Book Review - Under Pressure

Faruk Šehić is a Bosnian novelist and journalist, who has been likened to Ernest Hemingway for his terse narrative style and portrayal of toxic masculinity. In his own country, he is admired as one of the ‘mangled generation’ of writers born in 1970s Yugoslavia. After the outbreak of war in 1992, Šehić, twenty-two, voluntarily joined the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina and went on to lead a unit of 130 men. His collection of semi-autobiographical stories, Under Pressure, also classified as a novel because of its unity of time and place, is a harrowing account of the bitter inter-ethnic conflict.

Šehić writers with an unflinching eye about the brutality and futility of war. He spares no details in his descriptions of shattered bodies, the texture of vomit, the physical release of mindless sex, the discomfort of haemorrhoids, and a corpse whose eyes have been pecked out by birds. His protagonists are soldiers who are permanently inebriated or stoned in order to face returning to the front. They overdose on whatever they can lay their hands on: whisky, weed, cognac and local rakia (known as “gut-rot”) laced with diazepam.

Despite the anarchy, a soldier has to have a semblance of order and Šehić employs lists to great effect. In one lucid moment, the narrator reduces ‘the hierarchy of things’ to:

1. war
2. alcohol
3. poetry
4. love
5. war again

His list of essentials, and their exact cost, is also illuminating:  meatballs (expensive); flour (expensive); fags, beer and rakia (cheap)

Later, he offers a poignant roll call of his fallen comrades.

When on leave, or wounded, the men pick fights with and mercilessly beat leery bystanders, the hated civilian police or prisoners of war. They are desensitised to pain and find it increasingly hard to relate to the women in their life. One uses a dead soldier’s ID card to clean between his teeth; later he steals the blood-stained camo shirt from a corpse. However, the threat of PTSD is ever present and is movingly highlighted in the chapter ‘At the Psych Ward’, where the narrator, “his head full of dead people, friends and acquaintances” admits that he cannot imagine a time of normality: “The prospect of peace scares me a bit. It’s hard to imagine a world without war. That just sounds like sci-fi to me.” 

Šehić’s taut, fragmented prose effectively conveys the men’s trauma. His descriptions of violence and despair are relentless and, at times, one yearns for something to break the cycle. His short bursts of poetry feel like lulls in a bombing campaign:

I flick through my memory full of dead faces
With words I try to paint a sphere of warmth
That existed during those forty-four months of life under pressure
To wrest myself from the desire for my words to be bloody and my tongue a blade
To find a single wartime fragment
Of unbreakable human tenderness.

Translator Mirza Purić has his work cut out to render Šehić’s strange mix of Bosnian dialects into equivalent English slang.  Šehić used “the language of rural people”, because this is who they were fighting in villages where none of them had been before: “We were urban lads, and for us this way of speaking was ridiculous, archaic and unknown…. But [it] entered our personal speech and became part of our new linguistic identity.”

Before enlisting as a soldier, Šehić studied veterinary medicine in Zagreb, but claims he had always wanted to write. “I had been a voracious reader since childhood and I wrote during all my years at high school, and all during the war and after the war, so I simply decided to carry on.” Hints of that ambition are evident in this early work, in the easy switching between poetry and prose, in a particular turn of phrase - “dusk was descending like a brocade curtain at the end of a play” - or an unexpected lapse into lyricism:
“Nobody’s wearing a watch.
Because time is utterly pointless.”

Under Pressure is not for the fainthearted. As the main protagonist warns: “horror has an agent in every cell of my body.” It’s a bold work that never lets up and, like war, it’s gruelling, ragged, and unbearably sad.  

Originally published by New Humanist