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Branimir Šćepanović: Usta puna zemlje (Mouth Full of Earth)

The introduction to my copy of this book (the 1980 US version) is a brief word by the (anonymous) US publisher. He says that the owner of a book shop in Lausanne had said that this was one of the six best books he had read during his life. I find that very hard to believe. It is certainly not a bad book and well worth reading but one of the six best books he had read in his life? I very much doubt it. It is a very short book – eighty-three not very big pages in the English edition. It tells the story of an unnamed man, who has been living in Belgrade but who is clearly Montenegrin. He has been to a clinic in Belgrade, where he has managed to see the doctor’s files on him. It seems that he is so ill that he does not have long to live. He flees the clinic and locks himself in his flat. He then decides to return to the Montenegro village of his childhood. He takes the train to go there. The journey is difficult. He is not well. It is crowded. He has left in such a hurry that he has no food. A fellow Montenegrin offers him some bread and salami. He starts eating it but it makes him feel sick, so he leaves the compartment to go in the corridor and get some fresh air. However, when the train stops at a small station, he suddenly decides to flee. He gets off and runs towards the forested hills.

The story is told in alternating paragraphs, one about the man and another about a pair of hunters/fishermen, who are out enjoying the Montenegrin outdoors. They notice a man in the distance. We realise straight away that it is our hero. He approaches them but does not greet them. They are offended and go after him. They think that he is running away so they pursue him more. When they see a shepherd nearby, they urge him to join the pursuit. They lose the man, as he manages to hide. However, they are now joined by a forester, who thinks the man may be the man who stole his gun and who says he can find him, which he does. But the man runs faster than they can, even when he loses a shoe. Soon, they are joined by others. At first these people seem to be running away themselves but, when they learn what is happening, they join the chase, too. He comes into an open plain and is clearly visible but he seems to be running faster than they are. More people, including some women, now join them.

Is our hero fleeing from a mob, from his fears, from society as a whole? He is not really sure. All he knows is that he was thinking of dying, even killing himself, and now, somehow, he has an epiphany about the universe and his place in it. He is reminded of his boyhood journey to the white-capped Prekornica mountains and wonders if he is getting near home. It all ends fairly predictably but Šćepanović tells a good if not great story of a man confronting his demons and his imminent death and wondering what his life means and has meant and what, if anything, his legacy will be.

Publishing history

First published in 1974 by Slovo ljubve
First published in English in 1980 by Longship Press, Nantucket
Translated by Lovett Fielding Edwards