One of the epigraphs to Shards by Ismet Prcic is a poem from 1980 called “Poetry.”
Who broke these mirrors
and tossed them
among the branches?
. . .
L’Akdhar (the poet) must gather these mirrors
on his palm
and match the pieces together
any way he likes
the memory of the branch.
It’s a fitting blueprint for this novel, which is assembled from bits of fact and fiction about the Bosnian War, and organized by the whims and memories of a shifty author.
In the novel, a buzzard-faced man in a Bosnian mental hospital tells a story from the war, about a kid named Donut.
“What was I talking about? Oh yeah. So… every time a shelling dies down, out come these children to hunt for shrapnel. It’s like a collecting deal… like children collecting marbles and things. So they are walking around with these… sacks of shrapnel, comparing and trading, whathayeva. But this Donut kid is fanatical. He thinks he can recreate a shell by putting together all the shards. Insane!”
Donut finds an old woman who says she can offer him the largest piece of shrapnel he’s ever seen. It turns out to be a mortar shell that fell through her roof, intact, and is resting on her sofa. She doesn’t seem to realize that it could explode at any minute. Donut goes straight for the bomb and tries to pull it out for his collection.
Like the poet assembling a mirror, and the kid collecting shrapnel, Shards is a collection of disparate texts from the notebooks of Ismet Prcic. Ismet flees his native Bosnia during the war and seeks asylum in America.
“I had that werewolf feeling again, all day today, like I wasn’t the only person in my body or my mind.”
The story hinges on Ismet’s decision to accept a rare wartime travel visa, and use it to flee his country. Even though bombs are falling everywhere, it’s not an easy choice to abandon home and family. The consequence of this emotional trauma is a permanent out-of-body feeling. Ismet reaches America and begins a new life, but his alter ego, Mustafa Nalic, stays behind to fight in the war.
“I knew that someone new would get off this plastic chair and board a plane for Los Angeles and that all the while an eighteen-year-old Ismet would remain forever in the city under siege, in the midst of a war that would never end.”
Shards is an immigrant story that’s been jacked up on adrenaline, shaken and stirred with autobiography and pure fiction. It’s not like the contemporary immigrant stories of, say, Jhumpa Lahiri, with their Jamesian plotlines and decorative sociology. It’s more like the harrowing slave narratives of the 18th century. Ismet is literally smuggling his body across international borders.
“I felt like being sold, like I was this Cuban cigar or illicit drug, and they had to finish the transaction quickly and get the fuck out.”
I know Ismet Prcic. Izzy. We went to college together in San Diego. The fictional Ismet Prcic who appears in the novel is every bit as sullen and unhinged as the real Izzy that I remember. Drinking enormous mugs of vodka and Gatorade? Check. Hiding a gun in his room? Sure. Waking up in a stranger’s house with no memory of how he got there? Yes. But the real Izzy is also attentive and tender and strangely wise.
I seem to remember being at Izzy’s house and someone telling me that Jason Mraz was on the roof, smoking pot. The roof was a cool spot at Izzy’s house, and Jason Mraz was, at the time, just a local singer-songwriter who sometimes appeared at parties. Regardless of whether I’m remembering this correctly, it seems true to me, and I’m sure Izzy would endorse a story that feels true.
Beckett, Heller-Kesey-Vonnegut, Hemon, Bukowski, Conrad, Nabokov.
Those are the names I wrote in the margins where Ismet Prcic’s writing resembles them.
Shards is published by the same house that brought us Albert Camus, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bertolt Brecht, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Genet, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Samuel Beckett, J. M. Coetzee, and the Marquis de Sade.
“Two or three machine guns are blurting their repetitive syllables.”
“Home of the Army used to have an olive-colored cannon in front of it, next to a bed of well-groomed tulips and a perpetually bored guard at arms, sometimes with a rigid German shepherd at his heel and sometimes without. But at the beginning of war, the cannon was hauled to the front lines, the tulips were garroted by weeds, the dog disappeared, and only the guard remained, wearing his face like a gas mask.”
“The night fell on Edinburgh like a blanket over a bird cage.”
“A boner of a sweet tooth.”
“A dazzling behemoth of a Pepsi machine.”
“We kissed and rubbed against each other and time slipped away and a white police cruiser glided by, almost noiselessly, across the grass, shining its reflector on us, then politely, Britishly, carried on.”
“He guessed they fucked, but his brain still remembers it as him being vacuumed.”
“The Death of Yugoslavia was on BBC and I watched it die, again.”
A lot of shit happens in the novel. Ismet’s shit comes out of him “in stormy gusts and thunderbolts.” The landscape of war looks like shit. The sky opens up like it’s about to take a shit. Ismet takes refuge in a public toilet, “while men around me pissed and shat, farted and groaned, washed and didn’t wash their hands.”
One chapter is titled “the absurdity of reality, the mind-boggling, fucking unlikeliness of it all.”
At the end of another chapter “you finally understand how absurd, impossible, stupid, shitty, everything is.”
It’s easy to forget that the main character of Shards is Muslim. Just like it’s easy for outsiders to forget the religious dimension of the Bosnian War. When Islam sneaks into Shards, in the form of an unexpected muezzin or a dangerous plate of pork, it makes the whole novel spin around. This is a European war story, in which America serves as the promised land, and it’s being told by America’s favorite bogeyman, a Muslim “other.”
In one scene Ismet’s mother talks to a neighbor about the coming war, and the neighbor makes a vicious remark about Muslims. But she’s really just disguising years of personal animosity in a casual aside about religion. I wanted to strike her across the face.
The poem I cited, the epigraph? It’s by an Iraqi named Saadi Youssef. Translated from Arabic.
I read the last 100 pages of Shards in a breathless rush. Ismet’s reality and Mustafa’s reality slam together at the end. Shards fucks with your sense of truth and your faith in memory. The best shards of Shards made me stifle a gasp, whether I believed they were true or not.