Also, life in a submarine plays havoc with people’s body clocks, leading to constipation and diarrhoea. And sometimes the lavatories won’t flush, ‘which meant you were defecating on to someone else’s shit’. That, let me just say, is when it starts to get really disgusting. (There’s a bit about threadworms.) In any case, submarines can be gross.
But what an absorbing read! There’s a bit about the Queen Mother visiting the submarine base at Faslane, and a bit when Margaret Thatcher climbs aboard, and disappears, and someone says: ‘You’re blocking the hatch, you big cock splash!’
None of it lasts. To escape his pain and memories, he gets high, sedated, or blind drunk as often as he can. “Fear creeps into me like mould”, he writes. About a decade after the war, in Sarajevo, we find him spending his “last fifty marks” on “thirteen glasses of … wine, three dark lagers and five drafts of … beer”. Having thus “scorched” his terrifyingly cinematic “memory centre”, he awakens “with a chasm in my brain”. Only then does he find time for his book and the energy “to be surgically precise” in editing his collection of short stories – a book whose structure and varied rhythms are designed to resemble “the EKG tracings of a healthy heart”.
Under Pressure is not that collection. It is, instead, an evocative and chilling portrait of a disturbingly familiar world – a world racked by war, in which millions find themselves forever in the diaspora, cut off from comfort or hope.
The prose is lively and fearless, but the narrative voice, with its distinct nod to the louche swagger of Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller, feels decidedly secondhand. The translator, Mirza Purić, has sought to render Šehić’s dialogue in an approximation of English working-class diction, for added realism. The execution is a little overcooked: a conspicuous superabundance of colloquialisms such as “well dodgy”, “yonks ago” and “bint”, combined with a preponderance of studiously dropped consonants and aitches (“’E’s not even a ’uman bein’ any more”), lends the speech a parodic quality redolent of the early days of Jamie Oliver. Rendering the vernacular with subtlety and conviction is the holy grail of literary translation; Purić doesn’t quite pull it off, but he is in good company.