Book Review : Death and the Dervish by Mesa Selimovic
My sister-in-law’s husband, Adam, gave me this book for Christmas either three or four years ago. Adam’s an intellectual sort – now a professor at UCLA in history / political science. His Ph.D, as best I can recall, deals with the effects of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia / Serbia / Croatia during the Bosnian War. As part of his research, Adam spent a lot of time (years) in that war-torn area.
Mesa Selimovic was a Bosnian born writer, and Death and the Dervish, written in 1966, is one of the most acclaimed books to ever come out of Yugoslavia. It’s a story about a dervish named Sheikh Nuruddin in an 18th Century Sarajevo monastery, during the time of the Turkish occupation.
I would love to be able to say that I enjoyed this book. Actually, I would love to say I finished this book. I stopped 37 pages into it. I tried numerous times over the last few years to get farther into it, and even gave it to a friend of mine who I always see reading what I would call “Acclaimed Literature”. He couldn’t finish the book either. He made it almost to fifty pages.
Since I didn’t finish the book, I don’t really feel qualified to review it, nor can I tell you what happened without plagiarizing other reviewers. But yet, here we are, in a book review.
If you look around the internets, you’ll see many glowing reviews for Death and the Dervish – a lot of five star reviews, in fact. Yet, I couldn’t finish it. I’m split on why this is. There are two possibilities:
- I was not patient enough for the book, and it really was going to get better.
- I have reached the limits of “acclaimed literature” that I enjoy reading.
Either way, there was something about the beginning of the book that I didn’t like. It’s pretty easy to identify what it was: the pace. The book spends an inordinate amount of time inside the tortured mind of the main character, examining his every fear and every desire. The writing is detailed and drawn out, manic its sentence length and content. Sentences are tremendously long, sometimes hundreds of words, with numerous semi-colons. By the time you reach the end of the paragraph, you can’t remember what was happening at the beginning. By the end of the chapter, you’ve forgotten the name of the other characters in the room.
My inability to read a book as highly acclaimed as this book makes me feel like a failure as a reader. I don’t feel intelligent enough to read this book. It requires a level of concentration I am no longer capable of maintaining (though I doubt I ever have been able to do it). Perhaps it is a cultural thing: the battle between Eastern European writing from the middle of the last century, and a mind that has grown accustomed to the faster paced writing of modern America and young adult fiction.
I’ve criticized books before for bad writing – lazy writing; objective reasons for saying “this is a poorly written book”. I can’t lay that charge against this book. There is heart and soul in this writing. You can see that by looking at any page. But the style excludes readers like me from enjoying it. And that is key to why I read fiction. I must enjoy it at some level, or at least feel like it is adding to my knowledge of the world. My reasons for disliking Death and the Dervish are purely subjective. It just didn’t hold my attention because it was too slow. I didn’t know I had limits like that.
I guess now I know.