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Summer Books

A Balkan tragedy

By Slavenka Drakuli´c
Viking, 201 pages, $22.95


The birth of a baby, messy and painful on the one hand, brings life on the other hand, and with life brings joy to the world, joy and hope that are not always logical, that are therefore mysterious, enigmatic seeds sown from eternity to keep the human race renewing itself and refusing to give up on itself.

In Stockholm, Sweden, in 1993, a woman lies in a hospital bed. On a cot beside her lies her newborn child, his new skin almost purple in its new environment. “His little feet stick up into the air,” we are told. S. is the woman’s name. “S. quickly turns her head away,” we are told.

If the seeds sown from eternity were typical, she would be clinging to her baby, but note how she turns away from him. “Her entire past has spilled out of her body with this child,” we are told.

That past was as grim as life gets. S. is a young woman from Bosnia who got caught in the recent war. That means she was raped, a lot, but the rape was only, so to speak, the tip of the iceberg. S. is a fictitious character in a new book, S.: A Novel About the Balkans. Slavenka Drakuli´c, a journalist, wanted to write a factual account, but as often happens to people confronted by horror (one thinks of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrestling with World War II until he produced the fabricated but devastating Slaughterhouse-Five), she was forced to resort to fiction to give a shape to the evil that usually arrives shapeless and unmanageable. Or, as Vonnegut begins, “All this happened, more or less.”

It may seem unfair to inflict such a heavy load of pain on American readers eager for a well-earned escape to romance or adventure on a beach in the summer sun. Most other books in the store will cater to that taste. But we owe this one to the people of the Balkans.

When all hell broke loose in the former Yugoslavia, we looked away. When the Serbs, in particular, slaughtered and raped the Bosnians, in particular, we, from our president down, found it vastly more expedient not to get involved. When polls and politics finally indicated we should do something, the ethnic cleansing had largely run its course. Our Dayton Agreement and no-nonsense military intervention arrived too late for S.

War at the door

S. worries at the window of her apartment in the village of B. as the Serb soldiers approach, first presuming and then hoping they will not come calling on her. But a young soldier does. She can later recall trivia such as the big toe poking through his torn sneakers. It is all so ordinary. She offers him coffee, and he drinks it, delaying the moment. “She realizes that what she is looking at here is the face of war. Somebody simply opens the door of your apartment, and war enters your life, enters you.”

We are told few details about S., who is, after all, Everywoman. For the sake of the story, she is a teacher. The soldier, almost deferential, allows her to take a few things, but it’s hard to say at such a time what possessions might later serve one best.

The neighbors are rounded up in a gym downstairs. There is the typical unwillingness to confront reality that was described by Elie Wiesel and others in telling of the oncoming Holocaust. No one asks questions or objects to what is happening. They “seem to her unable to understand that for these armed men they are guilty simply because they exist, because they are different, because they are Muslims.” For S. it is even more complicated than that. She is half-Serb, half-Muslim. That makes her prospects twice as bad rather than twice as good. The war has already taken her parents and sister, who lived in Sarajevo.

All the men are led from the gym. After 20 minutes there is gunfire, one distinct shot at a time. Soon the soldiers return, drink beer greedily, not yet comfortable with killing. Now it seems less appropriate to ask questions.

There is a long bus ride to a warehouse. It is attached to one of the Serbian death camps, but this knowledge comes gradually. Now, exhausted, they lie down where they stand on the concrete floor and sleep.

It’s probably fair to say that we, who have never been there, don’t think much about what happens in such camps, remote as they are from our lives already clogged with coping. One detail conveys the kind of thing we might naturally overlook. The guards herd the women into a field, which is to be their bathroom, no shelter, no bush to hide behind, in front of the guards, in front of each other, so unaccustomed.

S. and another woman, E., who is a nurse, are put in charge of the sick. E. frequently gets called away from the warehouse, comes back with rumors: that there is a men’s camp attached, that there is torture and killing. They see men in the distance, digging. Here, “death is not something remote or foreign. It is no longer an unexpected visitor, as it is in ordinary life. Death is a constant companion.” In a matter of days, though, the women are provided with toilets, which seem to S. “major progress.” They learn survival, which involves a fundamental selfishness. A cardinal rule is to be invisible as possible.

Another rumor spreads, about a place called the “women’s room,” where the youngest and prettiest are placed at the disposal of the soldiers. The first time, the soldiers come at night for the girls; next time, bolder, they come in daylight.

At night, as a flickering candle throws shadows on the warehouse wall and distorts the women’s faces, they share stories of what happened back home. Those who were raped. The one whose daughter was raped before her eyes, and then killed after a day of torture. The girls whose breasts were cut off.

Some will say it’s sensational or repulsive to put this overkill in a novel. Yet it is, if anything, an understatement of what happened in Bosnia. In the early 1990s, when it was taking place, I felt we were living with something monstrous -- not just the rape and killing but the fact that the rest of the world was looking away. So I clipped the stories from the newspapers, and I still have them. Nothing I will write here is as bad as some of the things I read in The New York Times then. Like any war story, this poses multiple dilemmas for the writer: how to avoid the accusation of sensationalism; yet how to bring home to (usually reluctant) readers how bad it was. True to the cliché, evil is banal in real life, and twice as banal on the printed page.

“You can survive anything,” one of the women says as the warehouse candle flickers. She says it almost apologetically, as if guilty for being still alive.

After that night, notes the author, the women never again talked about rape and related atrocities. “If word got around that they had been defiled, they would not be able to go back home to their villages, their husbands or parents. So they hold their tongues, they really believe they will go back home.”

The women’s room

Soon they take S. to the women’s room. The Serb soldiers, perhaps for efficiency’s sake, or perhaps not eager to be alone with their victims (what would one talk about?) frequently chose to be serviced in threes. During S.’s first such encounter, we are told, “something inside her has snapped in two. She is completely at peace, completely outside herself.” The body and soul using survival techniques. The soldiers hurt her badly, and she is unconscious for days. There are nine girls in the women’s room. S., when she recovers, takes comfort from such small things as order. There is even a real toilet.

A woman named N. is in charge. She tries to be kind to the girls. Once she brings coffee, and they get her to read the cups. She sees only good things in the dregs. She tells one she will marry a rich man, another that she sees a long, wide road where she’s going places.

When the soldiers come calling, they don’t bother to pick and choose, as if the girls were indeed just meat and devoid of identity or personality. But S. reflects grimly that the soldiers, who are usually drunk, are no longer people either. Every day is a coming to terms. “It seems to S. that with time the girls have become stronger, tougher. Every morning they nurse their fresh wounds, glad to have survived yet another night.”

The descent into ignominy grows steeper when the Captain, who runs the camp, picks S. as his personal mistress. He has nice hands, she notes, and good manners. The instinct for survival leaps to the surface when he first pretends to interrogate her, but she knows he is merely lonely. A persona she scarcely recognizes takes over, throwing even fear aside. She asks him is he married; is he lonely. “She speaks in the coquettish voice of a woman who would gladly invite him to dinner.” She is tempting fate, but he responds that his wife and son are back in Serbia. “S. feels the more superior, as if she is the cat and he is the mouse,” even after she knows that when a woman tries to escape from the camp the Captain exercises his option to shoot her personally.

The other girls help S. doll herself up for the Captain, lend her a dress and make-up. “The wine is strong. … The potatoes are golden brown, the roast beef smells the way her mother used to roast it.” The reader waits for a woman of biblical proportions to put an end to this scoundrel, but this is Bosnia where to date there have been few happy endings. S. tells herself she has no choice but knows she has. “Inmates do have a choice, except that it may sometimes mean death,” and the author illustrates with unspeakable examples of what was happening to the men in the nearby camp.

“You’ve sold yourself cheap,” one of the other girls says in her ear one day, like the voice of conscience. One paragraph sums up the awful accommodation that the urge to survival imposes on all but the most heroic:

She should hate him [the Captain]. But she does not because with him she manages to believe, if only for a moment, that she is not in the camp. This apartment is a sign that something else exists -- civilization, a world outside the barbed wire of the camp. And no matter how inaccessible that ordinary life may be to her, she wants for a moment to live in its illusion. She thinks the Captain needs the same illusion and that this is why they understand each other. No, S. does not hate him. On the contrary, to this day she remains grateful to him for those evenings they had.

The aftermath

A journalist who turns to fiction to write a story so grim that she can’t adequately report it has a dilemma: whether to give it a happy ending, which is how most of our novels end. The dilemma in turn raises a further problem: What, in such a context, is a happy ending? Some in this story survive but some wish they were dead, so mere life is not the answer. Some of the victims realize with horror that they have begun to resemble the killers. In the warehouse a woman gives birth to a child. It has dozens of fathers and no father. She holds a pillow over the still blood-flecked boy, smothering the entire body for 10 minutes. When she lifts the pillow another woman puts the body in a plastic bag.

Rumors of an exchange of prisoners circulate and then run wild. It’s much too risky to believe the rumors because of what disappointment might do to the instinct for survival. The rumor turns out to be true, yet the happy ending is always out of reach. “S. feels that she is losing something and that, in her effort to forget the bad, she will forget the good things that tie her to these women.”

Before long she realizes she’s pregnant. She hates what she’s carrying. Now she can no longer imagine a happy ending. A refugee, eventually, and on the plane to Stockholm, as she tries to patch her story together she searches for the word camp in her little dictionary, but can’t find it -- either the dictionary is too small or Sweden is a happy land with no need for camps.

As traumatic and unreal as the camp was before, so is the real world now. “She is still troubled by the thought that all the while the women’s room existed, so did this world, with its regularly flying planes and smiling flight attendants.” She struggles to adjust. “War. What war?”

The writing in S. is pedestrian and unadorned. The final indignity of the Bosnia tragedy is that there is no good way to write about it, no adequate genre, no tone of voice sufficient to grab the imagination of a world that didn’t want to hear about it then and probably doesn’t now.

The greatest irony perhaps is that the victims have even lost the identities that in the first place were so much a cause of their woe. In the same room as S. in that Stockholm hospital is a woman named Maj who has just given birth to a boy named Britt. They are the only people in the novel who have real-life names. The others are S. and E. and J. -- figments. They are just one step short of non-existence. Bosnians? What Bosnians?

We looked away before. We owe it to them not to do so again.

Michael Farrell is editor of NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000