La bouche pleine de terre: Branimir Šćepanović

Translated from Serbian by Jean Descat

Although this book exists in English (as The Mouth Full of Earth), it is out of print. But I found it intriguing and beautifully written, so am sharing it with you anyway. (And for readers who read in French or Serbian.)

A man comes home to Montenegro to die—he has just learned that he has a fatal disease. On an impulse, he gets off the train at a small station. Not far from the station, two hunters are camping. The man walks out of the station and seeing the two men, turns around and walks away. The hunters decide to follow him. What starts out as simple curiosity turns into a hunt, and the man from the train finds himself running from a growing number of pursuers.

The book is narrated in first person by one of the hunters and in third person by the man from the train in interspersed paragraphs. So as the story develops, you get the two sides consecutively.

Where does the hostility to a complete stranger come from? What are the stories we tell ourselves to justify our anger? The hunter is self-aware enough to try to understand his feelings: the shift from curiosity to anger after what he perceives to be a mocking gesture (but in reality, is nothing of the kind). After a time, the hunter cannot even remember why he is so angry. The man on the train, on the other hand, decides that he might want to live after all. Or at least, not to die humiliated and hated. “These unknown men, whose faces he had already forgotten, constituted a danger that had to be avoided. He had no desire to join these people who might…turn him away from his project or stop him from accomplishing it.”[1] If he was going to die after all, he was going to do it his way.

This book is not a thriller—it is a reflection on how we see the “other” and about what it means to be alive. I thought I knew where the story was going but I was wrong.

Branimir Šćepanović writes lyrically. The man on the train feels that he is connected in some way to the two hunters “through a bizarre and probably indissoluble link. Perplexed, he looked up to the sky as if he was searching, in that infinite mirror, for distant and confused reflections of memories that could help him know, or at least glimpse, the existence of this link. But his gaze… could only find an isolated bird, too real to be an omen.”

Šćepanović packs a lot into a slim volume—questions about existence, about our place in the world, and the things that drive us. The fact that it is written almost as a fable makes it more powerful. Although it was written in 1974, it still feels relevant.

[1] The translations are mine and therefore not very good. It is more to give an idea of the text—the original (or translation, in this case) is much better written.

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