Faruk Šehić: “War is just not something you can render in one great fresco” — Sean Preston

FARUK ŠEHIĆ was born in 1970 in Bihać, in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Until the outbreak of war in 1992, he studied veterinary medicine in Zagreb. The then 22-year-old voluntarily joined the army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which he led a unit of 130 men. Critics have hailed Šehić as the leader of the ‘mangled generation’ of writers born in 1970s Yugoslavia, and his books have achieved cult status with readers across the whole region. His debut novel Quiet Flows the Una (Knjiga o Uni, 2011) received the EU Prize for Literature in 2013. His collection of short stories Under Pressure was awarded the Zoro Verlag Prize, and in 2019 has been translated into English for the first time, out with Istros Books.

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Sean Preston: Faruk, firstly, thanks to you for writing this book, and to Istros for bringing it to the English language. But let’s start there… How is that for you? You speak a bit of English, but well enough to know how your words reads in English? Given the gravitas of the book, which revolves around the Bosnian War, is the translation and translator even more important? 

Faruk  Šehić: Firstly, I’m glad that the book was published in the UK because in my experience English readers are amenable towards writers from Eastern Europe and their literary worlds. I can read books in English, of course not like you, but I understand a lot of things. When it comes to my book it is much easier to read my own book in a foreign language because I know the logic of my sentences and style. Of course, I agree, the translator is very important, not just when we talk about my book. 

SP: Right, and this book was translated by Mirza Purić.

FŠ: Mirza is so important not only because he is a great translator, but because he knows the dialect I have used in this book. His mother is from the same city as me, in fact. He knows the soul of the language I use within the book’s dialogue, which is a mixture of western Bosnian dialects, largely the language of rural people, because in the war we were mostly fighting in villages where none of us had been before. We were urban lads, and for us this way of speaking was ridiculous, archaic and unknown. We ridiculed it at first, but through this kind of interaction this way of speaking entered our personal speech and became part of our new linguistic identity.

SP: Yes, the use of that dialect really struck me. The English interpretation of it is something approaching provincial working class, I think. Does that rest easy with you? Why that over the “thee”, “thou” and “thy” afforded to the Catalonians of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, for instance? The dialogue in other ways is very similarly to this book.

FŠ: I think this is more a question for Susan Curtis (Istros Books editor), because if I remember well, the dialect used by the translator originally was like a Broad Yorkshire. This was changed for practical reasons. It would not be understandable to readers in the US, for instance. The most important thing is that the language in the dialogue is rough and raw, because that’s how it is with the rural slang of western Bosnia.

SP: Right, got it.

FŠ: However, I must say, I’m pleased to have this comparison with Hemingway’s heroes in FWTBT.

SP: Well it read as comfortably and uncomfortably as the dialogue in that book, certainly, which is sort of a translation from Catalonian to King James English in itself, I guess.

FŠ: Y’know, there is a saying that goes: if a good book is translated badly, it should still retain its quality, whereas an excellent translator cannot save poor literature. I think this book is good quality writing translated by a good quality translator.

SP: The book is about war, specifically the Bosnian War of the early nineties. It is a collection of strands from which a novel emerges. But why strands? Why not a single narrative to the tale of this war?

FŠ: Well, it was originally written as a book of short stories, but in some literary representations it is understood and labeled as a kind of novel, because there is a unity of time, place and space, there is even a chronology, with occasional flashbacks.
At the time when I was writing I was not interested in narrative techniques and such like. I just wanted to faithfully convey the war on paper; these are autobiographical stories that I gradually converted into fiction. We did not need pure fiction because the reality we lived was a complete fantasy in itself — a nightmare, as if everything was invented, which is an oxymoron, of course.

I don’t think that the trauma of war can be written linearly, straightforwardly, or at least that is not attractive to me as a writer, for war is full of jumps in time, full of digression, side stories. 

SP: So the overriding narrative occurs naturally?

FŠ: Perhaps. War… it’s just not something you can render in one great fresco.

We did not need pure fiction because the reality we lived was a complete fantasy in itself — a nightmare, as if everything was invented, which is an oxymoron, of course.

SP: So were these stories written during the war in the early nineties? Or more recently? Stock question, I know, but I wonder if there is difference between writing literature like this during conflict that you are actively involved in and writing it decades later.

FŠ: It was written sometime between 2001 and 2003, 5-6 years after the war. It’s just conveyed contemporaneously; it was my wish that the reader see, feel, smell, and hear as if they’re directly involved. I had to write like that, and I had to write it by that point; these stories circled in me like boiling lead, they had to come out, they had to find a final format. It felt like the book was written in one breath. But before I wrote it, I would tell many of these stories to friends as we drank in cafes and nightclubs, and I’d notice how my listeners paid attention, so I took what I thought they found interesting and important and I tried to transfer that to the book. 

SP: Felt like one breath?

FŠ: Sometimes I would just write in a hypnotic trance, all day.

SP: I went to school in London in the nineties. Refugee pupils would come in every few years, and Bosnian children were the first refugees I remember. The children, invariably, far from being relieved or whatever, just seemed to be miserable about not being at home. You wrote beautifully about Sarajevo recently for the LA Review of Books, supposing its likeness to London after the Blitz, even. Talk to me about Sarajevo, even if it doesn’t feature much in the book.

FŠ: Yeah, there is not so much about Sarajevo in this book. You’ll find more of Sarajevo in my poetry, in newspaper texts: columns and reportage. I have a collection of poems called Transsarajevo, which is my literary dedication to the city.

Sarajevo is a strange, unusual city. This history has left interesting traces — literally in the centre of the city you see this unusual architectural mix of different periods, cultures and civilisations. There East and West do not meet in conflict, luckily, but permeate organically, alongside a third component, which is socialism. If you take a short cable car ride from the centre you can reach an altitude of 1400 metres, or you can be in the Mediterranean Sea in just over an hour. Or go south and you’ll pass through a mountain tunnel to find figs growing on the other side. 

The winters are cold and depressing, the summers are extremely hot, the nature is overwhelmingly lush and green, as it is across the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country is home to mountains of almost 3,000 metres.

And Sarajevo is a city in which you cannot portray yourself as some kind of star because you will be the subject of the most brutal mockery, but it is also the city that is now transforming into something else unfortunately: a city where culture no longer means anything unless it is nationalistic, populist and rooted in the lowest common denominator. 

SP: So why verse to tell us about Sarajevo, and why prose to tell us about war?

FŠ: No, it’s not like that. There is plenty about Sarajevo in my new (as yet untranslated) fiction collection, Clockwork Stories. At the beginning of my writing career, poetry was somehow more familiar to me, so it seemed logical to write poems about Sarajevo. As the local poet Izet Sarajalic says: In Sarajevo, even rain is not just rain. 

In my second book, Hit Depot, there is a whole cycle of war poems. I wrote poetry about the war first, because the form suited me artistically. After that, the form of short and precise poems without metaphors became restrictive and insufficient for what I wanted to write about the war, so I began to write short stories. Maybe I’ll write a great novel about the war sometime, but then again, maybe I shall return to those short, precise poems.

I don’t think that the trauma of war can be written linearly, straightforwardly, or at least that is not attractive to me as a writer, for war is full of jumps in time, full of digression, side stories. 

SP: Back to Under Pressure, there are two important characters for me. The gun, a sympathetically painted villain, and alcohol, a problematic hero. Alcohol serves as a distraction from the misery of war to the book’s inhabitants. Are there any other “characters”, human or otherwise, that are important here?

FŠ: Well, they are all real people, even their names and nicknames are as they were. Sometimes I just had to change names and nicknames so as not to compromise my acquaintances and friends. But characters?. We had our own characters to look to. We were so far away from the rest of the world, so far that the only window to the world was MTV (broadcast from London at that time?), because we did not want to watch CNN and similar channels, since the main characters on the news channels were just us and our little but bloody war. I remember that we sometimes stared at MTV for hours. I knew all the shows and all the presenters at MTV at the time. They have no idea how much they meant to us, how far away our world from theirs, which was distant and untouchable, and how desperately we wanted to be part of a normal world that had normal problems.

SP: Now you mention it, that’s something that permeates the book: the looking out on a world that is looking in on it.

FŠ: Escape. The world of war in which we lived was a constant apocalypse that did not want to stop. My characters all survive, because even the dead live in us all, in our memories. This book is dedicated to my dead companions who did not escape. It’s life, the will to live, that is the main character of this book. No matter how hard the lives we lived were, we felt invincible. We were.


Sean Preston is the founding editor of Open Pen.

Image: Sarajevo, Reuben Thompson, Creative Commons.