When you are a war survivor, how do you make sense of what is left behind—especially when, as Ismet Prcic points out, war can show that society and reality are simply illusions? There are no easy answers, but the Bosnian author has crafted a memorable debut novel corralling the shards of his memories into a fairly coherent whole.
Shards is presented in fractured segments. As the reader pieces them together, a story slowly emerges of the young protagonist (also named Ismet Prcic) growing up in Tuzla and eventually moving to the United States as a war refugee.
One of the book’s many segments describes Ismet’s teen years growing up in Tuzla in the shadow of war, with “Croats and Muslims being slaughtered left and right by Serbian paramilitaries and by the Yugoslav People’s Army.” Despite the war, Ismet’s life has a tenuous semblance of normalcy. He has a girlfriend and even gets involved with a local theater group in the city—an act that gives his life some ballast.
Interspersed with these stories set in Tuzla are Ismet’s (Izzy’s) missives from America, where he is a new immigrant. Haunted by memories of the war and incredible survivor’s guilt, Izzy sets down his thoughts as a sort of purge recommended by his therapist. “I was never forced to eat human testicles or shoot at another human being or watch pigs eat my fellow citizens,” Izzy remembers, “No. I ran away instead. That’s what I did. That’s my story. I left my mother behind, my father, my brother, my first love. That’s it. The end.”
Yet other parts of the book are written describing someone who seems like Ismet’s counterpart: Mustafa Nalic. Unlike Ismet, who avoided being conscripted, Mustafa joins the infantry and is witness to all the attendant horrors of war.
Prcic’s device—that of melding fiction and memoir forms together—works well in this book for the most part. The fractured writing serves to mirror the lasting emotional fallout of war even on someone who has managed to escape. There are times, however, when the novel’s form gets trying, when it calls so much attention to itself that the structure itself becomes a distraction.
This is a minor quibble in an otherwise beautiful and devastating novel. Prcic manages to find grace in even the most horrific of situations, and his writing, for someone so new to the language, is nothing short of remarkable. Even the most modest sentences create a complete and compelling tableau, as in this instance, when Ismet finds his “mother in the darkness of the kitchen/dining room staring through the closed lace curtains with a pair of opera glasses eight stories down to the street on which convoys of military vehicles moved to and fro nightly.”
A relatively new immigrant himself, Prcic does a superb job of capturing the immigrant’s profound isolation. His description of Izzy’s first evening in the United States, in a strange motel on the outskirts of New York City, is heartbreakingly on the mark. “I’d always been a loner and proud of it—people were something you had to deal with or avoid—but now, standing on a worn patch of beige carpet, on my first night in America, I longed for somebody, anybody,” he writes.
In one brilliantly realized scene, Izzy runs into a Yugoslav skinhead in suburban Los Angeles, someone who mistakes Ismet as a war hero. The incident manages to completely fluster him. As Ismet sadly discovers, you can run from war but you cannot hide. Once a witness to it, war becomes a permanent shard in a person’s psyche.
“I finished my story of escape and it finished me. There is no more narrative to conjure up and make it make sense and hide behind. Now there’s just the mess of life,” Izzy writes in Shards. Sorting out that mess and trying to make it clear to the other side, Ismet finds, will take nothing short of a miracle.