Reveries of a Solitary Angler

Faruk Šehić, trans. Will Firth, Quiet Flows the Una

Istros Books, 193pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781908236494

reviewed by Vladimir Zorić

Major rivers have formed their own hegemonies, in politics and in literature: it suffices to recall Hölderlin’s Danube, Faulkner’s Mississippi, Conrad’s Congo and Sholokhov’s Don. In view of this colonial drift, writing a book about a lesser river necessarily emerges as a critical endeavour, and a distinctly literary one at that. The task becomes considerably more complex if that lesser river turns out to have been a theatre of war in the recent past. Armed with an AK-47 rifle, the gullible angler becomes a kingfisher preying for human lives; supplied with a pen, he turns into a fluvial thaumaturgist, a fisherman of souls. This entanglement of ethical and ecological concerns defines Faruk Šehić’s novel Quiet Flows the Una: in 45 short chapters, the writer’s alter-ego, war veteran Mustafa Husar, tells the environmental history of war and peace through memories and dreams of the river of his hometown.

For most of its 212 kilometre course, the river Una forms the border separating Croatia from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Its valley describes an irregular, sharply curved crescent, arcing out along the political divide; only its middle section drifts from this trajectory, sheering off Bosnia and Herzegovina's furthermost corner from its central region. Fed by creeks from the rocky terrain of Lika (Croatia) to the south, further downstream it collects the waters of Bosnian mountain rivulets; finally, it makes a steep descent into the fertile plain in the north to join the Sava and the Danube. Being geographically marginal, the Una valley is nonetheless one of the most picturesque parts of Bosnia. Its riverbed of tufa stone, its gradation and its hilly terrain produce numerous whirlpools, cataracts and greenholes, a paradise for rafters and anglers alike. Unlike the Sava and the Danube, the valley is relatively sparsely populated and largely spared the environmental excrescences of Socialist industrialisation. The few towns in this green crescent – Dvor, Bihać, and Šehić’s hometown Bosanska Krupa – were invariably multi-ethnic and enjoyed a subdued form of modernity: as military outposts in the Ottoman Empire, provincial backwaters in the Habsburg Empire, and later as a melting pot for Yugoslavia's socialist middle class.

During the Bosnian War (1992-1995), the central bend of the Una was fiercely contested by several warring sides. Whereas Bosnian Serbs (Republika Srpska) and Croatian Serbs (Republika Srpska Krajina) controlled the access routes from the east, the south and the west, the Autonomist army of the rogue Bosniak warlord Fikret Abdić held a more modest territory to the northwest. In the centre of this well-armed encirclement, a precarious patch of territory was defended by the army of Bosnia and Herzegovina loyal to Sarajevo. Following many months of ferocious shelling the United Nations responded to civilian plight by declaring the area a protected enclave, widely known as the Bihać pocket, in 1993. Despite its status, the enclave remained a military zone and was almost constantly under some form of attack, having been regarded by all sides as central to their war effort. Unlike Srebrenica, however, the Bihać pocket held out until the final stage of the war when the siege was lifted by a swift counteroffensive mounted by the Bosniak and Croat forces (July and August 1995). By the time of the Dayton Peace Agreement (November 1995), the entire area was made part of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (as opposed to the Serb entity, Republika Srpska) and has remained so ever since.

The author of this book was deeply immersed in this fiery cauldron: at the outbreak of the war he interrupted his studies in veterinary science at the University of Zagreb to return to Bosanska Krupa, fighting for the Bosniak side as a volunteer, and, upon showing promise, he soon became commander of a 130-strong infantry unit. To these undersupplied and often undernourished soldiers, who were regularly positioned at or near the Una, the river became a mutable sign, wearing variant and often contradictory masks. It was, firstly, a limes which defined parts of the frontline between the Bosniak and the Serb side and, therefore, a zone of danger and division. Secondly, and conversely, it was also a continuum, whose constant stream provided a token of continuity in change and the only remaining link to their past amidst ruins. Thirdly, with its aquatic ecosystem largely unaffected by fighting, the Una also provided a mirage of sanctuary, an escape route for piscine species and humans alike, a zone of salutary oblivion.

To the Roman legions, who first gave the river its modern name, the Una may have indeed appeared as una (one and, by extension, only), yet the Una of the Bosniak legions in Šehić’s book is rather multipla: contradictory, exuberant and elusive. No amount of critical rationalisation and generic labelling can ever do justice to this proliferating microcosm. The blurb confidently defines it as ‘the autobiographical novel of a war veteran’, yet it is clear from the first page that it is much more than that. Call it a veteran’s coming-to-terms with the trauma of the war and risk losing sight of its complex, developmental philosophy of nature, which harks back to the pre-war period. Call it a novel and its second key feature, the author’s wilful surrender to instantaneous associations, also disappears. Call it autobiography and its forceful flights of fancy, often bordering on the psychedelic, dissolve into thin air. It makes more sense to think of it in terms of Bachelard’s material imagination: the mighty river and all the dreams that it elicits. The sundry forms of aquatic imagery – currents, meanders, greenholes and cataracts, as well as their mysterious fauna – permeate almost every page of the book, from prose to poetical fragments and haunting illustrations. The evocative wealth of the original raw memories flows into a rich symbolic water-scape and fills a sea of fantasy. In this respect, the river is ‘one’: one forceful stream of images succeeding each other at vertiginous speed.

The crux of Šehić’s philosophy of nature and history is the cyclical understanding of time, signalled by references to Borges but elaborated in a rather peculiar way in the book. Emulating the rhythms of life and death in nature, humans impose their own cycles of destruction and rejuvenation. Nature will periodically suffer the adverse effects of wars, will gradually absorb their human and architectonic debris and, time and again, reappear triumphant with new forms of life. Consider, for instance, the impact of a shell which lands on a meadow. Heralded by a blood-curdling hissing sound, the projectile hits the ground and the entire ecological microcosm is upended: human flesh is torn apart by shrapnel, wild beasts hundreds of yards away from the impact fly in terror, low vegetation is replaced with a huge crater where soil falls down instead of rain. In a word, it is a terrible upheaval. Yet, in time, the crater, initially irrigated by human blood, will fill with water, that water will in its turn give rise to rudimentary forms of life, and, finally, those forms of life, immersed in a body of water, will stimulate flights of poetic fancy. To take another example, the shell hits a building: following the initial impact, the entire structure is quickly engulfed in flame, the floors and the ceilings on all levels collapse together with the roof and only bare walls remain. After some time, however, the first forms of vegetation take root in between these walls: weeds for a start, followed by wild shrubs and, if the ruins remain intact long enough, by trees whose branches will soar above the walls and even above the original height of the building. Or, in one last variation, a shrapnel from the shell hits a human body: internal injuries are successfully treated but the initial opening in the scorched skin leaves a scar. It is in and around that scar that a new tissue emerges and then a new metaphor is created: scar on the outside of the skin is a tattoo on its inside.

In all these cases, the destructive effect of fire is followed by the rejuvenating action of water and then by transformative power of poetic fantasy. These and other examples – grass as dishevelled hair on our graves, lively maggots the size of macaroni in abandoned refrigerators, worms in animal skulls which become baits in angling feats – are central to the book’s design. They represent Šehić’s own wonder-filled and redemptive variation on what WG Sebald called ‘the natural history of destruction.’ What initially appears as irremediable trauma to both the human body and the ecosystem emerges as a precious opportunity for survivors to establish a new intimacy with nature. ‘My vegetable love should grow / Vaster than empires and more slow’: the memorable couplet from Marvell’s poem asserts itself as the implicit motto of Šehić’s book. For the natural process of osmosis to be elaborated in a visionary act of poiesis it takes a dragon with three heads: a warrior, a naturalist, and a poet. The first participates in warfare and attests to its impact; the second observes the return of biological growth in situ; the third denaturalises that growth by way of poetic metaphor, or as Russian Formalists would put it, ostranenie (literary estrangement). In Šehić’s book, all three roles are serendipitously united in the same person.

Another pivot of Šehić’s eco-poetics is the spectre of a reversed food chain: animal organisms that have been consumed or wantonly destroyed by humans return to haunt them in their wars and in their imagination. A lively brown trout, that being of freedom and evolutionary wisdom, has been caught on a fishing rod at the cost of great efforts and in an act of hubris worthy of Captain Ahab. In the angler’s dreams, its supreme form will turn into a silent submarine, an ear-splitting grenade, a silver sword, a frightened eye. A phlegmatic, happy-go-lucky snake which was decapitated by a soldier’s switchblade for no reason other than malice and frustration becomes a giant reptile that swallows and asphyxiates the entire earth. An unassuming earthworm, which only sees the light of the day when it is to be impaled on the angler’s hook, turns into a time machine, whose tubular form dilates and contracts to transport human travellers inside. If war is a hunt by different means, then the animals hunted are agents of nemesis that punish humans for the war.

Facing the account of a war veteran, a reader may well be inclined to ask: ‘How many people did he kill, and why should I believe him?’ As if anticipating this default question, the narrator of Quiet Flows the Una soon gives a precise answer: four. ‘Three men and also an autonomist from the “Republic of Western Bosnia”.’ He then proceeds to ask why he should trust the others, if they are not prepared to trust him. In this case, as elsewhere, the author’s coarse tone and a general mistrust of civilisation betray the long shadow of Rousseau: for all its love of nature, the book has a strong undercurrent of inflexible judgments passed on contemporaries. And, after all is said and done, Quiet Flows the Una will strike the reader as a peculiarly uncompromising book. It makes no concessions to the discourse of ethnic reconciliation in Bosnia and Herzegovina stimulated by the West. If the established representations of war have taught us that almost every impetuous Achilles eventually cedes to a supplicating Priam, this is not so for Šehić: like Carl Schmitt’s political theology, his book has no sympathy for the enemy because he is precisely that, the enemy, and ‘he cannot be human […] has to be a slimy hymenopteran with horns and pig’s trotters so just fire away and don’t worry.’ Yet despite framing the Serb soldiery as ‘Chetniks,’ as brutes and even Nazis, the book is not likely to impress its readership within Bosnia and Herzegovina as particularly patriotic. Although the discourse of the victimhood of Bosniaks defines the public space in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the most harrowing accounts of killing and torture in Šehić’s book are actually those of Serb civilians stranded in the Bihać pocket: ‘afterwards my mind refused to preserve that vision of the crime’, remarks the narrator, yet his book is precisely that testament. Those prone to Yugonostalgia will also take offence: to Šehić, the whole Yugoslav ideology reeks of neglected public toilets, resonates with automatic slogans shouted in corridors. As he acidly observes, ‘whoever wanted to die like an idiot had my full support.’

This uncompromising and demanding work is well served by Aleksandra Nina Knežević’s beautiful black-and-white drawings, which illustrate the individual chapters. Artworks in their own right, these attend the prose with a series of visual epiphanies not unlike those that the narrator’s effervescent mind discovers in the river itself. Black ink, flowing over the white of the pages in stripes or pools, outlines human and piscine forms in differing mythopeic relationships, describing shrewd and shadowy forms. They are as elegant and elusive as the text of Quiet Flows the Una, which itself resists easy characterisation and forever darts out of expectation's grasp. The result is an eco-poetical vision of remarkable richness and grandeur, where the spectacle of death is always outmatched by that of growth.