‘S.: A Novel about the Balkans’ by Slavenka Drakulic

My rating: 4 stars

S.: A Novel about the Balkans may be short, but it’s far from being an easy read. Slavenka Drakulic, a Croatian novelist and journalist, examines a real war and its consequences through the fictional story of S., a woman who was forced to adapt to her new situation in order to survive the conflict in Bosnia. This book is both an account of what happened to her during the war and her perception of other people’s feelings.

When the story starts, it’s 1993 and S. has just given birth to a baby boy at a hospital in Stockholm. That child was not desired, though. She had been repeatedly raped in Bosnia during the war. When she found out that she was pregnant, it was already too late to have an abortion, and she had no choice but to carry the pregnancy to term. There seems to be this idea in society that women are spared during wars, because the majority tend not to actively fight. However, as this book illustrates, they are far from being safe from atrocities, quite the opposite.

In the following chapters, readers are taken back in time to the early summer of 1992, the year when S.’s life changed forever. She was 29 years old and a teacher in a small village in Bosnia, living in an apartment within the school perimeter. One day, S. is removed from her home by a soldier, who takes her to a gym where Muslims are being gathered. The men are then killed, while the women are made to enter buses without knowing their destination. A sense of disbelief takes over them, leading to numbness.

“These people 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. And that is reason enough for them…”

S.’s mother is a Serb and her father a Muslim. She feels like neither one or the other. For that reason, she thought that she was exempt from any alignment in the war. But she has come to realise that she doesn’t have a voice, others have labelled her. Her father is a Muslim, so she is seen as a Muslim as well. The fate of her family is at first a mystery to her. Both her parents and her sister, who lived in Sarajevo, have disappeared.

Together with the other women and children, S. is taken to a camp, where they sleep at a warehouse with no sanitary conditions as a form of humiliation. She is assigned to assist a nurse in taking care of the other women. On the other side of the camp, there is another warehouse for captured men. News of torture and slaughter arrive from there. The initial solidarity between the women at the warehouse soon starts to come to an end. But that is not the biggest of their problems. Some women are being taken to another building and repeatedly raped by soldiers. One day S. is chosen to go with them and is kept at the “women’s room”.

Women are only mentioned by what I assume is the first letter of their names. Although that didn’t prevent me to easily connect with S.’s tribulations, maybe because the story is narrated (in the third person) from her perspective, the same is not true regarding the other characters who are kept at the “women’s room”. I couldn’t form a clear idea about those women’s personalities and kept mixing them up. Nevertheless, not mentioning their names was a good way to convey that this could have happened to anyone.

The Bosnian war may have taken place in the 90s, but some of the situations described are still extremely relevant to present times, for instance, when it comes to the plight of refugees.

“A refugee is someone who has been expelled from somewhere but does not go anywhere because they have nowhere to go.”

The writing style is poignant and strongly conveys S.’s despair and pain. I was close to burst into tears plenty of times while reading. The words chosen to describe how she feels about the baby, for example, are powerful and understandably shocking.

“Now the tumour is beside her, as if transformed by some miracle into a child. It is difficult for S. to accept. She has never thought of it as a child, only as a disease, a burden she wished to get rid of, a parasite she wanted removed from her organism.”

Throughout the majority of the book, there are almost no beams of hope. However, this is still a touching story of survival, featuring many relevant topics for discussion within the plot – women’s suffering during war, ethnic cleansing, the dangers of ethnic policies, and the challenges of building a new life. S.: A Novel about the Balkans is not an easy read, but it definitely is a critical one.

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