Attempting to escape the unescapable
A review of Under Pressure. By: Faruk Šehić. Publisher: Istros Books, London, 2019.
Walking down the streets of Sarajevo, Mostar, or Banja Luka it is hard to believe that almost a quarter century has passed since the end of the bloodiest conflict in post-war Europe. As a result of the war, thousands of people from the former Yugoslavia lost their lives, and close to two million became refugees. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who was the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Territory of Former Yugoslavia, reported on grave human rights violations during the conflict. His report emphasised the plundering, ethnic cleansing and rape committed against civilians, including children. The rapes, defined as genocidal rape, were treated like a form of punishment for belonging to another ethnic group, or as a war tactic. The International Criminal Court has described the scale of the atrocities against civilians in the former Yugoslavia as immense.
Such a picture is also painted by the Bosnian writer Faruk Šehić in his book, Under Pressure. It has recently been published in English (originally published in 2004) thanks to a crowdfunding campaign organised by Istros Books, which specialises in South-eastern European literature. Kudos for the success.
Šehić is a former soldier of the Bosnian army. At the age of 22 he fought at the frontlines, commanding a unit of 130 men for four years. While reflecting on this period, Šehić shows that the war and its tactics changed the nature of the Balkans in a matter of seconds. The atrocities affected people’s appearances, their values and worldviews. “In the beginning there was Eden, whence we were expelled,”he writes. It soon turned out that from this exile there was no return.
Nothing was the same after the war. Even if it might have seemed the exile had a temporary purpose, the future proved to be more like what a Roma lady foresaw when she said: “Your life line is broken in two places. You’ll be wounded twice … A journey abroad is in your future, and glad tidings from afar.” After the time of combat, injuries, and humiliation, a time of peace ensues with a new reality, a new socio-political order. Yet peace of mind never arrives.
The traumatic experiences and memories accompany witnesses forever. This is why the generation born in 1970s, tainted by the depravity of the Yugoslav wars, is known as the “mangled generation”. Šehić’s book explains why this term is accurate. “If I saw myself in the mirror now, the shock would kill me. I change cover every now and then. I hop into a small depression, I get scratched in the wild brambles,” he writes.
Although the narrative is formed by one person, there are several stories from a few other soldiers. Šehić wrote these fragmented stories after he returned home in order to show the physical and mental challenges that his brothers-in-arms had to face during the war.
The book is a compilation of experiences which reflects real events, yet it is full of emotion. The writer allows his characters to reveal themselves. Their voices are poignant, but it can be distressing, like this case: “When I go back to the frontline, I’ll shoot cows, horses, sheep, chickens, dogs, grasshoppers, hay. Everything that breathes and slithers. … Let houses burn like candles on birthday cakes. I will shoot the sky above their line, the clouds will ooze the proletariat’s colours. I will shoot at my own rear. Let all sides feel the pain”.
This and other quotes show that the publication is clearly not a historical account. Its narrative is rather built on a stream of consciousness which combines reality with perception. Thus on the pages of the book we can read: “I forgot to describe my feelings … No range, no sorrow, no despair, no numbness, no melancholia, no love, no fear, no optimism, no heroism, no patriotism, no homesickness, no fucksickness, no boredom, no resignation, no weariness, nothing. Such is my state of mind, and there is some turbulence in my head.”
Šehić’s book will not revive any positive memories. On the contrary, it displays the war’s filth, brutality and stench. He describes everything that people would prefer to forget. This is true for both the direct witnesses of the war and their descendants. They all want to put everything into oblivion that made this period of history so brutal. That said, Šehić’s characters are both murderers and victims. There are people who can plunder both the living and the dead, other people and their houses. They rape too. In order to get through this hell on earth, they numb themselves with alcohol and drugs.
Illusions and hallucinations
As already mentioned, Šehić does not hide the brutality of war. He presents events in a descriptive and uncompromising way, showing how life can change in a matter of moments. Consequently, Under Pressure is full of horrifying scenes depicting corpses, injured bodies, physical and mental pain. And yet, being the work of a poet, it includes poetic descriptions of emotion, fear and horror, as well as the alcoholic and narcotic highs which were supposed to be a form of escape.
Reading Šehić one starts to understand that the greatest challenge for those who live in a combat zone is the uncertainty of daily encounters – in other words, the acute awareness of mortality. This feeling is especially present where “everything’s a lottery … you can catch death whenever”. Everyone is scared while panic, as we read in the book, is an “army general”. Accompanied by rage. “I have fired in anger, though. Everything happens so quickly. In an instant.”
One may ask if these descriptions are a way for Šehić to justify things that occurred during the war. The answer is surely not. Šehić rather shows his helplessness and desperation in an attempt to escape. He falls into the world of illusion and hallucination. “Better drunk than dead” are the words we hear from him.This method of an escape, in a way, helps build a sense of community among comrades. “Alcohol has brought us together; we’ve finally attained ethnic homogeneity!” says the protagonist. It also helps them run away from the evils of war and from what they did to others. It is as much an escape from oneself as it is from the ability to commit despicable acts.
The road chosen by those who ran away says something to those who accuse soldiers of cowardice and having a tendency to look for shortcuts. Intoxication is indeed the easiest way to forget. Maybe it is also the only option when you are on the battlefield as it is very hard to come by anything else. Other options seem pointless, as a war zone is a place where you often cannot pray or trust in God. “In fear dwelleth God. I don’t pray to him, as the war has rendered his existence pointless. He is now certainly in another galaxy. Snivelling in safety and solitude. Missing not a hair off his head. He’s stacked himself up a breastwork of mental planets. Repeating his creation experiment, because solitude is nasty and he wants to socialize. He has failed. Appalled, he has given up on the earthlings. Shabby artist, that lad. Still, he did invent evil. If he ever existed,” writes Šehić. All that the soldiers are left with is the option of suicide and thereby take a leap of faith into emptiness. Šehić admits: “In my Kalashnikov I’ve got some five or six rounds. Enough to blow my brains out and end the war forever.”
For those who took part in the war, the experiences are impossible to erase. Others can forget, including subsequent generations. But not the witnesses. Forgetting is not a way to deal with a painful past. “My head is full of dead people, friends and acquaintances. I would often find myself overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and shame when I met their parents and relatives. At times it seemed as though I was trying to explain how come I was alive. When somebody you don’t know gets killed, you’re sorry pro-forma. Besides, there is no time for mourning … What will you do if you survive the war? … I’ll try to live. The prospect of peace scares me a bit. It’s hard to imagine a world without war. That just sounds like sci-fi to me.”
Post-war trauma led many soldiers to psychiatric institutions. However, during combat these were the places where they could escape from the everyday troubles. One of the characters proclaims: “Follow up in twenty-one days, therapy of pills with a strange name. Twenty-one days of leave! What bloody leave! It’s gonna be pure suicide by alcohol and supplemental substances. Living life to the fullest.” Yet there were also soldiers who were turning to the psychiatric clinics, exacerbating their fears, pretending to be depressed so the doctors would give them more prescription drugs. Or so they could drink and space out without any punishment. After the war, these habits became an everyday reality.
Some of the book reviews said that Šehić offers no grand message or moral judgement. He only reports on particular events. Others accuse Šehić of avoiding metaphors and hyperbole. I would argue against these lines of criticism, as metaphors and an underlying message can be found in the book. The easiest thing to say is that the intention of the book was to remember the Yugoslav wars – so that brutality of this kind does not get repeated. The book is not only a description of the turmoil, or something that was solely written for those interested in the Yugoslav wars, it also resembles a play of morality whose recipients discover how unstable things are.
Under Pressure is also a good illustration of how the period can resemble our present time. During both there are human rights violations as well as moments when people’s dignity is tarnished, or their identity symbolically ravaged. Šehić’s work is thus a story about all kinds of war. That is to say, it is a parable of when all rules that govern human relations are broken and all values are decimated. It is a story about how human beings become predatory animals unable to control rage, pain, exhaustion and fear. Finally, it is a book about the will to escape the unescapable. Namely, the memory of the past, but also the consequences of one’s actions. Even if some forms of escape seem easy, it soon becomes clear that, in the end, one has to face reality.
It does not matter how this book is read – as a story about war or humanity, a memoir of combat participants, or of those who were scared and desperate – it always terrifies. This feeling of despair one gets from reading Šehić does not come from the dispassionate accounts of those killed, but from the message it conveys. It is a message that sadly confirms the Latin proverb that “a man is a wolf to another man”.As painful as these words are, there are times when we need to be reminded about them.
Today, the physical remains of the Yugoslav wars are mainly to be found in the shelled out façades on the buildings and cemeteries across different parts of the region. Šehić makes it clear that those times are still alive in our memory. His book tells us that people do not change so fast and that peace is not here forever. Rather it is something to work towards.
Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht
Kinga Anna Gajda is an assistant professor at the Institute of European Studies of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. She holds a PhD in literature.