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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Fortress

Meša Selimović

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To purchase The Fortress

Title: The Fortress
Author: Meša Selimović
Genre: Novel
Written: 1970 (Eng.: 1999)
Length: 400 pages
Original in: Serbo-Croatian
Availability: The Fortress - US
The Fortress - UK
The Fortress - Canada
La forteresse - France
La fortezza - Italia
  • Serbo-Croatian title: Tvrđava
  • Translated by Edward Dennis Goy and Jasna Levinger

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective and generous (though bleak) novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Book Rev. . 5-6/2000 Bob Blaisdell
Lingua Franca A 4/2000 A.B. Wachtel
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Summer/2000 Michael Pinker
The Washington Post A 28/11/1999 Heller McAlpin
World Lit. Today . Spring/2000 Michele Levy

  Review Consensus:

  Very positive. A powerful book, and especially resonant in this time.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Selimovic's subtle psychological characterization, his moral and philosophical insight, his vivid invocation of a historical moment, and that moment's resonance with more recent events in the history of the former Yugoslavia, make this an exceptionally powerful novel." - Andrew Baruch Wachtel, Lingua Franca

  • "Through Shabo's misadventures, Mesa Selimovic portrays the plangent, eerily familiar destitution of a subject Balkan people tired of the yoke. He fashions a man so buffeted by war as to find ordinary life nearly unreachable." - Michael Pinker, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "(A)n impressive existentialist novel packed with aphorisms about the absurdity of life, the everyday abuses of power, the depressing ubiquity of evil, and the surprising force of love and words." - Heller McAlpin, The Washington Post

  • "The powerful first-person narrative vividly renders not only the sights, sounds, and smells of Ahmet's village, but also his responses when reality dissolves to reveal the abyss, and his fight for humanity in a world that would make him a pawn." - Michele Levy, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Selimovic's unjustly forgotten modern classic, Death and the Dervish, is one of the great novels of the 1960's (see our review). His follow-up novel, The Fortress, is generally counted as his second major work, and is now finally available in English.
       Set in Sarajevo in the 18th century it is narrated by a young man in his twenties, Ahmet Shabo. Returning from the war in Russia, where he saw and lived through unspeakable horrors, he finds that practically his whole family died in his absence. The beginning of the novel is bleak indeed, as Ahmet describes what he went through on the front, and what he finds in what used to be his home.
       A Muslim, he falls passionately in love with and marries a Christian woman, Tiyana Byelotrepich. He gets a job as a scribe from Mula Ibrahim, whose life he saved, but when he speaks his mind at a large dinner he finds himself beaten up and forced from his job. Ahmet is guileless, an honest and forthright man who has seen the horrors of war and knows what a stupid outrage and waste of life it is. The Sarajevo he lives in is, however, a place where deceit and treachery rule.
       A moral character in a largely immoral world, Ahmet has opportunity to better his position, to obtain some wealth and power -- but only by compromising himself. He is incapable of doing so. He fell into disfavour because he spoke openly and truthfully. He does not understand why "empty words" -- and true ones -- should be considered so dangerous. As Mula Ibrahim explains, speech is the most dangerous weapon of all:

"And speech is an act. And what an act ! Had you stolen, hit anybody, or done anyone any harm, they'd probably have forgiven you. But you had to go and talk about things any sensible person keeps quiet about. That's what they don't forgive."
       Ahmet enjoys some small successes, and further misfortunes. Happy in his marriage he still goes through many trying times. One person he is close to is Mahmut, a weak man with many wild plans for making money. Ahmet joins Mahmut in some business ventures, with varying success. Ironically -- though unsurprisingly -- when Mahmut finally achieves true success he is lost to Ahmet.
It all made me very sad. This was no longer my Mahmut. Mine was a poetic liar. This one was a petty calculator. My Mahmut tried to catch the clouds, this one caught mice. My Mahmut was daft and dear, this one was boring and hateful. (...) A poet, no matter how good or bad, had died, and just another merchant had been born.
       Ahmet lives in isolation. He has built a fortress around himself. His honest nature, and his contempt for those involved in government and business, isolate him. He recognizes it, forced to withdraw from the world and frustrated by it as it distances him even from those he loves most.
       "Like all the others, I, too, became a closed and besieged fortress, frowning and mute," he acknowledges sadly. The Fortress is also a significant structure in the city itself, the dark seat of power where those who offend the state are taken to. One of those who is eventually imprisoned there is the student activist Ramiz. In a position to gain favour Ahmed instead asks someone in a position of power to help Ramiz, which the man then does -- a rare instance of the defenses of the Fortress being penetrated.
       The book is nevertheless suffused with hope, and Ahmed, though often battered, is never beaten. Hardly an optimist, he still seems to believe that man can be fundamentally good. The end offers no easy answers or bright future, only a realistic view. Nevertheless, it is encouraging (though still bleak by most standards).

       The translation of The Fortress seems less than ideal. Too often the English version sounds both inauthentic and clumsy: "I was stupefied by pointless thinking, and my brain was freewheeling," is a fairly typical example of the tone of the translation.

       The book is much more obvious with its strong messages than Death and the Dervish was, and the story is told much more directly. Still effective, it lacks the charged subtlety of Selimovic's previous masterpiece. Nevertheless, it is a very good (though often bleak) book, and we do recommend it.

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The Fortress Reviews Other books by Meša Selimović under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Bosnian author Meša Selimović (1910-1982) was one of the greatest authors of the former Yugoslavia.

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