S.: A Novel about the Balkans

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9780140298444: S.: A Novel about the Balkans

"S. may very well be one of the strongest books about war you will ever read. . . .The writing is taut, precise, and masterful."

Set in 1992, during the height of the Bosnian war, S. reveals one of the most horrifying aspects of any war: the rape and torture of civilian women by occupying forces. S. is the story of a Bosnian woman in exile who has just given birth to an unwanted child—one without a country, a name, a father, or a language. Its birth only reminds her of an even more grueling experience: being repeatedly raped by Serbian soldiers in the "women's room" of a prison camp. Through a series of flashbacks, S. relives the unspeakable crimes she has endured, and in telling her story—timely, strangely compelling, and ultimately about survival—depicts the darkest side of human nature during wartime.

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Review:

"While she was in the warehouse S. feared uncertainty. Any kind of certainty seemed preferable to her. Now she was at least rid of that fear. There was no more uncertainty. She was in a storehouse of women, in a room where female bodies were stored for the use of men."

The use of rape as a mode of warfare was one of the atrocities that made "ethnic cleansing" such a horrifying euphemism in the '90s. The number of Muslim rape victims has been hard to establish (estimates are as high as 60,000), and the depths of the damage even more difficult to comprehend. Hidden behind the newspaper accounts--the mind-numbing policy changes, drawn and redrawn borders, and fluctuating statistics--are the stories of what happened to thousands of Muslim women and how they have since dealt with their experience. In S: A Novel About the Balkans, the journalist Slavenka Drakulic uses a fictional everywoman, S., to convey the complex psychological torture of the victims of large-scale, systematic rape during the Bosnian War.

Drakulic's plain, graphic prose is starkly effective; not surprisingly, her book is most powerful in the passages detailing the women's treatment by the cadres of Serbian soldiers. But S. is not just a passive victim: even in such conditions, there are moral choices that must be made and consequences to one's actions. S. discovers this through her "arrangement" with the camp commander, who chooses her for a more elaborate form of rape that involves candlelight dinners and her playing the role of a seductress. Submitting to the fantasy in order to remove herself from the gang rapes of the "women's room," S. refrains from using her new status to improve the lot of the other prisoners. The tradeoff risks the respect of her fellow victims ("You've sold yourself cheap," one of them says to her), and the future psychological cost isn't clear. When she discovers she is pregnant--the father could be any one of a hundred soldiers--she faces another set of difficult decisions. Should she bring a child born of such hate into the world? And should she tell the child about its origins? Or is she instead obliged to tell the truth about the war? "Which is the greater," she wonders, "the right to a father or the right to the truth." Though not overtly political, S. forces us to consider the long-term tragedy of the female victims of the Bosnian War, and is all the more valuable for its inclusion of these gray-area compromises and their painful aftereffects. --John Ponyicsanyi

About the Author:

Slavenka Drakulic was born in Croatia in 1949. The author of several works of nonfiction and novels, she has written for The New York Times, The Nation, The New Republic, and numerous publications around the world.

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