Shaf and the Remington
In the first main section of this book, the story is told by twelve-year-old Ben, a boy living in an unnamed town in an unnamed Balkan state in the 1940s. War rages in the mountains and countryside outside of town, but Ben’s attention is on his tutor, Shaf, whom he idolizes. Shaf appreciates Ben’s sharp mind and curious spirit and answers his questions seriously, expounding on physics, politics, art, history, culture, philosophy, and nearly everything else with passion, knowledge, and words sometimes lyrical, sometimes impenetrable.
The next section is narrated by Shaf, who becomes a partisan leader in the war, using guerilla warfare to attack German troops. When the war is over, Shaf eventually lands in the United States, where he lectures for a while but then ends up homeless. Shaf’s brain is on fire, thoughts jumping between topics. His narration can be beautiful, mystical, incomprehensible, scientific, and crazy, but always passionate and with a deep sense of right and wrong and relativity.
In the final section, Ben looks for Shaf, trying to find and help the tutor who was such an integral part of his childhood.
At first, I found this book frustrating because of Shaf’s odd thought processes. Eventually, I came to realize that Shaf is symbolic, as is the Remington which features in key moments in the story. This is a book about ideas, about the Balkan States pre- and post-Yugoslavia, about whether a country of mixed cultures, races, and religions can survive and thrive. Not a light read, but a profound one. If a reader is willing to take time with every sentence and every thought, they will come through the experience pondering the big questions, realizing how hard it is to answer them. An impressive work.