Usually, when I re-read a book, I have a vague idea of when I first read it. I know exactly when I first read Mesa Selimovic’s Death and the Dervish (1966), however, because stuck in my copy is a bank receipt dated September 2, 1997 for a deposit I made on behalf of the bookstore I worked for at the time. I remember the book distinctly: it was powerful, full of ideas about duty, justice, action, and self-interest. I was captivated for days, and I’ve thought of it frequently over the years since then. So last week I read it again.
Set in eighteenth-century Sarajevo during the Ottoman occupation, the novel is narrated by Sheikh Ahmed Nuruddin, a dervish at the head of a religious order, whose brother has been imprisoned by the corrupt local government. Knowing his brother faces death, Nuruddin wavers, unable to decide how to react. A friend offers to break the captive out of the fortress, but the sheikh, holding out hope that he will be able to appeal in some way to the concept of justice, remains unwilling to act. Even his father he puts off with false reassurances. While he dithers, his brother is put to death, and that death eventually galvanizes Nuruddin into action, with surprising results.
In Nuruddin, Selimovic chose for a central character a man of weak character (modeled, it seems, at least in part on Selimovic himself, whose brother was executed under similar circumstances). Placed in an extremely difficult position ,he is uncertain to the point of ineffectuality. He speaks of justice but clearly fails to understand its reality: he is the sort of man who will not give away a fugitive’s hiding place but will have few qualms about revealing it to another person who he knows will do so. He is purportedly a leader among his people, but, especially in the first half of the book, as he ponders and questions and worries, he is so wrapped up in his own problems and his own perspective that other people barely register. General injustice does not move him to any real protest; it is only the personal that goads him into action. When he does begin taking notice of others, as he is making his move against the town’s leadership, it is only their instrumentality that concerns him; he thinks only of how he might use people in order to pursue his agenda. Early on, we learn that he is willing to betray a friend to serve his own needs; we eventually are reminded that such a person will not hesitate to betray a friend for the sake of an ideal, or that ideal for the sake of self-preservation.
These are heady concepts, and Selimovic’s storytelling style suits them. In the first half of the book, he plunges us deep inside Nuruddin’s self, to the point of claustrophobia. The occasional patch of dialogue is like a hazy light in the distance, the only relief from Nuruddin’s incessant wavering between self-justification and self-accusation. As the action picks up in the second half, a sense of tragic inevitability pervades the story. Nuruddin, despite knowing that his nature is essentially cowardly, never understands just how far he has misunderstood—and actively perverted—his ideal. Justice, in his hands, is frighteningly malleable. While the story is not allegorical, Selimovic leaves a lot of the details vague, and he clearly intends to draw some parallels to contemporary totalitarian states. Even a good, strong man would have trouble fighting alone against such a system, he seems to say; weak men, which is what most of us are, have no chance of avoiding becoming what they profess to fight against.
Despite its many merits, I wasn’t nearly as taken with Death and the Dervish this time. I found the first half slow going, as Nuruddin’s dithering seemed almost overplayed. And while I remembered finding interesting similarities to some of Kafka’s work the first time around (as have many others), this time I kept thinking of how much more sharply and memorably Kafka would have drawn Nuruddin and his oppressors. The faster pace of the second half helped, and I finished the book alive with thoughts about it—but even so, it wasn’t nearly as impressive as I’d remembered.
Is that fair? Was it ever as good as I remember it being, or have my memory and my thinking about the book for nearly a decade so altered that original reading that the actual book can’t match up? If I re-read its sort-of sequel, The Fortress (1970), the only other book by Selimovic that’s been translated into English, will it disappoint, too? I don’t know.
But I do know that such questions are part of what makes re-reading so interesting, and so important. As many books as there are that I’ll never get around to reading, there are just as many that I’ve read already that I look forward to re-reading. Even as I make my way through A Dance to the Music of Time a fourth time, for example, I notice things I’d previously missed; Anna Karenina, meanwhile, might as well have been a totally different book on my second reading, it was so full of previously unnoticed wisdom and compassion. I’ll keep re-reading it for the rest of my life. Who knows how many different books it will present itself as, how it and all the other books I’ll re-read will alter with the changes in my life, my knowledge, and the world itself? If, along the way, I find that a few books can't live up to my memory of them, that's a small price to pay.