One of my strongest memories of Sarajevo during the siege of the early 1990s is of encountering a well-known woman journalist one morning on the stairs of the half-bombed-out Holiday Inn. "Isn't it just incredible", she breathed, "how much sex we're all having!"
I nodded dumbly, not having a clue what she was on about. But later, a colleague showed me an exhibit. Two French reporters had had sex in the corridor, and some wag had sprayed an outline of their bodies onto the carpet.
I thought back to that when reading Thomas Leveritt's first novel, in which the characters seem to have so much sex, so much of the time, as to invite a certain amount of disbelief. Leveritt's Sarajevo, circa 2003, is a modern version of Burroughs' Interzone, a new Tangiers where everything is permitted to a busy and self-regarding clique of Western do-gooders. This is the world of acronyms, of the UN, the EU, Nato, the OSCE, and of the weird-sounding Inter-Entity Boundary, separating those two post-Dayton creations – the Federation (think good, think Star Wars) and the Republika Srpska (think bad, think Mordor in The Lord of the Rings).
Enter our priapic hero, Frito, a huge-handed Maori, who has "tried so hard to find love. Someone to generate within him a love that would weather decades. But out of intolerance or megalomania, Disinhibited Personality Disorder or some other failure of self, it has not worked for him."
Lured to Bosnia with his mate Bannerman by dreams of love – and by ambition to take full advantage of Western "Guilt Money" – the pair are seduced by the deep, mysterious vibrations of this ancient city. They pick up a Sufi child who turns out to be a Seer. They are seduced in rather more obvious fashion by Clare, from the Hague war crimes tribunal.
Leveritt is adept at capturing the strange atmosphere of post-war Sarajevo, a city that, like the Tangiers of the 1950s, never quite divulges its secrets.
Whether everyone will enjoy Leveritt's style is another matter. Take this description of "A lugubrious sky finding redemption further west, breaking apart into a cirrus of scribble clouds shining in steep perspective against the sun's weak glare, struggling to be felt". Sometimes I liked this way of writing. Sometimes I found it indigestible and egotistical. Either way, you are unlikely to be left feeling indifferent by this ambitious attempt to capture the peculiar flavour of a forgotten country, a forgotten war.
Marcus Tanner's 'The Raven King' is published by Yale next monthReuse content