The Fortress

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Northwestern University Press, 1999 - Fiction - 406 pages
3 Reviews
The Fortress is one of the most significant and fascinating novels to come out of the former Yugoslavia. Ahmet Shabo returns home to eighteenth-century Sarajevo from the war in Russia, numbed by the death in battle or suicide of nearly his entire military unit. In time he overcomes the anguish of war, only to find that he has emerged a reflective and contemplative man in a society that does not value, and will not tolerate, the subversive implications of these qualities.

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Just finished reading it and absolutely loved it. Characters are odd, unique, sometimes contradictory and very compelling. It was interesting to note many parallels with present day Bosnia where common people still deeply distrust authorities, fear their power and dream of leaving the country. However, it is also filled with patriotic love for one's city (Sarajevo), deeply rooted respect for justice and bravery. Great read but I am not sure about the translation. I read the original and I think that much of the book's beauty might be difficult to translate due to archaic language and many cultural/historical references. 

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Ahmet Shabo is a young man from 18th century Ottoman Bosnia, who returns to his native Sarajevo after experiencing all the horrors of war during battles in distant Russia. The war has a major psychological effect on him, and he seems unable or unwilling to rejoin the society. A kind friend offers him a decent job with which he'll be able to support himself and perhaps even advance in social circles. Things go wrong for Ahmet, however, after a party that he gets invited to thrown by some very important city officials. His struggles to reclaim a place in the World become the main focal point of the book from then on.
Like in his more famous novel "The Death and the Dervish," Selimovi'c manages to embed the personal struggles of one man under a totalitarian communist regime into a much more distant past and an equally oppressive medieval Ottoman rule. One can imagine that writing under the keen watchful eye of a communist state made Selimovi' resort to this tactic. Selimovi'c is also an exceptional stylist. You can find remarkable and insightful sentences on almost every page of the book. Also, almost all of the dialogues have a deep philosophical undertone to them. Selimovic''s insights into human psyche are uncanny, and the lessons that he draws from them are timeless. Perhaps the most famous of his insights is the claim, put into the mouth of one of the protagonists, that there are three major vices that we are tempted towards: alcohol, gambling and power. While we can overcome the first two, the last one is unconquerable.
The main struggle that Ahmet is engaged in is not with his opponents who make his life extremely difficult. It is rather an internal struggle between accepting one of the two opposing worldviews: a fatalist one where the life's events are so far outside one's control that is meaningless to take any personal initiative, and a much more individualist worldview that affirms the value of an individual and supports the notion that our individual strivings have a meaning and a positive effect on our lives.
The fortress from the title is the motif that acquires many different meanings throughout the book. It is a physical place that is instrumental to the plot, but it also represents several different life circumstances and states of mind. Selimovi' adroitly exploits all of these multiple meanings, and effortlessly shuffles between them without the danger of overusing the metaphor.
This is one of two Selimovic''s great works and in every respect as good as "The Death and the Dervish." It needs to be read by anyone who wants to get a better understanding of the life, relationships, and the historical circumstances that have shaped Bosnia through the centuries. The book also cements Selimovi''s place as one of the great World writers of the twentieth century.


The Dniestr Marshes
Sadness and Laughter
Happiness Nonetheless
Enemy Country
Empty Space
A Strange Summer
The Dead Son
The Fear of Isolation
The Sorrow and the Fury
The Rescue
The Power of Love
Father and Son
The Epitaph
The Eternal Tracker
Death in Venice
The Fortress

A Tale of Childrens Flutes
A PureHearted Young Man
Ill Not Think of Ramiz
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About the author (1999)

Mesa Selimovic (1910-82) is one of the most significant writers to emerge from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Born in Sarajevo, of Muslim descent, he brought to the literature of Yugoslavia an unprecedented psychological subtlety and an existential concern for characters at crucial moments of their lives. His novel Death and the Dervish was published by Northwestern University Press in 1996.

E. D. Goy was a lecturer in Slavonic studies at Cambridge for thirty-five years until his retirement in 1990.

Jasna Levinger was a lecturer in English language and sociolinguistics at the Universities of Sarajevo and Novi Sad. She now lives in Cambridge.

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