FICTION: War that lives on
WAR and history are often written about in such togetherness that they’re almost inseparable halves of the same condemnation of the human condition. History, or at least major parts of it, has been begotten and propagated by war since antiquity. That historians — not soldiers on the front-lines, the bloodied or the displaced — have the final say when it comes to history affirms the cliché about history being penned by victors. Which is why Shards by Bosnian American writer Ismet Prcic has such impact. It is not an attempt at historicising, or pontificating, yet it obtusely, subtly does exactly that — but without the academic self-assurance of historians. The layers the reader uncovers and discovers are delightful, poignant, heart-wrenching and bittersweet, usually all at once.
When I encountered the book, with its cover image of a man firing a flower at the reader with the gun held in his outstretched arm, it seemed frivolous, almost cartoonish. It contrasted with the title — a word that conjures broken objects like glass, bone and steel. The contrast weighed heavily on my experience of the book. Essentially, two parallel narratives, if they can accurately be called that, run through the book: that of Ismet Prcic the protagonist and Mustafa Nalic, an off-chance acquaintance of Ismet’s. They are presented through a motley collection of notes to self, letters, excerpts from notebooks, scribbles and diary entries. That the author gave his name to his protagonist is perhaps of significant consequence. Perhaps there are shards of his autobiography here, his projections, regrets, his attempts at understanding his identity, or his desire to be a part of his own history.
Set during, around and a little after the Bosnian war of 1992, the book starts with Ismet entering the United States as a refugee.
It then runs back and forth between his life in Bosnia and the US, where he becomes an Americanised “Izzy”. The chronicles of his city Tuzla coming under siege to his joining a theatre troupe, falling in love and finally escaping to America are dealt with in differing ways. There are moments of tenderness when he recalls his mother rationing cigarettes and eating less out of guilt for not being able to quit smoking. Then there are moments of wit — Americanised nevertheless — when he remembers two of his uncles escaping: “[it] says something about the Balkans: Regimes are plentiful, they don’t last long, and they make people want to run away.” And always, underpinning all other emotions, the terror and the horror of shelling interrupting dialogue, thought and action, sometimes all three at once.
Which brings us to the crux of the novel: the over-riding need Izzy has to reconcile his guilt of having left Bosnia, his family and his girlfriend to their fate with his newfound Californian freedom, his housemate Eric and new girlfriend Melissa. He is constantly trying to harmonise “side A(merican) and side B(osnian)”. Thrown in-between frenetic, short passages of descriptive narrative are sketches of other characters that colour his experience: his stoic self-sacrificing mother; timid, inert father; his
masculine, arty mentor and his en-route love interests. They provide the sketch its completeness and render it real, especially his mother — almost a personification of Bosnia itself — with her sharp awareness and bleak disposition.
Alongside this main thread of narrative runs that of Mustafa Nalic’s, someone Ismet meets coincidentally. It is more frantic and dark. Tracing Mustafa’s family history from a time of hunger and desperation, Shards also chronicles the history of tension among the local ethnicities in the region, the arrival and the shadow cast by “communism” and the Cold War. This large, gangly character gets drafted into the army during the Bosnian war — in the Special Forces, where maximum survival time is two weeks, earning him the moniker “meat”. He proceeds to venture to hell and back, all of which is written over-dramatically, with gut-wrenching violence. The account is caricatured and harrowing, painting a larger-than-life picture of the brutality of war.
Most of Mustafa’s story mirrors Ismet’s in some way or another, feeding it, living off it and somehow magnifying and amplifying it negatively. For instance, the characters’ first loves, despite being described at the same time, are vastly different people: Ismet’s a shy and sentimental girl; Mustafa’s a misandrist. Their childhoods, again described in parallel, are worlds apart — Mustafa’s being sad, empty and woeful; Ismet’s being funny, somewhat normal and subdued. However, both have an uncanny fascination with ninja stories and films. The thing that strikes the reader about this second symmetrical account is that it is not only exaggerated but also written using first, second and third person perspectives, as well as a multitude of tenses. This creates heightened drama and hyperbole, almost distorting the character and his experiences.
As both tales are intertwined expertly, the reader comes away thunderstruck and semi-numb. How do you reconcile with war?
How do you preserve your humanity, your morals and ethics, your right-wrong compass, when there’s senseless killing? How do you let others walk into the line of fire and run away yourself? This excellent, heartfelt novel slams the reader headfirst into the reality of war on an individual, collective and spiritual level. Everything the characters experience is through war-tinted glasses. Ubiquitous uppercase “BOOM!” sounds are littered throughout for different, contrasting reasons — when characters experience shelling or when they mistakenly take cover from fireworks. The sense of trauma is all-consuming. The need — and all characters are needy, most so the protagonist Ismet — to piece together little shards of their healthy selves, bits of undamaged soul and unscarred bodies to coalesce into some kind of whole — is pervasive.
By Ismet Prcic
Grove Press, New York