SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY REVIEWS
QUIET FLOWS THE UNA (ISTRO BOOKS) BY Faruk Šehić
(translated by Will Firth)
That aroma of freedom arising from the waterweed is erotic and intoxicating because it contains elixirs of eternal youth – an alchemy that cannot be fully described because it is never-ending like tufa, the stone that the tiny tufa-makers have built their stems and hearts into for tens of thousands of years.
Quiet Flows the Una is a multi-award-winning contemporary novel by Faruk Šehić that weaves an unexpectedly magical journey through rural Bosnia either side of the horrific civil war of the 1990s.
That sounds bleak, doesn’t it? That sounds hard. But it isn’t: Quiet Flows the Una is a perfectly pitched evocation of the weight that war puts on the memory, and how trauma effects the remembrance of place, of time, of home and of innocence. Quiet Flows the Una is an impressive novel, and one that avoids cliché and predictability in both its style and content.
As a personal aside, few things piss me off more than the popularity of the phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. It’s colossal bullshit, especially when you read as many books as I do. I’ve read all of and more than the ‘canonical’ books I’ve got any interest in reading, and I quickly find and plough through any recommendations I receive from the two or three individuals [who aren’t animals] that I describe as friends. I also read books that are by writers I’ve enjoyed in the past and books by writers who are supposedly similar to them, but even doing that, I’d still end up locked into a predictable space if I didn’t make leaps into the dark. The ONLY way I’m going to get myself exposed to different, engaging, literature is if Ido judge books by their covers: their blurb and their design. I write this to justify the following comment: Quiet Flows the Una has a conspicuously beautiful – and not plain – cover, which is a rare combination in independent publishing, where cover designs tend to either be simple (though usually effective) or ugly.
The cover of the Quiet Flows the Una is a composite piece containing illustrations by Aleksandra Nina Knežević (whose pictures are included throughout the text) over the top of a photograph of rippling water. This image makes clear the novel’s clash between innocence and wisdom, violence and nature, the divine or dreamlike and the real, the water and the land. It’s a strong book cover and the designer deserves a bit of praise.
When we open the book, we find ourselves in Bosnia after the war, in the first person narration of a combat veteran, a man somewhat feared in his town. This man – possibly called Husar, though this is denied at one point – is preparing to be hypnotised by a travelling performer. The veteran waits to slip out of consciousness, but before he realises that he has, he is already enveloped in his past, in myriad memories that we, the reader, are also privy to. We are in his childhood, we are on the banks of the River Una, and we are at peace.
What follows is 200 pages of glorious, rather intense, prose all about land and memory, past and future. There is a hole in Husar’s memory, a hole that seeps out and poisons what happened either side. He loves the river of his hometown, he loves the countryside, but as much as he tries to focus on the idyll of a rural childhood playing and catching fish in the river, he is regularly driven into thoughts of violence and destruction. The old Pagan gods of the area are evoked, as too is Allah, the god his grandmother worships. But more important than any spirituality, any divinity, is Nature, capitalised and important. The gods of humanity, of different ages and eras and empires and peoples change. Belief in a supposedly eternal god is undermined by the reality of the changing identities of eternal gods over the course of history. What people seek when they look towards the divine is an explanation for the wonder and the pain that exists in the real world. And nowhere is the immense power of whatever it is that did cause existence (be that a singular or multiple divinity or arbitrary forces working over a near infinite amount of time) more manifest than in the glory of the natural world, summed up and totalled by Šehić as the waters of the Una. The river purifies, the river cleans, the river brings food and sweeps away the dirt and detritus of life. The River is a god in itself: it is named, it is worshipped and it is needed, the geographic, emotional and thematic centre of the text.
Husar discusses his memories of fishing as a child. He recalls the best places to find fish and the best places to find the plumpest maggots to use as bait. These aren’t clean childhood memories, though: the fattest fish congregate close to where human shit enters the river, and the fattest maggots can be found inside the animal skulls dumped in the water at the back of the butcher’s.
The Bosnia of the late 1970s and the 80s, the Bosnia of Husar’s childhood, was a tranquil place as he experienced it, but the adult [doing the remembering] understands that great unpleasantness was bubbling up out of his sight, great unpleasantness that was soon to explode and damage his homeland. When Husar remembers the peaceful places of his childhood, he does so whilst trying to ignore the atrocities he witnessed and/or was complicit in as a soldier. However, as some of these events happened in the same places as his childhood joy, his mind moves, unwilling. When he was a soldier he used memory as a way to block out, to avoid engaging with, what was happening around him. He corrupted his childhood memories during the war, and under hypnosis he tries and tries to think only of the good in his life, but there has been too much destruction, too much pain, and the gaps between descriptions of nastiness get shorter.
Fish are there throughout, but the fish get more dangerous and less beautiful, the same with snakes. As a child, the natural world is something that can be controlled, even the human waste pouring into the river is washed away, it disappears. Here, in Husar’s post-war head, we dream with him and we shrink to the size of an ant, we grow and we fly, we travel to places he has never been and we witness his town imbuing the characteristics of a thousand global cities. But always we come back to reality and then the river, the eternal Una, to her waves and her sides and her fishy denizens.
The water melts the ice during the day and the branches, whose bark has taken on a reddish, wintry colour, briefly come alive, but only till dusk, when the cold claps them in chains again.
The river lives, and it has to, it needs to. It is better than us, humanity, it is wiser and stronger, and its continuance is a source of joy when so much human destruction is evident all around it. Quiet Flows the Una evokes the yearning for peace, which is here a dream as impossible as human flight, teleportation and Honey I Shrunk the Kids style shrinking.
Novels lauded in their native language can suffer in translation – we’ve all read an abominably shit though prize-winning foreign book at some point (Houellebecq anyone?) – but Will Firth’s work here is commendable, allowing Šehić’s images and narrative to tie us up with evocative language, suited to the form and the content. Quiet Flows the Una is a poetic, lyrical, dreamlike, novel. It pulls a reader under, bashes them around the head with glorious nature imagery juxtaposed with wartime horror. It tells a reader about a man who has seen horror but doesn’t want to live in it, who has lived amongst ruins and seen the reconstruction of a place that exists, still, as ruins in his mind. He wants to be a poet, he wants to be pure. But he is tainted, he feels. Though Šehić – who lived a life very similar to Husar’s – is not too tainted to tell his story with beauty.
An intoxicating and engaging treat. Recommended.
Scott Manley Hadley blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com.
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