Quiet Flows the Una, by Faruk Šehić, Translated by Will Firth, Published by Istros Books (2016), Reviewed by Anna Blasiak
The title of Faruk Šehić’s novel is a reference to the Nobel Prize winner Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don. Like the Sholokhov, Šehić’s book is about fratricide. However, it is completely different in mood, tone and language; this is not an epic story about the turbulent events of the twentieth century, but rather it is a very personal, intimate meditation on a specific location, which Šehić uses as a metaphor for a world damaged by wartime atrocities.
Šehić describes this singular place in poetic prose, and in a non-chronological way, switching between the more and less fantastic, and between childhood memories and hallucinatory reveries and brutal images of the Balkan war.
The only thing that never changes in this turmoil is the presence of the river Una. Yet even here there is disquiet. The story unfolds like the unsteady flow of the river’s waters: sometimes tumultuous, sometimes calmer; sometimes flowing straight ahead, sometimes meandering and joining other rivers; on occasion green and at other times transparent like ice. Similarly, while Šehić’s writing always has a hypnotic rhythm, a dreamlike quality, the book’s form takes different turns – is this poetry, factual account, or fiction?
This uncertainty reflects how Šehić builds his autobiographical account upon the contrast between powerful childhood nostalgia and the devastation and brutality of the wartime events he participated in as a soldier. Writing the book mirrors Šehić’s struggle to bring those two realities together, to breach the gap between these two parts of his life, and of his self. As he says at the very beginning of the novel:
“Sometimes I’m not me, I’m Gargano. He, the other, is the real me: the one from the shadow, the one from the water. Blue, frail and helpless. Don’t ask me who I am because that scares me. Ask me something else. I can tell you about my memory: about the world of solid matter steadily evaporating and memory becoming the last foundation of my personality, which had almost completely vaporized into a column of steam. When I jump into the past, I’m fully aware of what I’m doing. I want to be whole like most people on this Earth.”
Despite his efforts, the rupture between the past and the present remains; the wounds refuse to heal, and thus Šehić’s attempts to retrieve the magic and mystery of the childhood world are bound to fail. The only link he can rely upon is the Una.
“Our town grew out of people’s bond with the river. The Una is the power that holds the town together, otherwise both the river and its people would have been swept away long ago.”
This review was originally published on European Literature Network website on 18 April 2016.