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.

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The Three-Arched Bridge

February 21, 2012

If you read the Valentine’s Day posting on the legend of Rozafa, you no doubt found inspiring the purity of Rozafa’s self-sacrificial love for her child and her country, yet you also noticed the ambiguity surrounding the brothers’ decisions and actions.  On the one hand, to their credit, the two elder brothers break their pledges to keep secret the imminent human sacrifice in order to protect their wives, and the youngest brother, seemingly a man of honor, keeps his “besa,” his pledge to say nothing about the immurement to Rozafa.  On the other hand, the elder brother hangs his head in shame when he tells Rozafa that the wall demands a human life, for Rozafa has been chosen not by “chance,” as he claims, but rather by the elder brothers’ manipulative hypocrisy.  Further, if the sacrifice must be determined by chance, then the three brothers might have drawn lots so that one of them, not one of their wives, would die.  The men, in other words, find motives for their actions in self-preservation and fear.  Only the woman, Rozafa, overcomes her ‘trembling’ and gives her life for her child and for Albania.

Cover of The Three-Arched Bridge

Cover of The Three-Arched Bridge

Albania’s great novelist Ismail Kadare draws on the legend of Rozafa in his 1976 novel  The Three-Arched Bridge (Ura Me Tri Harqe), another story of immurement that roots the theme of sacrifice in the ambiguity of motives.  Kadare has set his story in the late fourteenth century, just one generation before the Albanian hero Skanderbeg leads the resistance to the Ottoman invasion of 1444, a resistance that ends in 1479 at the Siege of Shkodra, where the triumphant Turks littered the Citadel of Rozafa with 60,000 Albanian corpses to be shredded by vultures.  With the monk Gjon narrating Kadare’s novel, we learn that Albania stands in need of another building project, this time a bridge, to link Albania to the rest of the Balkans at a time when Ottomans have already infiltrated the culture, a precursor to invasion.   Though this bridge, just like Rozafa’s castle, goes up quickly, after each night the piers and arches show signs of damage no hammer or claw could inflict, generating wide-spread gossip in favor of another “sacrifice for the sake of the thousands and thousands of travelers” who will cross the bridge “down the centuries to come” (105).

Well informed about Rozafa’s patriotic act, Gjon immediately notices that this call for sacrifice has more to do with commerce than with defense, so he wonders who might be willing to die for a significantly lesser cause.  But someone does volunteer to be walled in the bridge, Murrash Zenebisha, an “ordinary” man, a mason, just like Rozafa’s husband (114).  Yet instead of responding with adulation for Murrash when Gjon hears rumors of his heroism, Gjon reacts with confusion over the mason’s lack of a clear motive for martyrdom, then with horror when he sees Murrash “planted in the stone,” his face “splattered” with a “mask” of plaster, his “arms and legs…merged with the wall (115), his “oblivious white eyes” staring out at the monk (117).  Gjon’s terror grows, too, when he notices Murrash’s “wounds…between the neck and collar bone” (122), and when Murrash’s family members, seemingly “petrified” with grief initially, soon bring suit against one another after quarreling over “compensation” for their kinsman’s death (131, 177).  Has Murrash been murdered, caught sabotaging a bridge he believed would benefit only foreigners and a corrupt local Count?  Has Murrash’s family sold him out for profit?

Ura e Mesit (Mes Bridge), Shkodra, Albania

Ura e Mesit (Mes Bridge), Shkodra, Albania

With Murrash supporting the bridge, Gjon concedes that it quickly becomes a splendid “rainbow” structure.  But this supposed guarantor of a prosperous future, Gjon knows, has “death at its foundations” (157, 151), a martyrdom tainted by lies.   Eventually, Kadare’s narrator acknowledges his own complicity, confessing his presence as the Count and the bridge-builders planned the murder of Murrash (184, 122).  Yet Gjon persists courageously with his chronicle to the end, even as the Turkish horsemen clash with Albanian patriots on the bridge (179), thus mitigating his role in the death of the mason.  But fear for his country blends with his courage, and that fear roots in self-knowledge, as Gjon imagines his ethnic identity plastered and dead in the bridge, a bridge built—as was Rozafa’s castle—with sacrificial blood and soul-withering lies.

The significance of Kadare’s novel rests not only in the morality tale—break not thy besa—but also in Kadare’s Faulkner-like capacity to paint so vividly the truths of the human heart, a heart sometimes strong enough to die for others but often weak enough to succumb to fears and lies.  If these same kinds of hearts beat in Asia and the West as well as in Albania, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe, then we may read Kadare’s work as a prophecy for us all.  As we behold Rozafa’s milk streaming down the fortress walls, then Murrash’s eyes peering from the bridge, we witness at once our past and our future, our collective magnificence and our self-inflicted doom.

For a full discussion of Kadare’s novel in the context of the legend of Rozafa, see my article “Albania Immured: Rozafa, Kadare, and the Sacrifice of Truth,” published in the South Atlantic Review, volume 1, number 4, fall 2006, pages 62-77.  The ideas above and much of the language come directly from the article.

“To Your Own Blood”

February 2, 2012

The bitter cold continues in Pristina, and the snow has returned, though so far just flurries, no new drifts. I did face the elements long enough to get a haircut (which, alas, didn’t take long) and to buy more time for my local cell phone.

Serbian Empire 1355 AD

Serbian Empire 1355 AD (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

The rest of my day took place inside, where I continue to enjoy preparing for my American lit class. As I prepared a background lecture on psychoanalytic theory as a critical preface to Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” I pondered several parallels between Faulkner’s 1938 tale and the current situation in Kosova. Though independent just four years, Kosova has always been cultural hub, not just in the old Yugoslavia but also in the ancient Balkans, a land where blood feuds have always continued because patriots on all sides, like Faulkner’s Abner Snopes, had and have a “ferocious conviction in the rightness of [their] own actions.” Of course, Snopes lays no claim to patriotism, having ‘served’—as a horse-thief—both the Federals and Confederates in the American Civil War. Still, Snopes feels justified in burning barns of rich white men like Major de Spain because his “wolflike independence” tells him that he has been unfairly labeled ‘trash’ and barred from wealth and power, the ‘phallus’ of American culture.

Former Yugoslavia

Former Yugoslavia (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

Unfortunately for pre-adolescent Sarty, his father Abner’s strong character yields only destruction and therefore only fear for the boy, a fear as strong as the smell of cheese that fills the store where Abner, at the beginning of the story, stands trial, again, for burning a barn. A good Jungian, Sarty understands “the old fierce pull of blood” and the myth of fire that informs his clan’s survival; he therefore will lie if he must to defend his father. Sarty will also fight men twice his size who shout “barn burner” at his father as they leave the courtroom store, with Abner free again, owing to lack of evidence, to burn more barns, more symbols of the phallic power he has always lacked.

Yet Sarty, just like many Kosovarans, longs to escape the cycle of violence, longs for his father’s reformation, so that he can love him without fear. Suspecting Sarty’s disloyalty, Snopes beats his son, teaching him that being a man means sticking “to your own blood,” not cow-towing (as Freud might say) to his “superego,” the internalized values of justice that make Sarty hope his father can “change…from what maybe he couldn’t help but be.”

But Snopes, indeed, cannot change, as he proves when he sets out to burn the barn of his new employer, Major de Spain. When Sarty breaks free from his mother’s restraining arms, he knows that he must betray his father to de Spain, that he must betray him to save him. After the betrayal, as he runs away, Sarty hears repeated shots in the distance, knowing then that his intent has back-fired, that he has enabled the killing of “Pap…Pap…Father.”

Kosovo Today

Kosovo today (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

Such names underscore Sarty’s love for his father, a man who he still believes fought in the cavalry under Colonel Sartoris. Yet he does his mourning on the run and does not “look back,” knowing the direction of freedom and peace.

While it may seem a stretch to make a Balkans allegory out of Faulkner’s post-Civil War story, the parallels seem compelling, at least as I sit here in Kosova, where fidelity to blood has assured its continued spilling. Yet an equally important difference stands out: Sarty did not look back; the Balkans must.

The Balkans

The Balkans (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)