The Fortress

Mesa Selimovic

translated from the Serbo-Croatian
Northwestern University Press 1999 [1970]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2016
Ahmet Shabo has survived the horrific battle of Chocim (or Khotyn, 1621), but he returns to Sarajevo to find his family dead and he struggles to come to terms with his experiences and the death of his comrades. He is apolitical himself, but his quiet refusal to hide the truth, some drunken remarks at a dinner party, and a chance encounter with a student activist impel him into the dangerous waters of provincial politics. Only his inner strength and his marriage to and love for a young Christian woman sustain him.

Aspects of The Fortress are clearly commentary on Yugoslavia in the 1960s — one scene is an undisguised communist self-criticism session — but this is nicely meshed with the workings of Ottoman Bosnia. Selimovic is not interested in the workings of bureaucracies and power elites themselves, however, but in their effects on ordinary people, and in the individual's ability to transcend, or at least live with, the constraints they impose.

"I left with the unpleasant taste of Osman's tale of hatred. What a life these people led! What an unremitting strain, the calculation of every step and of every word, the fatiguing consideration of the possible moves of an opponent! What a torment, what a waste of life! What little time or opportunity for normal human thinking and feeling, for caring for anything beyond oneself and one's danger! We saw them exercising power, force, in all their might, but didn't realize their unease, their fear of everything, of themselves, of the other, the greater, the lesser, the more intelligent, the more malicious, the more skillful, of the secret, of the shadow, of the dark, of the light, of taking the wrong step, of the sincere word, of everything and everybody!"

The Fortress perhaps ranks a little behind Selimovic's masterwork Death and the Dervish, but it is a striking and memorable novel.

March 2016

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%T The Fortress
%A Selimovic, Mesa
%M Serbo-Croatian
%F Goy, E.D.
%F Levinger, Jasna
%I Northwestern University Press
%D 1999 [1970]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9780810117136
%P 406pp