“The Balkan wars ended one of the longest periods of peace in European history. My company, Bavarian TV, reported extensively from the Bosnian War about unimaginable atrocities and victims of unspeakable violence. This war had an uneraseable impact on the collective consciousness of Europeans and others around the world. Joel Levinson’s debut novel, THE RELUCTANT HUNTER, demonstrates a deep understanding of that conflict. But his novel is much more than a brilliant account of historical facts. It transcends the limits of time and place to convey the truth about human nature at it best and at its worst. Jusuf Pasalic is an unforgettable character. His coming of age unfolds in the chaos of war among ‘brothers’ and reaches its culminating point in the most crucial decision a human being could possibly face…and the unfathomable guilt it carries with it. And yet THE RELUCTANT HUNTER, is not only about despair and darkness, but also about survival, hope, friendship, and the healing power of love. Levinson’s symbols are beautiful and his writing style is very much his own. I hope THE RELUCTANT HUNTER finds the large audience it deserves.”
–CLAUDIA MATHE, news-editor at BR, the public broadcasting authority in Bavaria, Germany; MA in American Literature
“The writing is fast-paced and full of energy. There’s something refreshing about Jusuf’s character that takes the edge off of reading about such a dark and disturbing chapter in history. The Reluctant Hunter took me on a dark, disturbing, and powerful journey and when I finished, I felt like I was leaving a part of myself behind the now-worn manuscript pages. The fact that Levinson’s writing could reach me this deeply says a lot about his ability as a writer.”
–ALEXIS BARAD, author, editorial consultant, former Associate Publisher at PlayBac Publishing, USA.
“In a fair world, The Reluctant Hunter would become a classic of wartime literature. It’s not a battlefield saga so much as it is a story about how war—in this case, the fairly recent Bosnian conflict—tears asunder communities, pitting friend against friend and neighbor against neighbor. This is an intimate story with a sweeping historical background. Given the enormity of their suffering, I had to keep reminding myself that Jusuf and Azra, the focus of the novel, are just kids, nineteen or twenty. Theirs is one of the sweetest love stories of any novel I’ve ever read. Following The Reluctant Hunter, I’m reading a novel by a well-regarded literary writer and it’s dull and flat and almost amateurish compared to Mr. Levinson’s achievement.”
–STEVE PURCELL, Author
Urgent pounding at the front door startled him. Jusuf squeezed out from behind the refrigerator, paint roller in hand, and dashed into the living room, intent on getting to the front door before another knock wakened his mother from her afternoon nap. He pictured her eyelids fluttering, her right hand jerking away from her Qur’an and against her thigh, as it often did when a strange sound startled her as she dozed.
Jusuf hoped it was Sasha, his high school buddy, beckoning him to join a soon-to-start game of soccer. Already Jusuf felt himself dashing across the field and kicking the ball with certain accuracy. But Sasha always knocked with a gentle, musical beat, and after so many years, he knew this was Ismeta’s naptime.
The last thud rattled the door on its old hinges, sounding more like it came from a ramrod than a row of knuckles. As he turned the knob, he half-expected to see Sasha’s halo of blond curls and his familiar green sweatshirt. Instead, there stood a behemoth of a man silhouetted against the distant range of snow-covered mountains that surrounded his town of Kljuc. The sight of camouflage fatigues unnerved Jusuf, and when the soldier shifted his grip on his black Kalashnikov assault rifle, Jusuf’s attention shifted to the gold and red patch on his sleeve, and he knew immediately that the recruit was with the Yugoslavian People’s Army. Jusuf stepped back but quickly tried to conceal his unease.
The soldier hocked a gob of straw-colored spit on the stone stoop. When he belched, Jusuf caught a whiff of plum brandy and, oddly enough, peanuts. The soldier wiped a slick of saliva from his sausage-thick lower lip and then cleaned the back of his hand on the seat of his pants. “Are you Jusuf Pasalic?”
Jusuf considered using a false name but feared the consequences. “Yes, I’m Pasalic.” He tried to force a calm voice on top of his racing heart. “Is there a problem … some trouble in the neighborhood?”
The soldier sucked peanut mud from his teeth before he barked the question, “You have any weapons in the house?”
Jusuf was distracted by the man’s huge pumpkin head with its spiky crown of copper hair. The color reminded Jusuf of the warm, butter and paprika, zaprska sauce his mother had poured over last night’s stew. “What? I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“Didn’t you hear me, Turk? Guns! You have any guns in the house? Are all you fucking Muslims deaf?”
Jusuf stared intently at the soldier in an effort to make sure his eyes didn’t inadvertently rise in the direction of the attic where his father’s dust-covered hunting rifles stood in a rack next to the attic dormer.
“No, we don’t.” Lying about the guns was easy. Revisiting his dark thoughts about those weapons was something else.
As the soldier barged across the threshold, Jusuf half-expected him to stomp upstairs and head directly for the homemade gun rack.
“Are you telling me you have no guns in the house at all?”
“Well … we used to have a few guns.”
“Used to? What do you mean, used to? When?”
“We sold them about five years ago when my father died. Needed the money. My dad didn’t make much. He was just a—”
“I don’t need your goddamn life history. And who’s the we?”
“My mom and me.” Jusuf instantly regretted mentioning her. He hoped she wouldn’t awaken and come down the stairs, particularly if she was still wearing her headscarf.
“No. She’s out … shopping.” This lie was also easy because Ismeta loved to shop, even though she rarely had money to buy anything other than food and occasionally a gift to herself of a new pair of Italian leather gloves.
“You know anyone in the neighborhood with guns?” It sounded, given the soldier’s obvious impatience, as if he had asked these same questions many times earlier in the day.
“No, I don’t. A few people around here used to hunt with my father, but that was years ago.”
The soldier glared. Jusuf blinked and scratched the finger-wide strip of brown beard that ran from his lower lip to the end of his strong chin. The soldier looked down into Jusuf’s small, dark brown eyes before turning and squinting past Jusuf into the bright, half-painted kitchen, his head cocked to the side like a dimwitted but curious bird.
“Who’s back there? You said your mother was out!”
“No one. It’s my music. I was painting the—”
The soldier shoved Jusuf’s thin frame against a chair and barreled into the kitchen, leaving a trail of white boot prints tracked from a puddle of paint that had dribbled from Jusuf’s roller. There were three pots on the cast iron wood-burning stove and a half-eaten sandwich on a plate next to an open can of beer buzzing with two circling flies. Jusuf followed the soldier into the kitchen and stood near the sunny window. As the soldier looked around, Jusuf, by habit, inserted his index finger in the flowerpot closest to him to test the soil for dryness. He pinched back a leggy, near-leafless offshoot. The soldier swiped a pack of cigarettes off the counter, left the night before by one of Jusuf’s friends, and slipped it in the patch pocket of his jacket.
“Damn,” Jusuf muttered, mostly to himself.
“What did you say, you little shit?” As the soldier swung around, his freshly pressed fatigues snapped like tent canvas in a gust of wind.
“The paint. On the floor. You’re … I … I mean, we’re making a mess of the place.”
“Drop that roller and follow me, you goddamn jebem ti mater.” The soldier walked out the front door, assuming Jusuf was just behind him.
“Now, goddamnit!” the soldier barked. “You think I’m on holiday? Get your fucking ass in the street or I’ll put a bullet up your nose.”
Jusuf tried to carefully set the sopping paint roller onto his college brochures fanned out on the coffee table, but the roller dropped, sending paint splattering across the couch and over the large crocheted doily draped across its back. “Damn!” He snatched his leather vest from the back of a worn corduroy-covered chair and reached for his keys on the hook next to the framed but faded photograph of Marshal Tito.
“Hey, Turk, you won’t need that stuff where you’re going! Now let’s get out of here. I got another field to plow before the sun goes down.”
The soldier walked out ahead of Jusuf, spitting another gob of peanut saliva on the pavement. As Jusuf stepped outside, he noticed a three-legged dog hobble an arc into the garden of his neighbor, Suljo Begovic. Jusuf hoped he’d see Suljo smoking one of his beloved cigars on his front porch. His father’s beer-drinking partner from years ago and now Jusuf’s good friend, Suljo was a lawyer who spoke deliberately and was not readily intimidated. Jusuf was certain Suljo would have spoken up for him, but neither Suljo nor either of his two sons was in sight. At the bottom of the steps, Jusuf turned to see if his mother had awakened and might be peering through the curtains of her bedroom window. He was relieved not to see her but was now concerned that no one was witnessing his arrest, or whatever it was that was happening to him.
The soldier spun on his heels. “Just a minute, Shorty.” Jusuf was surprised the soldier knew his nickname but grew alarmed that the soldier had changed his mind and was now going to search the house. Maybe the gun rack had been visible through the dormer window. Or had he noticed Jusuf looking up at the bedroom window?
“You probably thought the party was free. But it’s going to cost you. You’re gonna need three hundred deutschemarks.”
“What are you talking about? What party?”
When the soldier guffawed, Jusuf again smelled the slivovitz, its pungent, plum aroma rising from the soldier’s gullet on the surge of another belch. “They got Madonna and Michael Jackson in town. But it’s gonna cost you.”
“Madonna! No way Madonna’s playing out here in Kljuc, in the sticks. Sarajevo, maybe, but—”
“Is that a wallet in your pants? I know it’s not your cock ’cause you Turks never had much to speak of down there.”
Jusuf wanted to punch the guy and might have if the soldier’s finger was not hooked around the trigger. “Yeah, it’s my wallet, but I don’t have three hundred deutschemarks.” When he sensed that the soldier was growing increasingly impatient, Jusuf figured he better tone down his air of defiance.
“How much you got there, smartass?”
“About a hundred and fifty.”
“You Muslim shits always lie. Let’s see the fucking wallet.”
Jusuf didn’t move.
“Now, goddamnit!” The soldier pointed his rifle at Jusuf’s groin as Jusuf reluctantly tugged the wallet out of his jeans. Before Jusuf could open it to reveal the few deutschemarks stashed inside, the soldier snatched it and tossed it in the air, apparently gauging its heft. Seeing there were several bills stuffed inside, he dropped the wallet into the pocket of his fatigue jacket, alongside the cigarette pack.
“Hey, I need that stuff!” Jusuf instantly regretted the remark. The soldier raised his gun barrel and brought it to within an inch of Jusuf’s cheek. A trace of heat from the late afternoon sun still radiated from the black steel. The soldier slowly rubbed Jusuf’s cheek with the barrel before pressing the muzzle against Jusuf’s lips. Jusuf’s heart thumped an errant beat, and for a moment, he feared he would faint.
“What did you say you needed?” The soldier reached into his pocket for a handful of nuts and with a disingenuous grin offered some to Jusuf. Jusuf remained expressionless, and after a long pause, ever so slightly defiant, he slowly shook his head.
“Let’s go, you fucking wiseass. I’ve had enough of your goddamn bullshit.”
With his paint-spattered T-shirt clinging to his perspiring chest, Jusuf crossed the pavement but lost his footing on a fist-sized rock hidden by the curb. Normally he could catch himself with graceful ease, but unnerved as he was, he fell into the road. The soldier walked over and pointed the barrel at his groin, a smirk on his face.
“Well, this makes it even easier.” Another gob of brown spit sailed through the air and smacked Jusuf’s knee. “Get up, you fucking clown, and start moving.” Jusuf stood and pointed his finger in a few directions, not sure which way to walk. The soldier raised his boxy cleft chin toward the town square.
After a few steps, Jusuf stole a glance through the darkness of his living room and into the bright glow of the kitchen. His tape deck, barely audible, was playing the last track of his favorite rock group out of Bihac, Mehmed and Boneface. As he began walking, he picked stone chips and glass splinters out of his trembling palms.
The neighborhood was oddly quiet for that time of day. No sounds of red roof tiles being hammered back in place or concrete block walls being stuccoed, no children playing in yards, no cars rumbling on the road, just a few old Zastavas sitting on their rotting tires. And, most curiously, no friends in conversation on stoops or porches. Why was it so deserted at this busy afternoon hour? he wondered. And why would so many shutters be closed on a sunny spring afternoon? Was there a party in town, after all, as the soldier claimed? He saw no cars but heard a commotion of large vehicle engines continuously revved in the center of town. A pistol shot fractured the silence, sending a mass of ravens exploding from nearby trees, their wings beating like leather gloves clapped in frenzied applause. Jusuf looked over his shoulder at the soldier, who was fidgeting with the sight of his rifle. Jusuf tried in vain to swallow the saliva pooled in his mouth. He leaned and spit in the gutter.
At a narrow cross street, there was a police barricade that Jusuf had not seen the previous day. Beyond the barricade, he saw one of his buddies, Elmir Umerovic, being shoved out of his house and down his front steps by someone wearing a ski mask but not dressed in military uniform. The friends eyed each other, arched their eyebrows, and hunched their shoulders to signal puzzlement and disbelief. Elmir was wearing only a red sweatshirt and his underpants. His black hair was mussed, and one side of his face was rosy and wrinkled from a nap.
The black ski mask was unnerving. This was not just another bit of intimidation by a Serbian thug wanting extra cash or looking to rough up a Muslim. Jusuf was now sure there was no party in town and certainly no rock concert. A block further on, two more shots rang out, followed by a scream. Moments later, he smelled a faint reek of gunpowder and then glanced over his shoulder to see if Elmir was close behind him. The road was empty.
“Keep walking, you damn majmune jedan. That was just a few firecrackers to get you Turks in the mood to party.”
As they got closer to the town center, Jusuf looked into the windows of the few houses whose shutters had not been closed. He saw only women. Some faces he recognized; the mothers, sisters, and grandmothers of his friends. He wondered what they must be thinking, seeing him led away at gunpoint. The women wearing maramas tied at the neck had expressions of alarm. One woman wept. Jusuf wondered whether his own mother had by now awakened and was herself at a window looking out onto a similar scene. He grew alarmed, fearing the soldier would later return for her. From the high balcony of a nearby minaret where three loudspeakers were strapped to the ancient stone railing, the usual pre-recorded late afternoon call to prayer started to drone but was abruptly terminated mid-phrase with a jarring squawk similar to the feed-back honks that Jusuf winced at hearing at the start of weekend rock concerts in Sarajevo.
On the faces of the few women without headscarves, particularly the older Serbian women, there was a blank expression or, in the case of a few, a dagger-like stare. The mother of one of Jusuf’s closest Serbian friends, who had always greeted him in a seemingly pleasant tone, now watched him with a look that seemed to be a troubling fusion of long-awaited satisfaction and contempt. Her look brought to mind his mother’s comment as they sat at breakfast less than a week ago. “What about Dubrovnik?” she had asked. “That’s not a barbecue going on over there. People are dying—the town’s in flames.”
“It’s probably just a skirmish, Mom. I’ll bet it’s over in a week or two, like the others.”
“If you’d read a paper once in a while and watch something on TV other than ball games and music, you might think differently. I saw an article two days ago about what’s going on in Modrica and Bosanski Brod. That’s not the other side of the Adriatic, Jusuf. It’s right here in Bosnia.”
Jusuf had chuckled at what he perceived to be her alarmist interpretation of recent events.
“You laugh,” she said, “but we should really think about going somewhere, disappearing for a while if anything odd starts to happen around here. We could visit Adnan and Arijana in Munich or spend some time with Sasha’s uncle in the country.” With his youthful sense of invincibility, Jusuf had dismissed her worries with a gentle pat on her arthritic hand and flashed one of his disarmingly sweet smiles, his teeth as white as their folded napkins.
“Come on, Mom, you’re always so serious. You’re always certain the sky’s about to fall in.”
“Jusuf, if you ever saw a real war raging, like your dad and I saw, you might think differently. You’ve seen the barricades on the roads leading into town—what are they calling it—the log revolution, or something? And what about the soldiers patrolling the roads and standing on our street corners.” Ismeta had removed a piece of food stuck between her teeth and looked out the window. “I keep seeing officers huddled in front of their military trucks, hands jabbing the air, arguments between them, then belly laughs, and when I come upon them talking about Turks and unity, I see them glancing up side streets toward who knows what. And what about those Serb flags going up on the rooftops? First one was on the police station. Then another went up on the town hall, and now the hotel. You don’t see that as odd?”
“Oh, Mom, you’re reading too much into things.”
“To me, it’s alarming.”
The further from his house he got, the more he fretted about his mother’s safety. He hoped he could somehow get word to Sasha, his closest Serbian friend, to look after her … find her a place to stay, perhaps in another town with some of Sasha’s relatives, until things quieted down. Jusuf knew he could depend on Sasha because Sasha had once confided in Jusuf that he felt closer to Ismeta than to his own mother. Ismeta always greeted Sasha with a warm hug and a kiss, took an interest in his music, and was curious about his plans for the future. Jusuf sensed from an early age that his mom regarded both boys almost equally as her two sons.
As they turned a corner, Jusuf snuck a side glance and saw that the soldier was looking woozy from the slivovitz. Nevertheless, the recruit tossed another handful of peanuts into his mouth. A crisp flake of red husk must have fallen into his windpipe because he began to choke. He wheeled to the right and then left, coughing and gagging, his face first white and then purple. When he wobbled into the middle of the street, spitting nut-chips and gasping for air, Jusuf darted into a narrow alley, racing as if the old brick pavers were as hot as the embers in his stove.
He and Sasha often took this alley route to Sasha’s house on their way back from town when they were kids. Halfway through the maze of interconnecting passages, they one night passed a window with the shade not fully drawn and saw a woman in her thirties parading half naked around her bedroom as she languidly applied lotion to her arms and bullet-shaped breasts. But today, Jusuf just flew by the window without even a side glance and sprinted down the snaking alley, his sneakers squealing as he navigated each bend. He jumped a fence and finally slipped behind a shed that was just a stone’s throw from Sasha’s house. After taking a few minutes to catch his breath, he cautiously peeked out from between two houses and readied himself for a dash to Sasha’s front porch, but the soldier suddenly rounded a corner, obviously surprised by his own good luck. Their eyes met.
“Pasalic, you fuck! Don’t move.” He fired a warning shot, which splintered a piece of window trim over Jusuf’s shoulder, causing Jusuf to spin on his heels and race back down the narrow alley, heart pounding. Jusuf hoped he could circle around and at the right instant steal silently down through Sasha’s sloping metal basement door. He leapt over a pile of trash, causing a mass of flies to explode off the matted orange fur of a dead cat. He was about to drop to his knees and crawl under a delivery truck that had just stopped at the far end of the alley, motor still rumbling, when the soldier, now also in the alley, bellowed, “You’re dead, motherfucker.”
Jusuf froze. He slowly turned and raised his hands, struggling to gulp a breath of air as he watched the soldier approach him. The soldier squeezed down the alley, stiff jacket sleeves scratching noisily along the crudely mortared concrete block walls, his spiky, orange crown back-lighted by the low spring sun. When he reached the pile of trash, the soldier stopped.
“You know what happens to stupid fucks like you?” He pointed to the barrel of his Kalashnikov and then turned his open palm facing skyward. Jusuf closed his eyes, expecting a bullet to tear through his chest before he could inhale his next breath.
The soldier yelled, “Catch!”
Jusuf’s eyes snapped open, his hands instinctively flying forward to catch or deflect the missile hurtling through space, but the cat’s hardened carcass smacked the side of his face, its inertia forcing a stream of maggots wriggling out of the half-eaten body. As a contingent of flies madly buzzed the stinking slime on Jusuf’s cheek, the soldier exploded in laughter, raucous guffaws that bellowed through the narrow chasm. “I should blow your brains out right here, you little shit, but that’d be a gift I’m in no mood to give. The slow roast is what you deserve. Turn around and walk toward that lady hanging clothes. Keep your mouth shut. Then turn left.”
At the end of the alley, Jusuf stole a glance toward Sasha’s house, hoping his friend might be outside. He was sure Sasha would have intervened on his behalf. Three months older than Jusuf, and considerably taller, Sasha had stepped in on many occasions in the past, pretending to be Jusuf’s older brother when a pack of rowdy Serbs came into town looking to beat up a few Turks.
Minutes later, Jusuf approached the cluster of three-story commercial buildings and apartment houses along Route 5 that comprised the center of Kljuc. It sounded like a large crowd had gathered for a public event with someone barking orders through a megaphone. As the soldier’s muzzle poked against the right side of his lower back, Jusuf understood to turn the corner at Hasan’s coffee shop. A huge assembly of Muslims stood in the main square. They hung about in huddles, many shivering from a fusion of cold and fear, their faces long and wan. The throng grew larger as men and boys were herded in at gunpoint through several cross streets. To Jusuf’s right, three silver-haired Serbian men sitting on a bench appeared to be bemused by the unfolding spectacle. These were men Jusuf had seen in town many times before, men he had waved to and who had waved to him, men who had been friends with those whose plight they now found entertaining.
“So they got you, too, Shorty,” one said.
“Do you know what’s going on?” Jusuf asked.
“You’ll see,” one man said, opening a can of beer. “This party’s been planned for many months. It’s in your honor.”
The soldier shoved Jusuf into the crowd and walked off. “Enjoy the festivities,” he called over his shoulder. “They’re sure to last well into the night.”
“I am one of those people considered lucky for surviving the most horrific violence that Europe has seen since Holocaust. Reading this book brought me back….though I thought for years that no author, unless they lived it, could ever master the complexities of Bosnia’s war. I have had a pleasure of reading everything that is out there on Bosnia and nothing can compare to this book. If you are up for an exquisitely written story that unveils how we think and feel when faced with a tragedy that we never thought would happen to us, this is the book for you. Levinson will take you ! to a place where most authors won’t or can’t… Thank you for writing this book! Though an emotional read for me personally, there is a healing process that came with it. With every page I read, I felt more understood. Lucky to be here and lucky to have read this book!”