at all because I’m glad we’re talking as we stroll through the watery strata of sleep. It’s as if we want to compensate for all the words unspoken during our lives when I was a boy.”
Sehic has an anecdotal, random way with narrative. Quiet Flows the Una is determinedly literary, heavy in metaphor and literary allusion. There are many delicate images, as well as instances of unsettling clarity and repetition. It is uneven; many of the standalone chapters lack cohesion.
Yet the novel also possesses saving warmth and subtle lyricism, sensitively conveyed by translator Will Firth. Whether the reader sees the narrator as bipolar or a poet is irrelevant; the most important element of this interesting work is its attempt to explore how a traumatised mind works, and Sehic is brilliantly served by his translator.
Pushing war away
There is a deliberate balance between the boy who having realised he had never seen a dead parrot crossbill (a kind of finch), and so decided that they must live forever, and the despondence of the soured former soldier. It is as if the narrator is intent on pushing the war from his thoughts.
In the canon of literature by veterans who have seen action, this evasion makes Quiet Flows the Una unusual. Instead of recreating his experiences in the reportage style favoured by veterans such as Michael Herr, Larry Heinemann and Tobias Wolff, it is closer to the more stylistically laboured literary aspirations of Kevin Powers in The Yellow Birds (2012), particularly in its mood shifts.
Loss of innocence defines Sehic, a native of Bosanska Krupa, a small town in northwestern Bosnia. He attempts to retrieve his earlier life and the magic of being a child familiar with mystery characters such as the friendly juice monster. “When I grew up, Monster disappeared, along with so many other things.”
The hint of regret is consistent throughout, as is the presence of the Una. “Our town grew out of people’s bond with the river. The Una is the power that holds the town together, otherwise both the river and its people would have been swept away long ago . . . whoever marries the town ends up at the cemetery in Lipik or in one of the many family graveyards.” He experiences relief when he realises he will be buried there.
As for his time as a soldier, the narrator admits that he did not aspire to be a hero and that his fear of death proved to him how much he wanted to live.
In common with much Bosnian postwar literature of the 1990s onwards, there is no score-settling, aside from his personal self-reproach, Sehic look towards the redemptive without forgetting. “I’m not a Catholic. I’m a member of a people that in Bosnia of the 1990s, was earmarked for the same fate as the Jews in the Third Reich.”
Though nowhere as artistically sophisticated or as witty as fellow countryman Selvedin Avdic's dazzling Seven Terrors (2012), Quiet Flows the Una is heartfelt, important and rich in the ambivalence as well as insights an insider brings in explaining the horrors of war.
The title echoes that of Mikhail Sholokov’s panoramic, four-volume epic about the Don Cossacks. But there is no irony – only the pathos of one man’s non-heroic, very human engagement with hell, and the scars that never heal.