S. A Novel about the Balkans

March 2, 2012

Slavenka Drakulić, Zagreb, 27 Oct 09, by Goran Mehkek

Slavenka Drakulić, Zagreb, 27 Oct 09, by Goran Mehkek (Source: slavenkadrakulic.com)

Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić published S. A Novel about the Balkans in 1999, just seven years after Serbian forces rounded up Bosnian Muslims and moved them to concentration camps, where prisoners—women and girls, men and boys—suffered all manner of humiliation and abuse but especially “mass rape,” what Drakulić calls “the most horrifying means of humiliation….Rape is about power, about one group of soldiers sending a clear message of intimidation to another group” (Penguin Reader’s Guide, 8).

Yet this terrifying novel has a tender, some would say hopeful, ending, for the character S begins to rebuild her sense of humanity by finally accepting motherhood. Impregnated by her rapists, S initially loathes the infant growing inside her “like a tumour,” a “parasite” engendered by countless brutish ‘fathers’ (2, 178). But after a prisoner-exchange moves her from the “women’s room,” the site of the rapes, to a refugee camp in Zagreb, others’ acts of kindness gradually overcome her fear of a child conceived in rape.

Cover of Drakulić's S. A Novel about the Balkans

Cover of Drakulić's S. A Novel about the Balkans

First, a Zagreb cousin houses her in her cramped apartment, freeing her from an infinitely less brutal but still dehumanizing ‘camp’ (149). Then in Stockholm, where S goes to have her baby, she stumbles across a school-mate, now a refugee worker, who houses S, gives her wholesome food and warm clothes, and tries to coax her away from her plan to give up her rape-child for adoption (170). Clearly, S needs such tenderness, for she continues to struggle with the “shame and guilt” (183) suffered by so many victims of rape. Longing to forget (175), S only hopes that some adoptive mother and father can give her baby what she can never provide, a “better past” (194).

But once her son arrives, S instinctively moves to cover the sleeping child. First she “recoils,” but when the child “closes his tiny fist around her extended finger,” S feels “utter tranquility” and melts into motherhood, determined to teach her boy that “hate” can be “transformed into love” (196, 197, 199).

Asked about this ostensibly hopeful conclusion to the novel, Drakulić denies that “this ending is so hopeful” (Guide 8), stressing instead the ambiguity. Accepting her child changes everything, presumably for the good, for S and her son, but how, Drakulic wonders, will S tell her son one day the “horror” of the “truth” about his fathers? And of course this union of mother and son changes nothing about the capacity of men to make other men rape their sons before shooting them both (109), to gang-rape a woman and then extinguish their cigarettes on their victim’s breast before urinating in her mouth (62, 78).

Yet the novel does unfold the reality of friendship, as noted above. It also portrays characters who perform life-endangering acts of kindness and courage, such as N, who works in the kitchen, smuggling warm bread and edible soup to the prisoners (92). Consistently, too, the novel traces S’s manipulative seductions of her abusers, including the camp Captain, acts of courage and intelligence that enable her to survive (97-102). All such actions–in this novel about victimization, helplessness—underscore choice and, as Drakulić puts it, our “moral responsibility,” our humanizing duty to take another’s hand (Guide 3).

"Ruby Holding Mother's Finger," Barrie Spence , ©2011

Photo by Barrie Spence, Spence Photography, ©2011, used with permission.

10 thoughts on “S. A Novel about the Balkans

  1. Reading this review on S.Drakulic novel I could draw a parallel in between this novel and “In the Land of Blood and Honey”, an AngelinaJolie movie about the war in Bosnia. In both of these two, women experiencing the war in 90s are central characters. In the novel, a woman is raped while in the movie, the Bosniac woman is having a relation with the Serb solider whom she met shortly before the war. There are other women raped in the movie and these scenes, just as Drakulic says, are “the most horrifying means of humiliation….It seems that both women’s mission is trying to transform hate into love , a very difficult mission for both. While as the review indicates it is not certain if S will succeed in this, the other woman definitely did not.

  2. I am particularly drawn to the way S painfully overcomes her horror and hate and tranforms her “parasite” or ” cancer ” to a warm loving child. I am struck by the ambiguity of the revelation itself. Struggling with the consequences of the horror S moves from a victim of predation to a tender mother who had no other choice but to accept her child as her own. S mother-like instinct proves stronger than anything, her endurance is powerful. S who experienced the systematic rapes and humiliations by Serb soldiers is a victim of powerlessness who after giving birth to the child struggles with the horror from the past. Imagine her internal struggle for telling one day the truth to the her rape-conceived child. Such victims deserve our love and support because they proved strong and defeated the consequences of the personal violation.

  3. I can say that I adore this person called S for taking this plunge in keeping the baby because it isn’t this baby’s fault that his mother was raped. He has the right to be born and live just like any other human being. God brought us in this life and only He can take our souls. And those persons who raped S will pay for their sins.We have a saying in Albanian which translates: no debt will be left unpaid from this life.

  4. I have not read the novel yet, but now I am highly motivated to read it in the near future. Firstly, because the novel is focused on women/victims of rape nd secondly, because it depicts in the most authentic way the horrors of war and rape in Bosnia.
    There were lots of raped women/teengers – victims of the recent war in Kosova, too and there were cases when the victims became pregnant and gave birth to the rapists’ children, just like S. did.
    I feel extremely sorry for those women/victims and I am deeply touched by their bitter experiences but on the other hand, I am also amazed by their inner strength to cope with the horrible outcomes of the war.
    There was a case in 2000, when a young Kosovo woman gave birth to a ‘Serbian bastard’, as they were usually referred to, and as soon as she laid eyes on her new-born baby, she broke its neck. Her excuse was that the baby’s eyes were the same as the eyes of the rapist/father. The woman was hospitalized and I can only hope that she has somehow managed to pull herself together and move forward, despite the fact that her life will never be the same after having committed such a terrible crime.
    Personally, I admire S. for making such a diffcult and yet, such a pragmatic and noble decision. She chooses life instead of death, light rather than darkness, hope rather than despair in order to create a better life for her and her son. After all, children are the worst victims of the terrors of war. They have not asked to come to this world; they don’t know anything about the horrors of war and the historic circumstances that led to it, but they still have to live with the scars of the past and sometimes even pay for their parents’ sins. A heartrending book with a promising message: Live and let other people live decently, because despite all the difficulties and obstacles that may befall on us, we have to persistently look for the ‘sun’ and ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ in order to preserve our humanity!

  5. It is really true that Balkan has suffered a lot with some bad conflicts and the main character of those bad conflicts now or letter must be responsible Serbia, because the army of it had done the worst things that could ever happened, firstly in Bosnia and then here to us in Kosova. The writer Mrs. Drakulic has complied a really fantastic book and the main character here to this novel is S, who seems to be a really painful victim of a bad conflict in Bosnia. Here by I am ready to say that this book can make clear the terrors that Serbians had done at two countries, Bosnia and Kosova. The person with the letter S has a great courage to give a birth to the baby even she knows that she is raped by some mean people, and we can imagine her situation that how it could be if we know that the baby partly belongs to those mean people. By this book we can conclude that Serbians had done the worst things to the above mentioned countries and for the consequences they really did not respond and they still are proud of what they did by killing a lot of children, old men, women, a lot of prisoners were suffering, a lot of woman were raped etc. I can’t end this paragraph without saying something here THERE IS NO JUSTICE IN THE WORLD WHEN WE KNOW THAT NOBODY IS PUNISHED FOR CRIMES WNICH WERE DONE OR ARE BEING DONE EVENE TODAY.

  6. This is a very touching story. Being in Serb concentration camps during the war, must have been absolutely horrendeous and terrifying. A real hell. I would like to say only one thing, I admire her courage and strength to move on with life because if men were maltreated this way they would either be dead or commit suicide after such constant terror. Thus, women prove to be stronger than man both spiritually and physically. Spiritually for being able to overcome their inner conflicts in accepting the reality, and physically for being strong to endure such brutality and violent rape as S has experienced during the war. As for the conceived baby, I admire her controversial decision for keeping the baby ,but I also believe that it would have been better for her to have given up the baby to adoption because this way would be easier for her to get rid of the horror and painful humiliation. But S is an extraordinary woman with fierce determination who has decided ‘to teach her son that “hate” can be transformed into “love” though it will be very difficult because her awful memories of the past will constantly interfere with the present.

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