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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“Sa Kushton”

January 27, 2012

OK, it’s 5:00 Friday morning, January 27, and I feel much better, even though I can’t brew any coffee in my room.  No water pressure, a daily Balkans phenomenon owing to complicated power-grid issues (even the basics root in politics here).  But let me interrupt my spoiled American whining long enough to say how happy I am to be here.  Why?  For starters, mountains.   Flying south of Munich (southern Germany) yesterday, I experienced again the ecstasy of flying over the Italian/Austrian Alps.   Forget snow caps.  These truly awesome peaks wore snowy cloaks that reached to the ground.  Then as the bus drive through Macedonia and into Kosova (as the Albanians spell it), the land featured lesser but still steep slopes that rose right from the edge of the road, transforming the highway into a Byronesque pass.

And the people.  I love them.  Perhaps because they endure every day the annoyances and deprivations that wring whining so readily from spoiled Americans, these Albanians in Kosova—just like the Albanians I met in Albania in 2003—invariably display patience, good humor, and self-sacrificial kindness.  For instance, as I fumed in indignation when asked, again, to produce my passport, the Kosovarans on the bus joked about the snow and the self-important posturing of the border guards.  And as I mumbled “what next” beneath my breath when the fender-bender brought us to another halt, the young men on my bus hopped off to help separate the tangled bumpers and to push vehicles out of knee-deep drifts on the road’s shoulder.

When the bus finally made it to Pristina, an eager young cabbie grabbed my 50-pound suitcase (lots of books) and my 45-pounder (more books), and then wove skillfully through the streets cluttered with people and slush.  As we reached my hotel, I asked “sa kushton”; he responded in English far better than my Albanian “five Euros, but for you good American, nothing.”  I gave him 10.