Just how easily my distracted sympathies flitter hither and yon, from Somalia to Kosovo to Chechnya, whenever the latest TV footage bids me turn my head was brought home to me by “S.: A Novel About the Balkans.” The book forced me to stare at an already half-forgotten horror: the Bosnian war of 1992-95, in which the Serbian minority laid siege to Sarajevo and began rounding up and massacring Bosnia’s Muslim population.
In 1993 Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulic published “The Balkan Express: Fragments From the Other Side of War.” Like Martha Gellhorn in earlier wars, she sent dispatches from the home front describing the fragile texture of everyday life. She understands the woman who wants to buy high-heeled shoes in Sarajevo, where it’s become dangerous to be out at any time of day, and struggles to connect with a teenage soldier-killer who could be her son. And in every piece she takes readings of the seeping poison of ethnic hatred that is gradually permeating public and private discourse.
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In “S.” she opens the trapdoors to the killing rooms of that war and shows us the raped, tortured and murdered bodies of civilians. The immediacy and power of the novel rise not from the unbelievable news it brings but from precisely the opposite: What’s unbelievable is that we are witnessing horribly familiar events. Fixated by the supreme example of the Holocaust, we don’t notice when it happens again, and again — never quite in the same way, of course, and not on the 6 million scale we can’t stop focusing on.
That’s when the narrative of one ordinary life becomes essential again, as a reminder that decency is frail and wars make monsters. Drakulic’s first chapter, set in March 1993, starts with the aftermath. In a maternity hospital in Stockholm, S., a refugee from the war in Bosnia, has just given birth to a boy. She regards him coldly; he is not a child to her but a tumor finally removed from her body, “the fruit of their seed.”
We go back with her to the beginning of the story, in May 1992. S., a 29-year-old schoolteacher in a small Bosnian village, wakens one morning to the sight of buses outside her window filled with soldiers. They herd the townspeople into the school gymnasium, then take the men away. After the last gunshots die out, the women and children board the buses for an unknown location.
For the next six months, the women are kept in a warehouse on a former industrial site that now serves as a concentration camp. They each receive a blanket and stake out a place on the concrete floor. And they quickly adapt to abasement and fear. “In a single day we had all been reduced to the lowest possible denominator, to brute existence,” S. thinks. She dissociates from herself, “forgetting” life before the camp, shutting down the self that hopes and plans. It is just as well, she thinks, that there are no mirrors: “There is no point at looking at your own face unless you can actually recognize it.” Using S. as a composite Everywoman, Drakulic dissects the terrible resilience of the human mind. One can bear anything if one is not quite present and hovers in the shallows of the moment.
Drakulic writes in the present tense, from S.’s point of view. That approach presents her with the problem of how to combine the story of a woman who can’t afford memory or self-consciousness with a reflection on the brutal experience she undergoes; she solves it by fusing her analytic consciousness with S.’s numbed condition. Indirect third-person narrative allows the writer to achieve the psychic distance necessary to meditate on the meanings of incomprehensible brutality.
Occasionally, S.’s unmediated voice emerges in italics as she lies remembering in her hospital bed. She has the drawing pad of a little girl in the camp with her. In the camp’s stagnant present, “S. does not yet know how important this ordinary notebook with its thin grey covers and drawings inside will become one day. It is the only proof I have that I was not dreaming, that I was in the camp.” In June, S., who had up to now managed to escape the guards’ notice, is ordered to an office where three soldiers rape and beat her. When she comes to, she is in the “women’s room … where female bodies were stored for the use of men.”
Every night the young women and girls listen for the sound of approaching footsteps, each hoping someone else will be picked. S. has forebodings when she sees the teenage A. go eagerly with a soldier who had been her brother’s friend. She comes back with crosses and Cyrillic letters carved on her body. (Drakulic wisely keeps graphic torture scenes to a minimum. Readers, like the victims, would go numb.) People survive or they die, not by fortitude or cunning but by sheer accident. After the war, someone tells S. she was lucky. “Lucky? … S. is tired of the chain of coincidences, of the sudden turnabouts in life, of the capriciousness of her situation which anyone can overturn.”
One of the most psychologically acute sections of the novel deals with how S. survives in the camp. The commander chooses her, the only educated urban woman, as his mistress. They have Saturday night trysts during which they discuss art and literature, creating a simulacrum of normal life. S. finds a makeup case and paints herself. The women accuse her of demeaning herself by choosing to be a whore, but S. (or more accurately, Drakulic) sees it differently, as a small claim on power:
Men want to be seduced … While pretending to seduce them, and pretending to enjoy it, she forces them to play by her rules. And in so doing she deprives them of their main source of pleasure. The feeling of superiority of a Serb raping a Muslim woman gives way to the superiority of a man satisfying a seductress.
The novel ends in hope tempered by a healthy respect for ambivalences, uncertainties, irresolutions. How will S. cope with the bland world, “with its regularly flying planes and smiling flight attendants,” a world that coexisted with the “women’s room”? And what about the baby? Will that boy need the truth about his conception — or a made-up story about the kind of regular father so many war orphans lost?