I like to do my reading with a little theme from time to time, so following on from Ognjen Spahić’s Hansen’s Children I have decided to stick with Istros Books and read Selvedin Avdić’s 2009 novel Seven Terrors. This Bosnian novel, translated by Coral Petkovich, was published by Istros in 2012 after having been nominated for the Jutarnji Prize in its original form. The acclaim and the book’s translation into English is hardly surprising, because not only is Seven Terrors one of the most enjoyable novels I’ve read in ages (probably, if we’re talking about plot-driven fiction, as sterling a work as Sealed or Street of Thieves), it also marks Bosnia as, without a doubt, the most successful point of origin for literature I have encountered: of the two Bosnian novels I have read, both are very different, and both are very, very good.1
Seven Terrors is structurally reminiscent of Graeme Macrae Burnett’s His Bloody Project, in that it presents a novel as a collection of found texts. The majority comes from the notebooks of a depressed recent divorcee who has just decided to leave his flat for the first time since he drunk-dialled his ex-wife nine months and three days ago. Not much has changed in his town, he hasn’t really been missed, and soon he finds himself trying to search for Aleksa, an old friend (they were both journalists), who hasn’t been seen since the war. The novel then does what texts of this type often do, and bounces between simple and mysterious explanations for Aleksa’s disappearance. The missing man was last heard of as he investigated the sightings of a subterranean demon-like creature, named Perkman, known and feared by the workers of a local mine. Was there more to Aleksa’s investigation than cynics would have him believe? How does this tie in with the local music school that was turned into a torture chamber during the war, and what does any of this have to do with the Pegasus Twins, the red-head gangsters who have run the town since making a killing (pun intended) during the chaos of the war?
Avdić’s plot is tight, and after the narrator’s relatively straightforward description of events, we get a set of endnotes written in the same voice, annotating his own thoughts. Following this, the reader is presented with some discursive, disjointed, information written (again) by the same voice, here about characters and myths explored in the main text. Straight after this comes a new voice that promises a conclusion will appear, in a new hand, on the final seven blank pages of the narrator’s notebook. The final seven pages remain blank, there is no explanation, but this is far from unsatisfying.
As Avdić’s narrator becomes more involved in this decades-old mystery, he begins to suffer from insomnia, and the centre of the novel shifts from clarity. The reader is unable to trust what the narrator states as reality, as the character drifts in and out of sleep without awareness. He becomes confused as to what he sees and hears, what he thinks he sees and hears and what he believes he has hallucinated. He pastes in diary entries from the man he seeks, explains the local rumours about the origins of the Pegasus Twins, tells stories about the myths that other characters allude to: it is a digressive novel, written with a simplicity and a clarity that could potentially be the product of the translation, but who knows?
Presuming that the Bosnian text is as readable as Petkovich’s translation, it seems important to clarify that Seven Terrors manages to be evocative of contemporary middle age depression and loneliness in Bosnia, of the seedy underworld of small-town organised crime, plus the potentially mysterious liminal shadowlands that could exist if this world was slightly more magical than it is (i.e. slightly magical). Advić’s text creeps in with the supernatural, shifting between direct explanations and witty ambiguity: we are never sure of anything, and this is satisfying because the narrator is a liminal figure, already, in a very real world.
Memories and truths are corrupted and hidden due to the underhand actions of everyone involved in the war – it is possible for the whisper of magic and supernatural evil to rise because the human explanations of many events of the 90s are too troubling. The narrator and the reader (and maybe most people involved in the conflict) wish that all that death could be explained by magic. Perhaps thinking and hoping that is an essential requirement to continue living amongst people you know have done unforgivable things? Also, if you believe in absolute evil, it offers an easy path to believe in absolute good. Maybe.
Seven Terrors is an intense read and, similarly to the work of Andrej Nikolaidis, a Montenegrin writer of a similar age to Avdić, it is reminiscent of Haruki Murakami, or possibly of the same sources of inspiration from which Murakami draws. There are touches of noir, touches of post-modernism, there are lonely men making quasi-spiritual quests following the unexpected appearance of an underwritten younger woman character. Seven Terrors is not a faultless novel, but what fucking novel is? It’s atmospheric, exciting, thrilling, unexpected and very well put together. As I think I’ve said on TriumphoftheNow.com before, there are few things I like more in fiction than a satisfying lack of conclusion. Seven Terrors has that. It’s a blast. Highly recommended, especially if you’re off on a late summer holiday.
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