I probably would have never discovered the book “Death and the Dervish,” by Mesa Selimovic, without the crazy way I developed to help me choose my next read.
It’s hard to know where to start when you want to read everything. So the process begins by sorting my master to-read list, suggested by the publicized list of books one must read before dying, by month of the author’s birthday. Within these 12 sublists, authors are grouped by their day of birth and a random number generator helps me choose which day to focus on. I then recruit fellow bookish friends, basically anyone who like to read and discuss literature, to join my book club, 1001 Reading Adventures. Members of my group help with the final decision on our monthly read by voting for their choice of titles, considerably narrowed down, from my master list.
This month’s randomly picked date was April 26, and chosen by majority vote was Death and the Dervish (published 1966) in celebration of his birthday (April 26, 1910). This book isn’t included in our library’s collection, so plans were to gather and read the book by watching its film version’s subtitles. The book was first made into a movie in 1974, and later remade in 2001. Both versions can be viewed free online and include English subtitles. Usually I rent the Blue Ridge Movie Lounge each month as a venue for my book club to meet and watch movies that we compare to our books. When the pandemic closed non-essential businesses, we resorted to a watch-party online and a Zoom meeting for our conversation.
Luckily, I was able to secure a book through Amazon, a used copy full of notes and underlined passages made by its previous owner. I can attest that the film follows the written story line fairly close, although viewing Selimovic’s story greatly enhanced his book. The scenery in the movie was beautiful and the narrator’s memories, when portrayed on screen, helped make connections to his motives easier to understand.
As the story begins, Sheikh Ahmed Nuruddin is trying to find a way to have his brother released from prison. He also doesn’t understand why his brother was arrested, and meets unsuccessfully with the judge to make pleas on his brother’s behalf. A sheikh, the dervish (Nuruddin’s title), is a religious man belonging to a group whose individuals relinquish themselves to a life of poverty and live peacefully, teaching and following words of the Koran. The dervish becomes a pawn, so to say, in the hands of the judge’s daughter. She asks him to speak to her brother, Hasan, a friend of his, about giving up rights to the family inheritance before he is disowned by their father. Hasan likes to gamble and drink; he trades cattle and has illicit relationships with various women. Ultimately the dervish thinks that if he convinces Hasan to step down from the family before the judge can disown him, that he can convince the judge to free his brother. This situation is the beginning of the dervish’s internal struggle to remain indifferent and have a clean spirit despite the trials of earthly man. As he narrates the story, Nuruddin refers to teachings in the Koran, Arabic holy scriptures, wrestling with his own soul about what to do.
Nuruddin is not only unable to free his brother, but is temporarily locked up himself.
He is eventually freed, but alas, his brother is executed. Unlike the dervish’s belief in a peaceful life, Nuruddin seeks revenge in the murder of his brother. He learns that accusations against his brother were unjust, that a false interrogation was written before a mock trial and submitted as evidence for justifying an execution. There have also been other past events in Nuruddin’s life that left regrets resurfacing in his mind. Choosing the life of a devoted dervish was a conscious effort to deal with his life’s disappointments. Now Nuruddin takes another path and comes out on top, presumably through corrupt means, and is elected as a new judge.
And as the story continues, there are a number of twists that bring Nuruddin to find himself in the same position as the previous judge, trying to gain power through deceit. Readers come to realize that Nuruddin is remorseful and feels self-diminished by his actions. Set in the 18th century and under rule of the Ottoman Empire, Nuruddin knows his end is coming at the hands of authorities. His story is an examination of what his life could have been and becomes an explanation, compared to a suicide note.
Selimovic tells Nuruddin’s story with such sincerity and upon studying the author’s background I learned that parts of his novel were based on events in his real life.
Selimovic was born in Boxnia and raised as a Muslim. During the second World War, he was a prisoner for having been part of an anti-fascist demonstration, as a member of the Yugoslav Partisans. His brother was also arrested and later executed without a trial.
I found a video review on YouTube by Nerses Arslanian, a Lebanese reader, and totally agree with his thoughts; Selimovic’s writing style though not exactly chronological was hypnotic and captured my mind, “I was interested in every little paragraph.” I really like how books can connect people from around the world and through the Internet. Although delightful to Zoom and YouTube with other readers, I am looking forward to in-person discussions and experiences again soon.
Selimovic is a revered, and well-loved author in his country. “Death and the Dervish” gained national attention, translated in several languages and is recognized as his masterpiece. Many critics consider this story as similar to “The Trial,” by Kafka. I can relate to that, this is definitely a story about the nightmarish world of an isolated and troubled individual.
In closing my thoughts about this recommended read, I must share a sample of Selimovic’s words to illustrate the beautiful imagery he paints with his writing: “In the morning I went out into the fields and climbed a hill that was in full bloom. I stood beside a low fruit tree, with my face next to its cluster of flowers, calyxes, leaves, petals — a thousand living wonders ready for insemination. I felt the intoxicating sweetness of that growth, the rush of juices through innumerable, invisible veins, and like the night before I wished that my arms would grow into branches, that the colorless blood of trees would flow into me, that I would bloom and wilt painlessly. And it was just this repetition of my strange desire that convinced me of the weight of my burden.”