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Friday, April 17, 2009

The Fortress By Meša Selimović

Borges once said that literature has a lot to do with exaggerating. I was reminded of this reading an extraordinary novel by the deceased Bosnian writer Mesa Selimovic – The Fortress. And I was also reminded of the fact that only in a work of literature is it possible to derive pleasure from reading about the hardships of someone else’s existence and the insurmountable obstacles of life, setting to one side the fact that what we are discussing is, after all, just a work of fiction. The novel in question is largely concerned with the gloom and extreme cruelty of the 18th century and warfare in Russia, where Bosnian men were sent as soldiers of the Ottoman Empire, and it describes a group of young men who found themselves in the trenches, fighting in someone else’s war, far from home and far from any hope of ever being able to return to being the people they once were, before the terrible experience of being a soldier. After I had read it I found myself wondering how was it possible to enjoy reading a novel that describes the state of numbness induced by the terrible experiences of the principal character, Ahmet Sabo, forced after the suicides and death of his friends in the distant mud of Russian battlefields to confront the loss of his entire family to an epidemic disease. It was possible, because the novel transcends all that.

In spite of the grim, naturalistic atmosphere that pervades the whole novel, reading it took me on an interesting and informative journey. Here is a sentence from it, in my very free and perhaps unforgivably inadequate translation:

“And the only consolation is that people who will come after we are gone will be living in an even more difficult age, and that they will remember our times as the happy ones.”



Though my own life is probably a far cry from the torment people from other countries have experienced--after all, I live in America, supposedly a good place to live--I have a passion for reading harrowing literature; probably I think, because my own life really has been so sad. The sweet moments are so much sweeter when all you know is harrow. Honestly, the only thing I understand in life is darkness. I can appreciate that final sentence you translated. It rings as clear as a bell.

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