Ismet Prcic's frequently brilliant novel in fragments, Shards, opens with a plane full of Bosnian refugees arriving at JFK airport. The 18-year-old narrator has escaped from Bosnia as a member of the Torso Theater, junior division, where he undergoes fanatically intense, quasi-religious rehearsals to the sounds of Vangelis, until his troupe is invited to perform in an Edinburgh arts festival. He escapes to New York and from there goes to Los Angeles, where he changes his name to Izzy, braced to encounter all the violent stereotypes of American movies.
Interspersed throughout Ismet's narrative are chapters from an alternate story about Mustafa Nalic, a 17 year old who does not escape to America, who disrupts his military physical exam with a comedy of farting, who becomes a soldier as Yugoslavia rips apart, whose family is tortured by invading Chetniks, and who may be in a mental hospital at the novel's end.
With verbal glee, Prcic serves up a darkly comic vision of the terrors and misunderstandings of immigration. Tight, glorious little tales-within-tales abound, rattled off with a quick, artless naturalism: the feisty, spitting bee-girl; the neighbor who gets Mustafa's grandfather a job as a security guard only to be himself caught stealing; the theater performance for General Lendo to persuade him to let the actors go to Scotland; the terrors of a police interrogation.
The writing is packed with one original metaphor after another, language that's almost drunk with colorful, startling images. His lyrical descriptions are frequently interrupted by swift, graphic sketches of monstrous violence--like the pig glimpsed munching on a Reebok sneaker with the foot still in it--but they're quick and mercifully brief. Ismet's hilarious celebration with passing Hare Krishna chanters is followed abruptly by the six-story suicidal plunge of a troubled friend.
Prcic warns, "There is no one solution. Everything's up for interpretation." Part One, which is most of the book, resolves on a thoughtful and haunting note, but Parts Two and Three, much briefer, are not so satisfying, and a four-page story in Part One is inexplicably repeated verbatim in Part Two. The last 80 pages crumble into delirious fragments and hallucinatory confusion, culminating in a nightmarish hospital scene where there's no telling the living from the dead.
Brimming with scraps of memory, regrets and rationalizations, Shards leaves an indelible scar on the reader's imagination. Prcic has pieced together a young man's story from the torn and exploded remains of his former life, and the sheer power of his language leaves the reader shaken. --Nick DiMartino
Shelf Talker: Fragments piece together two Bosnian lives: a young man who manages to escape from his war-torn homeland in a theater troupe and another who fights in the war and ends up in a mental institution.