The name of Australian-born translator Will Firth will be familiar to readers of this blog who remember his guest post on ‘The Perils of Translation’ and more recently his piece ‘Change is the Only Constant’ about writing in Macedonia, published in Words Without Borders. Now based in Germany, Will is the translator of A Handful of Sand by Marinko Koščec, which I reviewed back in 2013. He has the distinction of having his own Wikipedia page which includes an impressive list of books that he’s translated from Russian, Macedonian, German and Serbo-Croatian into English. His own website is here.
Will is also an accredited translator from Croatian, German, Macedonian and Russian, and – significantly from the point of view of his latest book, Quiet Flows the Una, he worked for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 2005-07. I suspect that this experience has contributed to his sensitive translation of Quiet Flows the Una, by Faruk Šehić, a Bosnian author born in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and a veteran of the savage war which carved Yugoslavia into separate ethnicities. The novel won the 2013 EU Prize for Literature, and has since been translated into multiple languages, becoming available in English in 2016.
Quiet Flows the Una is a melancholy work. Narrated by a former soldier called Mustafa Husar, it tells the story of a man haunted by his past. Survivors of trauma, he tells us, have two choices, to suppress the past or to make a narrative of it, but the latter takes courage that he does not have.
The catalyst for him to finally confront his past is a fakir at a sideshow, whose hypnosis allows Mustafa’s memories to surface, enabling him to become a chronicler of a lost, sunken, incinerated age. Almost the first thing that he admits to is that he killed:
I have to tell you this: I’ve killed a man, and not just one but several. When you’re firing, all your worries vanish. Not every bullet finds its mark, of course, but some certainly do. When you’re shooting, you’re light as a feather, and that pleasure could make you lift off the ground and hover for a moment, but you’re in cover, lying belly-down in the churned-up soil, flattened grass and wet leaves, because that’s what your instinct tells you to do. When I shoot, I feel like Jesus Antichrist. I deliver the very opposite of compassion. There are no pangs of conscience, and no one is going to whisper in your ear that the enemy is human too. (p.11)
Interspersed among the horrors of war, Mustafa lingers over his memories of what had been lost. In the beautiful ruins of his town Bosanska Krupa, he does not even have any photos, except those found in deserted Serbian ruins where there might be old school photos of classmates who became enemies.
Why would there be nothing left in our flat but bare walls and gaping holes where the sockets and the toilet bowl used to be?
Who would steal all my photos, and on which of the countless heaps of rubbish would they shrivel in the sun like autumn leaves?
Who would read my copy of Zvonko Veljacic’s novel about a space-travelling boy hero?
Who would take the Super 8 cinema projector and the tapes in the great cardboard boxes with film posters and credits on the lids?
Where would the black and white tape of War of the Worlds go?
Who would make all the things from our flat vanish ‘just like that’?
Who would vacuum away our family history and make me think of the past as a gathering of amiable ghosts?
Would I be allowed to blame anyone, and whom would I accuse? (p. 40)
It’s not possible to read this without thinking of the ruins of Aleppo… and the misery being inflicted day after day in our own time. The media focusses on the deaths and the injuries and the historic artefacts, but Faruk Šehić reminds us about the loss of the quotidian, the pop culture, the children’s books and other elements of a culture that the enemy sought to annihilate.
What cannot be destroyed is memory. In lyrical prose, Mustafa shares his love of nature and remembers a wonderful boyhood spent beside the river Una: fishing, making paper planes, eating his grandmothers’ recipes. His nostalgia is not just for an idyllic childhood, it is for the culture from before the war. Even his identity has been lost:
I felt like a stranger in my own town when I realised we weren’t all brothers and sisters not because I didn’t want us to be – but because there was no good will among most of the local Serbs and Croats. Not to mention the ridiculous situation when I did my compulsory military service in the ‘Yugoslav People’s Army’ and had to state my ethnicity: since I came from a Bosniak family, the Serbs and Croats tried to persuade me to write ‘Bosnian Muslim’ because Yugoslavs didn’t really exist, they said. Yes, I lived an identity that was marginal in the very country that was named after it. (p. 13)
The fractured narrative includes scraps of poetry and also B&W illustrations, some of which are quite unnerving. One (on page 141) depicts an urban landscape of apartment blocks, one of which is teetering, with a monstrous crumbling black hunchback creeping away. It is astonishing how vividly the artist Aleksandra Nina Knežević has portrayed the horror of his facial expression with just four white spaces in his black visage.
There is much more I could say about this book, but Joe at Rough Ghosts has written a superb review of it, so do visit to read it.
Author: Faruk Šehić
Title: Quiet Flows the Una
Translated from the Bosnian by Will Firth
Publisher: Istros Books, 2016, first published as Knjiga o Uni in 2013 by BuyBook, Sarajevo
Source: Kingston Library (who acquired this book because I asked them to via their suggestion service, thanks Kingston!)
Available from Fishpond: Quiet Flows the UNA