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.
My philosophy runs more towards “good writing is that which supports the reader’s immersive reading experience.” What do we readers love? To get lost in a book. To be so deeply immersed in the world the writer has evoked that we lose track of pages going by, of time in our external reality, of the fact that we haven’t eaten since breakfast and now it’s mid-afternoon. We love it when that happens.
An immersive reading experience is a precious and delicate state. It can be upset by the littlest things. For it to work requires a coordination among all the levels of a piece of writing. The story itself must be interesting, and compellingly so. The author must have made careful choices about how to present that story to us, so as to find the balance between encouraging us to imagine as much as possible, while giving us just enough to keep our imaginations on the path that matches the story the writer had in mind. And yes, the writing must be so fluid–if I were going to truly geek about this, I’d try to make some kind of liquid helium simile right here, but instead I’ll stick with something more prosaic–as to float the reader gently down the stream, rather than flipping you overboard in class-VI whitewater.
The corrolary to this philosophy is that one cannot blame the reader for failing to experience immersive reading. It’s not the reader’s fault. It’s the writer’s job to coordinate all those moving parts. You know what else has a lot of moving parts? Cars. And when it turns out that a car’s moving parts don’t coordinate like they’re supposed to, we don’t blame drivers for it. The cars get recalled by the manufacturer before somebody gets killed. Would that the publishing industry had a similar mindset.
Perhaps there was an interesting story lurking downstream. But it sounds like Death and the Dervish threw you raftless into the rapids. I don’t think you can really blame yourself for clawing your way up onto dry land as soon as possible, in search of smoother waters.
I felt the same way about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Everyone said, “but it gets good around page 200.” I did slog through it, and it did get better, but any book that takes 200 pages to get “good” is too slow for me. There’s a formula: subtract your age from 100, and that’s how many pages a book deserves before you set it aside. I won’t say how many pages I’d read based on this formula!
Heh. I know a Teen Services librarian who would take exception with your formula. 🙂 Her primary criteria for selecting books to acquire is whether she believes the book will engage the reader quickly enough that the kid won’t be bored. This is especially challenging, she says, for teen boys. She’d probably argue that the formula should be more like “your age divided by two.”
I’m hard pressed to see why that formula shouldn’t hold well into adulthood, too. Here I am in my early 40s, and even for an adult literary work, it seems like 20 pages ought to be plenty enough space in which to establish the story’s opening and give me something intriguing which makes me want to go further.
Again, if I were really going to geek out I’d suggest that the true formula is probably some kind of sigmoid curve, but I can’t say as I’m particularly keen to figure out at what age/page-count it would top out…
Yeah but that book wasn’t exactly literature, so you could have any number of great reasons for quitting.
Death and the Dervish is a Literary masterpiece. I could understand that it isn’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea but I simply can not agree that it isn’t ”exactly literature”. One of the best books I have ever read.
Jason, there’s probably some exponential thingie to take into account when dealing with young readers. And I don’t say I follow that formula. I’ve always been a member of the ‘clean plate’ club (something about keeping children from starving in China, although I never understood that one either). Until very recently I felt some obligation to finish any book I started. Skimming, perhaps, but dang if I wasn’t going to solider on to ‘the end.’ As I’ve “matured” (’cause I’m never going to be “old”) I’ve found it easier to give that DNF to books that aren’t doing it for me–literary or otherwise. (I read mostly otherwise)
There are definitely books that I never pick up because I don’t like a certain genre (i.e. Historical Romance). And there are books, that though they are classics, I will hold off on reading until the later moments in life where I am am ready to check that check box that says ‘I have read the classics.’ I’m okay with saying I haven’t read those books, but plan to ‘someday’.
There are also popular contemporary authors where I have read one of their books and think “Eh, the writing was good, but it didn’t hold me. I read to finish the book.” I tend not to advertise that I didn’t like those books so much because the fans of those particular authors are so rabid, and I’m afraid of offending their sensitivities.
The only other book I can name, I think, that I have not finished and have no intention was The Red Defector by Martin Gross. The first thirty pages were so implausible, that my attempt to read it was at least 20 years ago, and I still remember it. So I guess it was at least memorable, if not good.
I’m sure there has been other books I’ve stopped reading, but I think I’ve actually stopped writing more books than I’ve stopped reading.
As for the number of pages to go before giving up, on the basis of the 2 books I’ve given up on, I’ll say it’s between 30 and 37 pages. Regardless of my age. And 30-37 pages on a book I’m writing that isn’t working is also a good place to stop.
I was “one of those” geek kids. I read “the Hobbit” when I was 9 and devoured the Lord of the Rings trilogy immediately afterward. I was hungry for more of Tolkien’s writing and got my hands on “The Silmarillion.” Which kicked my butt.
I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t crazy for my favorite writer’s work. I tried again and again to read the book. I finally succeeded when I was 17, but only out of pure pig-headedness; there was no joy in the reading. I took the knowledge that some books are too complicated for me to enjoy very hard. Truth be told, it still rankles.
I read so much for work, however, that I jealously guard the time I can spend reading for pleasure. As I have grown older (I’d love to say “matured” but I doubt it would be very accurate), I have become less and less willing to invest my free time in reading a book that doesn’t “work,” on some level, for me. We all have our limits as readers. Coming nose-to-nose with those limits isn’t pleasant, but neither is slogging through pages of a book with which we’re not connecting.
Were there other slow books you did like?
I have read (and liked) classics like Moby Dick, but, in looking at the books I have on my shelves, I have far more page turners than literature with a capital ‘L’.
(PS, punctuation goes inside quotation marks… 🙂 )
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Came across this page by accident and I felt I should write something. Since I come from ex-Yugoslavia, we had to read this book back in high school. I read it at the age of 17, and though I could not possibly understand everything due to my lack of life experience, the book really spoke to me and I knew it would always remain one of the best books that I would ever read.
I suppose the fact you could not finish the book is due to many factors, one of the more important being different literary traditions.
I would also add, books don’t always have to entertain you. You don’t always have to understand everything. Sometimes you are moved and you do not even know why. Reading can be a form of meditation.
Still, I couldn’t bear to finish Moby Dick mentioned here, so sometimes, no matter how hard you try, it is impossible 🙂
Mesa, Thanks for stopping by. Every once in a while I wonder if I shouldn’t give this one another try. Perhaps, in the future, when I’m at a different point in life, I’ll see if I can form a better bond with it.
I couldn’t agree more! 🙂
I came across this this page because I am writing a paper on Selimovic in English, and I must say that most likely the reason why you could not finish the book is because of its poor translation. I read this book in Bosnian at least five times and every time I loved it more and more. However, when I was reading it in English I realized that pages later I had no idea what I just read.
And I have to add that this book is a masterpiece, not only because of the topic, but also because of Selimovic’s amazing writing style and syntax! Wish you could read it in Bosnian.
I didnt read all the previous comments so i might end up repeating what someone has already said. I red this book when I was 17 for school (i am serbian). I got so immersed in the book that i red it in 2 days, and it shook me so deeply that i could barely speak with anyone for a week after it. It is hard and very intimate story. But thinking about it now the problem with this book might be in poor translation. Selimovic has such a peculiar style and a really beatiful flow when he writes and i really dont know if it translates to English.
Maybe try it again when you feel more patient and introspective. Some of my favourite books I have only red in the 2nd or 3rd try. There is a time and place for everything, and this book is more suited for long winter nights rather than reading it on the beach under a palm tree.
I never realized that in America so many simple, brain-dead people with attention deficit disorder.
Joe … poor translation makse you stupid saying that.This is masterpiece.And you are not.