Mesa Selimovic intended his Death and the Dervish to be a commentary on faint-heartedness and moral cowardice that pervaded many aspects of life in communist Yugoslavia. Conveying this mood of metaphysical disenchantment, as all comforting notions of love, life, family, and country implode upon themselves to reveal nothing but punctured, hypocritical hollowness, Selimovic gives us Modernity, disguised in the shroud of 18th century Bosnia. It was a place technically within the coordinates of Ottoman splendour, and yet the most enduring cultural signal is not the aesthetics, the riches, or the intellectual rigour, but stifling corruption, abuse of power, violence, injustice, and countless other symptoms of an expansive empire feeling the burden of its own weight.
Perched atop this Babel there sits a Dervish. A man of faith. A man of doubt. One day, his brother disappears, and that’s when things start to get interesting, that’s when the masks drop and the prayer beads snap, and the Koran starts getting misquoted.
The Dervish Sheikh Nuruddin… His soul’s journey, documented before us in extremely quotable meditative plainchant, makes for a rather relatable, pitiable, sometimes admirable Everyman. Armed with Koran and ascetic rules of monastic life, he tiptoes along the labyrinth of society’s impossible choices, doubt cementing on his tired shoulders with each passing day. This doubt permeates every filament of human activity, its molecules invading everything from public spaces where political farce plays out with a hefty doze of injustice, down to the private nooks of people’s bedchambers, where one cannot be sure of one’s beloved’s fidelity. Everything melts, like Dali’s clocks, and the centre doesn’t hold:
“We haven’t conquered the earth, but only a clot to put our feet on; we haven’t conquered mountains, but only their image in our eyes; we haven’t conquered the sea, but only its resilient firmness and the reflection of its surface. Nothing is ours but illusion, and therefore we hold onto it firmly. We’re not something in the world, but nothing in it; we’re not equal to what’s around us, but different, incompatible with it. In his development, man should strive for the loss of his self-consciousness. The earth is uninhabitable, like the moon, and we only delude ourselves thinking that it’s our true home, since we have no other place to go.”
Order, law, family, friendship, faith, all this, our Dervish discovers, is just victim to a “false conviction that we can keep life under control. But life keeps slipping away, and the more we try to keep hold of it, the more it eludes us.” Is it possible to accept this as a stone-cold fact and just move on? “How can a man live without beliefs that grow on him like skin, that become inseparable from him? How can you live without your self?”
This novel is chock-full of good existential questions like that, enough for a number of undergraduate philosophy classes to unpack. There are answers also, but more often unsatisfactory and nihilistic at best, once again underscoring the perpetual angst of a mind hard at work, digesting the cacophony of everyday chaos. Therein lies the timeless relevance of this work in our equally chaotic 21st century context. For instance:
“We should kill our pasts with each passing day. Blot them out, so that they will not hurt. Each present day could thus be endured more easily, it would not be measured against what no longer exists. As things are, spectres mix with our lives so that there is neither pure memory nor pure life. They clash and try to strangle each other, continually.”
Or this one:
“We vacillate between despair and the wish for peace and don’t know what is ours. It’s difficult to stop at either end, to embrace only one side, but that’s what we need to do. Any decision, except the one that will disturb our conscience, is better than the sense of disorientation with which indecision bestows us.”
The dervish is a spiritual Everyman, a stand-in for all of us, reasonably self-aware and yet not even remotely close to that coveted “inner peace.” He gives us plenty of stuff to work with: some are no more than elegant sound-bites, many are indistinguishable from modern-day self-help mindfulness vogue, and yet toward the end all of these noble aspirations, all this soul-searching and David vs Goliath heroism, all is lost in the vortex of self-destruction:
“Fear is flooding over me, like water. The living know nothing. Teach me, dead ones, how to die without fear, or at least without horror. Because death is senseless, as is life.”
Image: The Seated Demon, by Mikhail Vrubel