Both sides now

Posted on November 25, 2012


All people share the same ancestry – Bosnian Proverb

If only we could all remember this!

And now I must start with an apology.  I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to do justice to Mesa Selimovic’s novel The Fortress.  In fact, I’m certain I shan’t. First, I’ve been away in Berlin celebrating the Nerdle’s 40th birthday so I finished it a while ago and its impact is lessening with each day especially after too many German wine tastings – mighty fine stuff German wine if you open your mind and your gullet. Second, it’s such a mighty work that it would take more than a blog post to unpick it (can a post unpick?).  It’s one of those novels that demands and deserves a second reading.  I can’t escape the feeling that Selimovic is saying something important, if only I can pay him enough attention, but I have Botswana to get on with and so have to fail him.  I’m sure you’ll all do better when you read it which I really recommend you do.

The Fortress, set in 18th Century Ottoman-ruled Sarajevo, opens with the narrator Ahmet Shabo returning, mentally shattered, from the battle of Chocim in Russia. It begins with a description of two incidents which illustrate the horrors of war, before parking the visceral nightmare of war itself, and moving forward with the more subtle devastation of peace under tyranny.    As Shabo says (surely ventriloquising Selimovic who fought in WWII) in the opening paragraph, ‘I can’t tell you what it was like […] not because I don’t remember, but because I will not.’

On returning to Sarajevo, Shabo discovers that his entire family have died of the plague and yet, as after a loud bang when further noises are muffled, no new emotion can break through the ringing of his old pain.  So begins his search for meaning and understanding.  The first person narrative allows for an introspection that could be irksome, yet isn’t.  This is surely because Selimovic, although transposing the setting to the 18th Century, is talking from experience, giving the narrative legitimacy.  This feeling of authenticity also makes the novel timeless and oddly placeless.  The pace (described in Publishers’ Weekly, rather condescendingly, as so glacial an America audience may not like it) allows Shabo’s thoughts to develop and change as he encounters, assimilates and  accepts each new situation.  This technique accentuates our feeling of closeness to real experiences.

Shabo’s first job back in Sarajevo is working as a scribe for Mula Ibrahim, a clerk Shabo has rescued from certain death. Shabo also, pretty soon, marries a beautiful Christian woman although I’m never sure why it’s important that she’s Christian – maybe to isolate her and Shabo from her family leaving them completely alone when things get tough.

Most, well, all critics in fact, note that the pivotal moment of the plot happens at a dinner being given by a local effendi when remarks Shabo makes about human decency and the way in which the powerful trample on the weak, are taken as anti-regime rhetoric, earning him a brutal beating (being defecated on into the bargain), and resulting in his being fired by Mula Ibrahim and finding no one else willing to give him work thereafter.  However I, and of course I’m probably wrong, would put the defining action a few minutes before Shabo’s seeming denunciation of the regime when Shabo, drunk, tells his fellow diners what happened when he rescued Mula Ibrahim – a secret he has promised never to reveal.[1]  This betrayal seems key to what then happens to Shabo, making him more than a mere innocent or naïve victim.[2]  Yes, he’s an idealist. Yes, he’s basically a good man trying to do the best he can in a cruel and brutal world, but he is flawed and weak and dare I say, not particularly likeable, and this makes the violent and sometimes fatal consequences of his actions more believable.

As the novel unfolds, we are presented with a series of characters  – a few moral, many immoral and some amoral, all of whom Selimovic uses to explore the ways in which humans navigate life and understand its meaning.   The Fortress of the title is not only a formidable prison which features as a key component of the plot, but also becomes a metaphor for those things which circumscribe existence; love, tension, apprehension, enmity, poverty, grief.[3]  Each character is either fighting to break out of a fortress, or is learning to live within one.

Lest you think this sounds heavy and depressing, The Fortress is surprisingly hopeful.  As Shabo concludes, ‘I decided for love. It was less realistic and less probable, but more noble. And better. This way everything had more meaning. Both death … and life.’

[1] When Mula Ibrahim thought he was dying he had lost control of his bowels.

[2] This episode reminded me of Peter’s betrayal of Christ, not only once but three times.  As I child, I remember thinking that this was far worse than Judas’s.  I’m happy to admit that from a theological point of view, I’m on shaky ground here.  Catholics don’t spend much time reading the Bible and my mind was always inclined to wander during Mass especially as it was in Latin during my early years.  However, Judas it seemed to me then, had no choice.  No Judas, no risen Christ. No Christianity.  Christ warned Peter he’d deny him and yet Peter denied him anyway and then went on to be the father of the church.  Peter, and apologies if this offends anyone, always struck me as the kind of child who sets up trouble at school but is never there when the punishment is given out.   We were told that Peter was so ashamed that he cried so hard he had permanent furrows down his cheeks.  I’m afraid this made me like him even less.  Perhaps I was an unforgiving child, but he didn’t do too badly did he, whereas poor Judas hanged himself for shame, is the eternal byword for betrayal and has probably caused suspicious of red-heads ever since.  I always found it easy to feel sorry for Judas.

[3] The name Sarajevo itself also means a fortified building. As you can see – there’s a lot to unpick in this novel.