Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić

Review published on April 20, 2016.

This autobiographical novel by a Bosnian poet and former soldier is full of poetic language and nature imagery.

The narrator is a war veteran and aspiring poet who transcends his sordid memories through his love of nature and his magical approach to life. When his brigade meets for a reunion on its anniversary, he starts to relive his compulsory military service for the Yugoslav People’s Army. Actual war scenes only come much later in the book; even then they are conveyed in such an abstract style that they seem more like hallucinations than remembered events. Much of the novel is trippy like that, an effect enhanced by the creepy black and white illustrations.

The title echoes that of a great twentieth-century Russian saga, Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don. The book unfolds in short (usually two- or three-page) chapters that alternate between historical fact and magical realism. On the factual side, the Romans named the local river “Una” to mean one or singularity, and his grandmother, Emina, a devout Muslim, sprang her husband from a concentration camp. Yet there are legends and magic underlying the historical reality: the narrator evokes river gods and dragons, and dreams of his grandmother’s house floating down the Una after a flood.

There aren’t all that many concrete details to hold onto here. Even the narrator’s name is something of a riddle. On one page he refers to himself as Mustafa Husar, who recurs as the subject of the final chapter’s third-person narration. Is that his real name or an alias, a kind of Muslim Everyman figure? Another alter ego is Gargano, a sadomasochistic character who emerges from the narrator’s war wounds. Add to this his imaginary friend, “the Monster of the Juice Warehouse,” and the fact that he walks and talks with his other grandmother Delva even though she’s dead, and you get quite the surrealist text.

That might make the novel sound inaccessible and pretentious, but the narrator’s lyrical writing about his beloved river provides a perfect counterpoint to the horror and absurdity of war. “The Una and its banks were my refuge – an impenetrable fastness of green,” he says. He goes here for fishing adventures and to chronicle the changes in the river and the town: “We made this town, Bosanska Krupa, of black mire, yellow sand and green water borrowed from the Una. The tall towers of our town tickle God’s feet.” What most impressed me about passages like that one is the alliteration that shines through even after translation.

It appears that some or all of the book is meant to have been produced by the narrator during a trance induced by a fakir: he mentions using dictation and automatic writing while under hypnosis. This only reinforces the dream-like quality of much that has gone before. Ultimately, the narrator concludes, “I didn’t succeed in my intention of writing a calm book about water, plants and animals.” Or did he? There is certainly lovely nature writing here, but it is its contrast with the region’s tragic history – for which the narrator serves as an “archivist of melancholy” – that creates such a striking effect.

My thanks go to Nicolette Praca for introducing me to Istros Books (which publishes literature from South-East Europe available in English translation for the first time) and for providing a review copy. I would highly recommend Quiet Flows the Una to readers of Anthony Marra and Daniel Kehlmann. It’s easy to see why it won the EU Prize for Literature in 2013.

Rebecca Foster
Personal 5
Group 4

Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić
Istros Books 9781908236494 pbk Mar 2016

See also Rebecca’s blog – https://bookishbeck.wordpress.com/

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