Death and the Dervish

Mesa Selimovic

translated from the Serbo-Croatian
Northwestern University Press 1996 [1966]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004
Ahmed Nuruddin is the sheikh of a tekke, the head of a small religious order in a town in Ottoman Bosnia. At forty, he is a settled and respected member of the community, until pushed onto a new path by successive shocks: the arrest of his brother and an encounter with a fugitive from justice. These lead him to question previous certainties and bring him into conflict with the local authorities. He becomes part of the political system himself; ill-suited to that, he comes to an unhappy end.

Death and the Dervish follows throughout the first-person perspective of Nuruddin, with little dialogue and much introspective soul-searching. But it is not difficult to read: the story, though superficially sparse, maintains a continuous suspense. And there is a fascinating array of other characters, seen through Nuruddin's sometimes insightful and sometimes naive eyes: his fellow dervishes in the tekke; his friend Hassan, the unsettled "black sheep" of his family, in love with a Dalmatian Christian; Hassan's father and sister; various townspeople; and religious and secular officials. Nuruddin also looks back at his experiences as a soldier.

Nuruddin's angst is often philosophical and his thinking is foreign, convincingly that of a Muslim religious recluse, and in many ways narrow and parochial. But his quandries are universal: Death and the Dervish is an evocation of Ottoman Bosnia, of a world now past, but above all the story of an individual struggling to find himself and maintain his integrity and dignity in a hostile political landscape. (Parts of the story were inspired by events in Mesa Selimovic's own life and in the modern history of Yugoslavia.) Nuruddin is not an anti-hero, but he is a man profoundly troubled, a thinker rather than a doer, ill-equipped for the challenges he faces.

Death and the Dervish is a masterpiece, a compelling psychological study and a spell-binding novel which approaches poetry in the intensity of its language. It's hard to believe it took thirty years for an English translation to appear.

February 2004

External links:
- buy from or
- review and links at the Complete Review
Related reviews:
- Mesa Selimovic - The Fortress
- books about Eastern Europe + Eastern European history
- more Serbo-Croatian literature
- more historical fiction
- more political fiction
- books published by Northwestern University Press
- other "best book" selections
%T Death and the Dervish
%A Selimovic, Mesa
%M Serbo-Croatian
%F Rakic, Bogdan
%F Dickey, Stephen M.
%I Northwestern University Press
%D 1996 [1966]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0810112973
%P 473pp