Bridge of names: Shaf and the Remington, by Rana Bose

Rana Bose, Shaf and the Remington. Baraka Books, Montreal, 2022.

The Remington in the title is a shotgun, and it plays a central part in the plot. Shaf is the brilliant, enigmatic maths and physics genius employed to home tutor young Ben, who’s falling behind at school. Ben quickly grows to revere this eccentric philosopher-scientist; his sister Nika falls in love with him.

Bose Shaf and the Remington cover But this is the Balkans at the start of WWII, so we know all will not turn out well. The setting is the fictional town of Sabzic, with an iconic centuries-old arched bridge spanning the divide between the ethnic and religious factions who live there (this sounds very like the famous Mostar bridge). These communities have lived in fragile harmony for centuries as invaders have come and gone, but this relative peace is shattered with the latest invasion by the fascists.

Ben’s father is often absent. He’s a commander of local partisans, fighting against the invaders. When Shaf disappears as well, it’s apparent he’s gone to join the struggle against Hitler’s forces. Ben is bereft. People around him start to die – and the Remington plays its part here.

The novel opens decades later, when Ben thinks he might have finally tracked down his elusive former tutor. Much of what follows is the back story.

This is an unusual and intriguing novel, told with crisp authority. The tragedy and suffering are described with restraint, and this makes them all the more vivid and affecting.

The hatred and violence that had been partially suppressed for so many years in this divided community are all the more shocking when unleashed by the incursions of Hitler’s hordes. They are heightened by the frequent mentions of the peace that had reigned uneasily for so long beforehand, symbolised by that unifying, linking bridge:

[Ten-year-old Ben often rides his bike across the bridge and leans on the parapet, looking down at the river below:] I also looked at the etchings done on the parapet that possibly went back a few centuries. With knives that had obviously cut some throats and severed arteries. Migrants, travelers, peddlers, soldiers, priests and conquerors had all stopped and looked down at the foamy swirls…A relatively amicable relationship existed between the three main religions as well as those within the Christian fold who were Catholic or Orthodox, and between Muslims who had once perhaps been Manichaeans or Zoroastrians, and people from the Caucasus who had adopted Judaism instead of being converted to Christianity or Islam. Their names and initials were engraved on the parapet [of the ancient bridge].

Everyone in the community speaks essentially the same language, ‘with minor modifications here and there’, using words incorporated from ‘past empires’. People from across the divides intermarried and lived together, ‘because they spoke the same language’.

Having recently been to Croatia, and read the first Croatia-set section of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, I found this a gripping read. My thanks to Baraka Books for the ARC.