“I noticed that the pigeons have completely lost their faith in people. It is impossible to get nearer than five metres to any one of them.” [p. 38]
Because of the war in Syria, an estimated 12.5 million people are displaced, and refugees seeking asylum in Europe invariably develop depression, anxiety and PTSD. The world is facing the highest levels of displacement ever in history, with 65.3 million people forced from their homes by war, internal conflicts, drought or poor economies. The walking traumatised are becoming a major challenge of the twenty-first century, requiring a global plan.
The Bosnian war of 1992-95 resulted in some of the worst atrocities seen in Europe since the Nazi era. More than 100,000 people were killed and, according to a recent report by Al Jazeera, twenty years on many survivors suffering from trauma are not getting the help they need.
“I am solitary and depressed. A man with no one to look after him . . .” The narrator has spent nine months and three days in bed after his wife walked out on their five-year marriage. It is 7 March 2005, it is snowing, and he is coming back into life. He plays the Rolling Stones and watches the world outside his window.
The caretaker bangs on the door to collect the overdue payment for the lady who cleans the communal areas of the building. Mirna drops by, she is the daughter of a radio journalist friend whom he had worked with before the war, but she’s sent packing as he and his flat are in such a mess. There’s a report in the newspaper Liberation about mass graves being exhumed. In a waking dream he sees a man in the hallway with big bloodshot eyes whose “mouth moves like earthworms in the mud.”
Mirna returns the following day. She’s trying to find her father, Aleksa, who took to knocking back double brandies just before the war began, “when the disaster could already be foreseen.” He disappeared in March 1993, leaving her and her mother to manage somehow. She goes on about Sweden and how everything is different, “life will never be beautiful again, as it was before.”
She gives him a notebook to read which is referred to as Aleksa’s book of ghosts. It opens with an entry dated 10 July, 1993, about an accident creating tremors deep inside the coal mine. Rats scatter in the sudden darkness, everyone says Muslim prayers, and a djinn called Perkman appears. They hear the sound of galloping horses – the beasts are used to bring the coal to the lift and are kept underground. There are entries about folklore and beliefs surrounding the mines. The atmosphere is otherworldly and apocalyptic.
“I should have told her that I do believe, not only in ghosts, but also in vampires, werewolves, apparitions, fairies, witches, giants, magicians, astrologers, djinns, dwarfs, meleke and angels, azdaje and dragons, Satan, Lucifer, Iblis, Behemoth, Beelzebub, Astaroth, Gabriel, Azrael . . .” says the narrator when he sends Mirna packing once again.
Aleksa lists his seven terrors in a bid to fight off different phobias. Fear of solitude leads the pack. “I have had enough of this place. I can’t stand it any longer. It all makes me want to vomit. I want to be gone, to be forgotten. That is the best way. What’s the sense of us all living in misery.” The narrator recognises himself in his friend’s descriptions which are like a mirror, and he is freaked out. So he goes outside at last, into a weird Tim Burtonesque environment which amplifies the duality of the world around him – the living and the dead, dream and reality, madness and sanity.
The narrator walks through the streets secretly longing for a family, some kind of normality, but there is only fear, the tap root of evil. There is a surreal quality of life on hold, in limbo, it feels as though it is Judgement Day.
When he was with his wife he often had fantasies and daydreams about women, but now she’s gone he misses her. “I only look at women’s eyes. Nothing else interests me.” Out in the street women ignore him and he is annoyed. He goes to the café-bar “The Sevens” where he used to hang out before meeting his wife to ogle at the pretty women. After a promisingly flirtatious start he deteriorates, and is shunned. “There I was installed like a security camera, drinking slowly and watering down the alcohol to ward off drunkenness and tone down the hangover. In that crowded room I was completely alone.” He flips and flies into a rage. The owner slaps him in the face and ejects him.
Ekrem, the cab driver, rescues him. He is completely shut down like the narrator – isolated and self-sufficient, intimacy is a no-go zone. “I have been married three times and besides my wives I’ve had numerous lovers. I just decided one day not to tie myself down any more. There’s going to be no more love for me. I give to no one, and ask nothing from anyone. And since that time, I am a new man, born again. I visit my former wives, I go to see the children, I have a lover, but I don’t allow any one of them to have coffee in my apartment, much less to sleep overnight. Understand? . . . I wouldn’t change my single life for anything. I make all my own decisions, right or wrong . . . there are always whores, and every video shop has plenty of porn.”
Mirna is desperate to find her father. So the narrator ends up helping her in her search to find out what happened, starting with a visit to her flat. He goes to the radio station where he and her father had worked and borrows the log book in which employees recorded their working days – The Observation Book of the Journalist on Duty. Something awful must have happened to Aleksa in all the ugliness and abnormality of war. He loved his wife and daughter very much, and was envied. “I heard that in the music school they are torturing people.” Is that where he ended up?
The narrator visits his friend, Ahmed, who believes in other worlds than our own in which there are spiritual beings. Folders are brought out of the cupboard: there are lists of all the demons, ghosts, spirits, vampires, werewolves, witches, fairies, and other beings who have appeared in Bosnia Herzegovina in the last fifty years. The narrator remembers a school trip to Jasenovac concentration camp, the Auschwitz of the Balkans.
He ends up visiting the fearsome red-headed twin brothers – vicious war profiteers who run the city – from their glitzy Pegasus motel. “I have always been inclined towards all kinds of vices if it was possible to get to them and without consequences.” There is a sinister conversation with Nosferatu by the window. What is true and what is not . . . are people who (or what) they seem to be . . . what lies beneath? And what really happened to Aleksa?
War is a fruitless, pointless waste of time spawning horror and hardship, but the killing machine rolls on. War is big business. “I am calculating, pathetic, egoistic, cowardly . . . a true modern hero,” says the narrator. Everyone guilty, no one is innocent. The complicity of silence is just as destructive.
The novel ends with a superb collection of random yet very relevant jottings – Endnotes – which include an attack on the steely, soulless, superficiality of American Vogue editor, Anna Wintour. Seven Terrors is a weird and wonderful novel. Some scenes are very funny in a dark way, others are very disturbing – and then there are the ones that give you gooseflesh and nightmares.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Patrick Chauvel’s Sky: A Tale of Friendship in the Hellfires of Vietnam are two novels which brilliantly capture the disturbing, hallucinatory nature of traumatic memory, then and now – Selvedin Avdic’s novel Seven Terrors, superbly translated from the Bosnian by Coral Petkovich, can now be added to form a perfect trauma-triptych.
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New Edition with a Foreword by Nick Lezard | Seven Terrors, Selvedin Avdić. Translated by Coral Petkovich | Istros Books 8.99GBP April 2018 PB 164pp | ISBN: 978-1-908236-36-4 | Shortlisted for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards 2013 | Longlisted for the Dublin Impac Awards 2014