Shards by Ismet Prcic
A novel about growing up where things are blowing up
IN 1945, J.D. SALINGER WROTE that the novels of World War II had “too much of the strength, maturity, and craftsmanship that critics are looking for and too little of the glorious imperfections which teeter and fall off the best minds.” Six years later he published “The Catcher in the Rye,” whose narrator Holden Caulfield was so buried under trauma and alienated by his pain that the initial impressions of typical, coming-of-age angst gradually unraveled into something closer to the lingering aftershocks of war.
Holden bottled his unhappiness into the word “phony.” The writer Ismet Prcic (PER-sick) – who escaped Bosnia as a teenager during the wars of the early 1990s – gave a better explanation in an interview with BOMB magazine recently, saying, “War shatters everything you think you know and believe and shows you that society, reality, things you hold dear are simply illusions, a common set of agreements by the people who choose to make them or are simply grandfathered into them…it takes war or some other reality-destroying experience to wake us up. Once you’re awakened in this manner, it is sometimes hard to buy into the old agreements once the war is over.”
Prcic adapted his experience into “Shards”, an experimental and exceptional debut novel published this year. “Shards” is a war novel, and possibly a World War II novel, since its story is driven by the fracturing of Yugoslavia, a country that came together in 1945 while Europe was in upheaval. By that standard, it meets Salinger’s requirement, and then some, for “glorious imperfections.” But “Shards” also qualifies as a coming-of age story, though of the unique variety where having an adolescent crush means damning the water rations and finding ways to bathe each day, and where make-out sessions are interrupted by the occasional mortar falling out of the sky. In one scene, the sometime-narrator Ismet (who shares the name of the author) is visiting Scotland with a theater troupe and ducks under a bus when fireworks are shot into the air. While the older members of the troupe laugh at him, he realizes: ”They remembered with fully formed adult bodies and minds life before the war. Before chaos, they’d known order, before senselessness, sense. They were really out of Bosnia because leaving chaos to them felt like returning to normalcy. But, if you were forged in the chaos, then there was no return. There was no escape. To you chaos was normalcy.” These are the forces of war and experiences of childhood that were inevitably cast together for a generation of young Bosnians. The resulting mix of loyalty, resentment, homelessness, hope, guilt, fury, freedom and sadness is what binds together the fragmented narrative of “Shards.”
The novel follows the paths of two young Bosnian Muslims, the first-person narrator Ismet Prcic who escapes to become a student in America, and Mustafa Nalic, who reports for duty and is sent to the frontlines of the war. The stories begin at the characters’ arrivals in these different places, but careen back and forth, jumping from past to present and shifting forms between excerpts from a memoir, pained letters from Ismet to his mother, and straightforward storytelling that may, or may not be, written by Ismet and often focuses on Mustafa.
The more the narrative picks up speed, and the more fragmented (or Balkanized) it becomes, the more the Ismet and Mustafa become muddled together. At times Mustafa is a fellow countryman, at others, he is Ismet’s fictional creation who may or may not be based on a real Mustafa. Then there are times when the two are dual personalities sharing the same space and events. Mustafa may be wholly invented, based on someone Ismet the character knew, or Ismet himself. Or all of the above.
For a young author writing experimental fiction, Prcic demonstrates admirable control. He resists using his weirdness in arbitrary ways, or leaning too heavily on his form over his fiction. Nor does he close the broken narrative without some sense of final wholeness. Still, not all of the imperfections in “Shards” are glorious. Ismet dwells on teenage love affairs in ways that seem more like heartsick memoir than a vital piece of his story. Without being filtered through the dysfunction around him, these worries over romance occupy more space than they should. Of greater interest are Mustafa’s experiences with women, which include a homicidal ex- and a Scottish girl who covers herself in metallic paint before a session of robotic lovemaking.
These “fictional” Mustafa sections are the highlights of the novel. It’s a hopeful sign that Prcic doesn’t rely too heavily on his own experience to tell this story, and can translate all that he has seen into a durable, multivalent and compelling work of art. Judging by what this debut novelist has made of his past in “Shards,” there is plenty of reason to look forward to Ismet Prcic’s future.