by Meša Selimović
Taking place in eighteenth century Bosnia, Death and the Dervish follows Sheikh Ahmed Nuruddin as he attempts to navigate the corrupt Turkish bureaucracy to free his brother Harun from their city’s foreboding dungeon and almost certain death. Most of the story involves Nuruddin’s paralyzing internal conflict between his morals and cowardice, and this is to a large extent the aspect of the story that makes it something special––or at least it’s one special thing I can actually discuss without spoiling things. And I imagine I’m not alone in enjoying this psychological exploration, as I would find it hard to believe that I’m the only person who has been there, so firmly stuck between doing the right thing and doing the easy or safe thing, and getting just as shook up whenever I later regret whichever decision I came to. Even though Selimović’s story is written as an overt analysis of these thoughts and feelings––a stylistic choice I usually dislike––it works so well in this instance because the author so effectively verbalizes this struggle.
Bolstering this thoughtful exploration is a cast of characters that I not only found interesting and realistic, but often possessing traits that act as extreme contrasts to those of our flawed protagonist. On one hand, this counterpoint serves to add almost a demonstrative element to the discussions about the ideals of morality and justice and their relation to both power and religion that make up the meat of the text. And, on the other, it helps to endear these characters to the readers, thus making any tragedies that befall them significantly more suspenseful and meaningful when they occur.
But, beneath everything is something far darker, and it comes about so organically that I was almost in disbelief when I started to understand what was happening. For this, and even other small pieces of memorable and extraordinary writing throughout, Death and the Dervish is likely a hugely important work for any writer to read. Otherwise, anyone can likely emerge from this work a little stronger if they even take away a small portion of Selimović’s astute understanding of the human condition.