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Death and the Dervish by Meša Selimović
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Death and the Dervish

by Meša Selimović

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 5 of 5
Bosnian Muslim take on existentialist fiction, but much better than Sartre. ( )
  palaverofbirds | Mar 29, 2013 |
This is an undoubtedly great book. It is not an easy read but is very rewarding. The main plot is simple – Sheikh Ahmed Nuruddin, the dervish of the title, deals with the fact that his brother has been unjustly arrested. In the first half, he attempts to learn about the arrest and the reasons behind it, coming up against a slothful, corrupt bureaucracy. In the second half, he deals with the fallout of his brother’s imprisonment, alternating between hatred and forgetting. There are numerous side plots, ambling tangents and stories from the past. These stories serve as a comment on the narrator’s situation and give insight into some of the characters. Selimovic’s writing is complex and beautiful, wonderfully conveying the narrator’s doubts and inertia.

Nuruddin is Hamlet-esque in that he learns of the crime committed against his brother but dithers and equivocates endlessly. While describing a conversation, he analyzes it so thoroughly that the actual dialogue is dominated by his nuanced, conflicted interpretations. Some of his inaction is pragmatic – he is aware that the normal actions that he takes will do nothing for his brother. His puzzling of moral and logistic concerns can seem sympathetic – who has not worried over the right thing to do? – but gradually he starts to alienate the reader. He cannot work himself up to take one or the other side and his actions – or lack of action – turn him into a hypocrite. He’s unable to float above worldly concerns like Hafiz-Muhammed or shamefully conform, like Mullah-Yusuf. He can’t advocate cheerful civil disobedience like Hadji-Sinanuddin or smoothly bribe his way and play the game like Ali-aga. The madman who tells the truth, as embodied by the beggar Ali-hodja, certainly isn’t a role he can occupy. The other important character is Hassan, the disobedient scion of a wealthy family, who is open, friendly and willing to break the law to help his friends. The narrator looks up to him but is unable to imitate him. In the spirit of the book, however, these characters also have their faults, hypocrisies or admirable qualities. Religion is a crutch and a comfort for Nuruddin but not much of either. His act of rebellion at the end is violent, hypocritical and ends up being a Pyrrhic victory.

The book feels timeless and also like an unending nightmare. There’s something of a flat, grey atmosphere (which can make it a bit slow at times) which is occasionally relieved by stories from the past - Nuruddin previously fought in the war, Hassan’s adventures show up and the history of Mullah-Yusuf becomes important. The authorities who jailed the narrator’s brother are remote and impersonal but also embodied in various minor officials who can’t do anything or talk in circles. We are stuck in Nuruddin’s head and his constant questioning and dithering contributes to the claustrophobic atmosphere. The synopsis says that the book takes place in Sarajevo in the 17th century, based on some geographic clues and historical references, but this is only established indirectly (though there are some nice thoughts on the divided nature of Bosnia which relate to Nuruddin as well). This vagueness contributes to the impression that nothing can be known and that the grounds are constantly shifting. I was extremely impressed with this well-written, thoughtful, wonderfully atmospheric book but would recommend it with the caveat that some may find it slow or frustrating. ( )
6 vote DieFledermaus | Feb 25, 2012 |
Dense and therefore, a life project for me. I read 80 pages around 1999, another 100 pages in 2004. I find it tough going because it is mostly a man's thoughts. It's worthwhile and I hope to finish it someday. It's lived in 6 different apartments with me. ( )
  atom_box | Mar 26, 2010 |
This luminous, philosophical novel can only be described as a masterpiece, and one of the best works to emerge from the former Yugoslavia. Ivo Andrić, the first and only Nobel laureate writer from Bosnia, is the most well-known Bosnian writer in the West. However, Meša Selimović is a writer absolutely on the same level as Andrić.

This novel is by no means an easy read, but it is not difficult in a pretentious way. It's demanding, but absolutely rewards the reader's attention and effort. The story is not really driven by plot - much of it is instead focused on the psychology of the characters and on their philosophical and spiritual concerns. These concerns, though, aren't presented as philosophizing - instead, these internal monologues are striking in their dignity and subtlety.

As if this wasn't enough, "Death and the Dervish" has significant historical and cultural resonance. One of the best books not only of Yugoslav literature, but of the entire world.

(A)
  q_and_a | Jan 20, 2007 |
A powerful novel that I would recommend highly to anyone. Some knowledge of Bosnia and the Ottoman empire might enhance the reading experience, but you can get that pretty easily. ( )
  puabi | Jun 4, 2006 |
Showing 5 of 5
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Selimović, Mešaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cooper, Jr., Henry R.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Costantini, Lionellosecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dickey, Stephen M.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gil, PilarTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lahtinen, Aarne T. K.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rakić, BogdanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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