REVIEW :

THE WORLD BENEATH THE SURFACE, Slobodna Bosna


INTERVIEW :

PART ONE: Beginnings
PART TWO: Is There Such a Thing as a Universal Ethics
PART FOUR: The Fog
PART FIVE: My Borges

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The Basement Man is the second novel by Nihad Hasanović, a book which stands out in the contemporary literature of Bosnia and Herzegovina for many reasons.
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THE WORLD BENEATH THE SURFACE


by Adisa Bašić


[This book review was published in the weekly "Slobodna Bosna" ("Free Bosnia") on 01-09-2014 in the section "Book of the Month."]


Rejhana, a girl from the town of Bihać in Bosnia and Herzegovina, studies classical guitar in the U.S. She's spending her summer vacation back in her hometown, where her brother had an accident that is difficult to explain: in front of his friends, he threw himself from the roof of "the Chapel," a half-finished edifice and a favorite place for young people to hang around. In addition to her eccentric brother and her slightly menopausal mother, Rejhana's family includes one ghost, her father Kemal, a man who lost his life during the recent Bosnian war under circumstances which have never been clarified.


Taking advantage of her stay in Bihać, Rejhana seeks to reconnect with her family members and friends, as much as to resolve the mystery of her father's alleged suicide. A stranger begins to send her emails containing supposed facts about her father's death, expecting her to fully participate in a game, in something that starts to feel more and more like a detective investigation in which the young musician's task is to assemble various pieces of a puzzle and fit them together into a bigger picture on her own. Solving the mystery provides Rejhana with an opportunity to discover what her father was really like, to get to know him better as a person in the time before he was forever alienated from the life of his family.


The Basement Man [Čovjek iz podruma] is the second novel by Nihad Hasanović, a book which stands out in the contemporary literature of Bosnia and Herzegovina for many reasons. Hasanović's heroes are students, artists, people with a refined sensibility who are able to experience and perceive, with a particular lucidity, Bosnia's schizophrenic reality. They study, work, and live in a state of perpetual motion between their homeland and foreign countries. Their biographies are fragmented, indeed, but that's exactly why they depict so well the lives of the majority of people from Bosnia and Herzegovina.


They are computer programmers, like Zuher, working as building superintendents in New York, or painters, like Lu (an abbreviation of "Lutvija's little boy"), whose seasonal job is as a waiter on a huge cruise liner in the Caribbean. The planet as a whole is their place of residence, including the western part of Bosnia, Bosanska Krajina, where they have their roots, an historically famous region, full of miracles and mysteries. Being resigned cosmopolitans who are not condemned to Bosnia, yet who are fatally tied to it, they move with perfect ease through the world without ever losing their sense of belonging, but also without ever possessing every inch of their identity.


The war in Hasanović's book is intertwined with the lives of the characters, but it is not the primary topic. Trauma, guilt, and sadness are not exclusive to war–they settle down on the river beds of lives in peacetime, too.


Furthermore, the author resorts to the fantastic, wherein cyberspace seems to have become a new authentic habitat for his strange lone riders. Although preserving his profound interest in Bosnia, the writer takes us around the world, giving us the feeling of being nowhere at home, just as his heroes are everywhere, in a similar fashion, bystanders. Human lives hide unusual secrets, and a quest for answers, as the author suggests, can sometimes become an end in itself. With our eyes fixed on the past and on the (un)explainable, we follow up on leads as if we are possessed, while letting the present slip away.


In this book, the underground is a physical as well as an emotional category, a place where entire lives are spent, where sweet memories can be found side by side with ghosts. The Bosnia of Hasanović's novel is one of many possible and existing ones, but what is specific about it is a delicate humor and subtlety with which the author observes the contradictions of present-day Bosnian society. Inert and hypertrophied bureaucracy, corruption, and an illegal and massive purchase of university diplomas form part of the local life, as do the brilliant and talented people who achieve extraordinary successes or wind up having to lead so-called "normal lives." Much like a river which, by turns, dives down and bursts from the earth, excellence flows through the country where handicrafts are disappearing and sportsmen are unable to develop their skills because of difficulties in getting visas or a lack of funding which prevents them from traveling to sport competitions abroad.


The subtlety of Hasanovic's writing is well illustrated by a scene in the novel in which a boy plays in the park on a seesaw with half its beam sawn off. This metaphor of an overall mutilation and despoliation, but also of a child's pressing need to play, is as dark as it is poetically true.


Hasanović deals with language and text in a responsible, and yet imaginative, manner (e.g., "a debate on a local internet forum swelled into twenty pages"; "drug addiction veterans have been spending so much time in the Chapel that mould from the walls has spread to their faces…"). Whilst put in the context of present-day Bosnia, many events in the novel take place on the global stage, too, and the above described urge to clarify the shadowy places of one's life is as much universal as it is futile. Nevertheless, The Basement Man is not a defeatist withdrawal from the quest for answers but rather a reminder of the importance of asking the right questions.