Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Shards (2011)

Title: Shards
Author: Ismet Prcic
Publisher: Black Cat
Price: Full Price and Well Worth It
LCC: LD 791.8 .E5 2008 P73 (Dissertation Version)

The dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was a total disaster. It resulted in the bloodiest conflict Europe has seen since World War II. While all sides violated the Geneva Conflict and committed war crimes, by far the worst offenses were perpetrated by the Serbian army against Bosnian Muslims. Under the leadership of Slobodan Milošević, the Serb forces attempted Europe's second internal genocide in a process they hideously euphemized as "ethnic cleansing."

Genocide can be the fate of the people, but it can only be experienced by the individual victims and perpetrators. Since 1945, we have learned plenty about the horrors of the Jewish holocaust from Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, Elie Wiesel's Night, and Ruth Kluger's overlooked memoir, Stay Alive. Europe's second attempted genocide has also produced a literature of equal quality and candor. Even in the midst of the conflict, novelists in the former Yugoslavia were capturing the experience of living in a country under siege by its own people. Among this growing body of literature were Semezdin Mehmedinovic's Sarajevo Blues, Aleksander Hemon's Nowhere Man, Miljenko Jergovic's Sarajevo Marlboro, Sasa Stanisic's How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone.

The most recent addition to what we might call Yugoslavian Civil War Literature (syllabi makers, take note) is Shards by Ismet "Izzy" Prcic. Prcic's novel is an account of the war and its aftermath told in a Bosnian-inflected punk rock idiom. In postmodern fashion, Shards blends together the memoir and the novel. The text juxtaposes "shards" of prose narrative and pretends to be a manuscript that combines Prcic's therapist-mandated memoir of the war, a diary that details his life as a refugee in Southern California, and material that details the presumably fictitious adventures of Mustafa Nalic, a Bosnian man who rather than flee his homeland, fought in the Bosnian army as a special unit commando. Prcic's first novel strikes me as reminiscent of Philip Roth's Israeli fictions, Counterlife and Operation Shylock. Just as Mustafa offers Izzy a view of what his life had been if he stayed and fought for Bosnia, Counterlife documents two different accounts of Nathan Zuckerman's life, one where he leaves the United States to live in Israel and one where he dies. In Operation Shylock, Philip Roth writes about a fictitious version of Philip Roth who is besieged by his anti-Zionist doppelganger who is also named Philip Roth. Similarly, Shards plays with autobiographical elements that readers know must be fictional and Izzy, the character, is tormented by alternative versions of himself.

Early in the novel,  readers learn from a diary entry that Prcic has taken on the rock 'n' roll name Izzy. The new name marks an effort to assimilate in America, but it also promises Prcic a new identity that unfortunately does not help him forget his previous life in Bosnia. As he explains in a later entry, when he returns or thinks about Bosnia he reverts to Ismet, when he acts as a college student at Moorpark College and later UC San Diego, he's Izzy. Readers are thus treated to a schizophrenic memoir-novel that alternates between a teenage Ismet who grows up in Tuzla, Bosnia and a slightly older Izzy who both narrates Ismet's previous adventures and writes in his diary about how he cannot forget about what happened to him and his family even though he is a hemisphere away.

In the memoir portions of Shards, Ismet encounters the war both as something that merely happens on TV--a space where politicians argue and make disparaging nationalistic remarks--and as a restrictive, life-changing event. The home that the family keeps for weekend getaways becomes a symbol of the family's fear and oppression when they are forced to abandon it. Prcic describes a conversation between his mother and their Serbian neighbor. Harvesting her garden, Mrs. Prcic tells the neighbor that she is going to make jam with some of her yield. The neighbor encourages her and then adds, cryptically, that once preserved who knows who may get to eat it. Ismet's mother interprets this as a veiled threat, packs up the car, and considers the weekend retreat as good as torched. Episodes like this shape Ismet's childhood and when he is given the chance to travel abroad to Scotland on a government sponsored theater trip, his family arranges for him to enter into exile just before he is inducted into the Bosnian army.

Where Ismet ends, Izzy begins. Izzy is a brash college student who is doing his best to be "normal." He hangs out with friends, he goes to parties in the Valley, he falls in love. And yet despite his efforts to just be "Izzy," Prcic cannot forget his past in Bosnia. In diary entries addressed to his mother, he recounts the difficulties of the war years, the stress that they have put on his family life, and the mental anguish that he is currently going through. At one point in the novel, Izzy wanders around a strange San Fernando Valley neighborhood. Hearing someone speak Bosnian, he asks for help and is invited into the family home. Once inside, he discovers that they are roasting a pig and are in fact not Bosnian Muslims, but Serbs with military regalia decorating their house and pictures of Serbian war criminals on the wall. Izzy carefully maneuvers his escape from the home, but the episode points to the fact that Izzy cannot escape what he experienced back when he was merely Ismet. 

Finally, there is Mustafa. The novel is perhaps at its most postmodern when it comes to to this illusive figure. Mustafa may be only a fictitious persona that Izzy creates for himself in order to deal with the death of a friend. He might also be a real person who is a true-to-life Bosnian commando. Either way, Mustafa's character is an attempt for Ismet to answer the question, What would have happened if I stayed in the army?  Ismet feels guilty over the figure of Mustafa and the sections dealing with are an amalgam of regret and cartoon masculine fantasies. He is the character who can live up to the ninja stories that Ismet loved as a child. It is Mustafa who gives Bosnia "his shooting finger for defending, his body for a shield, his sanity and humanity as a sacrifice for future generations, [and], his blood for fertilization of [Bosnian] soil." The fictional Izzy cannot  seem to forgive himself for making such a noble sacrifice, but he sacrifices anyway.

Shards is a compelling first novel and we at Narrative Review await Prcic's sophomore effort. Those of you in the Los Angeles area will have the opportunity to meet Prcic and have your copy signed by the author. On October 27th, Ismet Prcic will read and sign copies of his novel Shards at Skylight Books. If you are smart, you will go and check him out.

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