Books

Life During Wartime

Ismet Prcic's Shards Is a Fractured Novel for a Fractured Life

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The title of Ismet Prcic's Shards is like a big ol' warning label slapped across the front of his great debut novel—this is a story in pieces, an account of a life so fragmented by trauma that the promises of narrative continuity have ceased to apply.

Shards collects the notebooks of a young Bosnian man who also happens to be named Ismet Prcic; to say that the notebooks combine memoir and fiction would be to imply that there is a meaningful distinction between the two, an idea that Shards roundly rejects. In his notebooks, Ismet writes of his childhood in wartorn Bosnia, his loutish father and suicidal mother, the theater troupe that provides him a way out of Bosnia, and his ultimate inability to adjust to a new life in Southern California. Mixed in with these ostensibly autobiographical remembrances is the possibly fictional account of a young soldier named Mustafa, who fights in the trenches as Ismet never did.

According to memoir portions of the book (which for the most part are satisfyingly grounded in family, friends, and young love), Ismet's ticket out of Bosnia comes when his theater company is invited to perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The first, exhilarated night spent walking the Scotland streets is soured by what Ismet assumes is the sound of an incoming shell—he and the younger company members hit the ground, only to realize the sound was fireworks. The older members of the troupe then laugh at them: "[The older company members] 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. And normalcy was proving to be an unnatural, brittle state."

This notion is key to understanding Shards. Instead of describing the experience of war in some linear, objective fashion—a narrator reciting atrocities like a camera lens panning across a battlefield—Prcic shows us instead a consciousness utterly splintered by wartime trauma. The book's fractured narrative brings to mind another local author, Lidia Yuknavitch, whose experimentalism similarly pools around moments of extreme distress, plot points so horrific they disrupt the very notion of a story arc. Shards doesn't provide much in the way of narrative resolution or satisfaction, and there's no reason it should: Like Ismet himself, this is a novel whose normalcy was forged in chaos.

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