From what I’ve been able to find out about the author Selvedin Avdić, it is his first work of fiction and some minor aspects of it are autobiographical. Identified by Literlab as best book of the year, Seven Terrors tells the story of Aleksa Ranković who’s been missing since 1993, during the Bosnian War (1992-1995). He (like the author) was a radio journalist who enjoyed filing human interest stories, and he had a particular interest in coal miners. Aleksa’s story is pieced together by a narrator who is himself recovering from the shock of his wife’s sudden departure with another man. All he has to work with are Aleksa’s journals, supplied by his daughter Mirna, and some inconclusive information gleaned from people who knew the missing man.
However, Seven Terrors is nothing like an ordinary mystery or psychological thriller. The story begins in 2005 with this unnamed narrator explaining that he’s spent the last nine months wholly withdrawn from society, lying in bed and eating only tea biscuits. By coincidence, on the very day when he decides to get up and face the lonely world again, he is visited by Mirna appealing for his help, and also from the rent man, collecting nine months arrears. He’s embarrassed by his filthy flat and his grubby appearance, but his resurrection is hampered by an overwhelming inertia. He gets severe headaches and suffers strange dreams. It’s not easy for him to go out into the street and buy the newspaper…
So from the outset the reader is not sure whether events are the product of his fevered brain and his self-inflicted solitary confinement, or whether demons have bled into reality. Aleksa’s journals reveal that in the aftermath of a terrifying underground rock-fall he had a vision of Perkman, a djinn who traditionally has appeared as a warning of an impending mine disaster, but what this warning means to Aleksa is never made clear. The journals abruptly cease as Aleksa makes arrangements to meet Perkman through the intercession of the Pegasus brothers, but Ahmed, the narrator’s enigmatic Muslim informant, thinks that these two are actually the mythical beings Jedžuhž anad Medžuhž who announce Judgement Day. Why Aleksa should face judgement isn’t made clear either so perhaps he is a symbol of the irrational hatreds that fuelled the war …
For in the aftermath of that war, which seemed like a surreal kind of madness to international observers, evil characters like the Pegasus brothers defy their mythological origins. In Greek mythology Pegasus the winged horse is a symbol of wisdom, fame, poetry and creativity. But the brothers Albin and Aldin (apart from having white hair) have nothing in common with their namesake. They are the sort of low-life criminals who always seem to profit in wartime. The narrator is taken to their Hades-like hideout, a sleazy place with red velour walls, by Ekram, a taxi-driver reminiscent of Charon the ferry-man. There the narrator learns that during the war there was no need for the Pegasus brothers to kill anyone themselves, for there was no shortage of people willing to kill at that time. He also learns the truth about himself, revealing the reasons why his wife left him and the real reason why Mirna has appealed to him for help.
The title is mystifying. In the surreal depths of madness when two selves are warring within him, a voice is heard:
‘A man is made up of his terrors. The more terrors you have the more man you are. Unless I am mistaken you only have seven. And I without meaning to boast, I have none at all. That says a lot about me.’ (p. 106)
These Seven Terrors are listed in Aleksa’s journal, which made me wonder if the narrator was Aleksa all along, or his alter-ego … it is a very strange plot, curiously captivating even though I found it rather confusing.
The book concludes with what appear to be a collection of notes, and a further list of Seven Terrors, as if the narrator is offering them to shore up the credibility of his reportage.
Author: Selvedin Avdić
Title: Seven Terrors
Translated by Coral Petkovich
Publisher: Istros Books, London, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Istros Books
Or direct from Istros Books