As If I Am Not There
By Slavenka Drakulic (trans. Marko Ivic)
I approached reading this book with both trepidation and intrigue – trepidation because I had read reviews that said the violence described was quite graphic and harrowing; intrigue because this violence occurred within my own lifetime, only 20 years ago, when I would have been 12 and my daily preoccupations would have been getting good grades, making the top netball team and whether I would be the last of my friends to get my ears pierced. The intrigue therefore lay in the fact that, in contrast to books about the Vietnam or World War conflicts which occurred before I was born, in reading this book there would not be the separation from the events that can occur when they did not occur within your own lifetime.
As If I Am Not There opens in Sweden where a woman, who will be known to the reader only as “S”, has just given birth to a baby boy. It would be incorrect as this point to say that this boy is her son for at this stage S is unsure if she can accept the existence of that relationship. This is because the baby is the product of one of countless rapes S endured while imprisoned by Serbian soldiers in a labour camp in Bosnia. This fact is only alluded to in this opening chapter which ends with S struggling with the physical effects that identify her as a mother (her milk begins to flow) while mentally feeling increasingly incapable of performing that role.
Chapter 2 then takes the reader back to the beginning of S’s involvement in the war. She is a 29-year-old teacher living in an unnamed village in Bosnia. It is May, 1992 and the Serbian army has just arrived in the village, informing all of its inhabitants that they must evacuate their homes and board some waiting buses – destination unspecified. In one of the book’s more touching moments, S packs a red evening dress and a pair of new high heels into her backpack, indicative of the naivety all had of what was to befall them.
All the female villagers are taken to a labour camp and placed in a large warehouse. S gets allocated to the task of assisting one of the other women – a doctor – with tending to the sick. S spends the next two months learning to adapt to these new living conditions while also worrying about the fate of her parents and sister, as well as the constant rumours of murder, torture and rape that are reportedly occurring both within this camp and others.
One rumour of particular concern to all the women in the camp is of the existence of “the women’s room”, a place within their own camp where some of the women are selected to go and where their sole purpose is to be available for constant and multiple rapes by the soldiers. One fateful night, a soldier comes to the warehouse and chooses S to be the new object of their crimes and over the next few months, S is subjected to experiencing firsthand what life is like in “the women’s room” and just what a person is capable of withstanding – whether even consciously choosing to survive or not.
As fate would have it, S then catches the eye of the Captain of the army, a married man and father who, nonetheless, requires both a sexual and personal companion while living away from his family. Despite then experiencing the derision of the other victims of “the women’s room”, S recognises that life as the Captain’s companion means a greater chance of survival – he provides her with decent meals, a comfortable place to sleep on some nights and, most importantly, his relationship with her means she is no longer available to the other soldiers.
Some seven months later, S and the other women learn that they are to be exchanged for some “important people the Muslims are holding” in Croatia. The tantalising taste of imminent freedom, however, is marred by a number of further tragedies that occur within the camp prior to the exchange, as well as S’s realisation that having been stripped of her former identity – both literally and metaphorically – she must now accept her new identity, that of “refugee” and the uncertainty which that entails. The book then moves to Croatia and then Sweden where S is to begin her new life and, to her surprise, to bring into the world new life in the form of a baby. Whether or not S can accept the responsibility of nurturing this unexpected growth out of the ashes of her former life is where the book ends.
I have purposely avoided providing extended descriptions of what occurs during S’s time in the labour camp because the reading experience will be enriched by coming to this book with little forewarning of what it contains. It is harrowing and, at times, graphic but the violence is necessary both to offer an accurate depiction of what occurred but also to raise the philosophical issue that is at the heart of this book which asks what and who makes us who we are? Is it our day-to-day routines; is it our memories; is it our experiences? Is it our possessions; our place in a family and community; our names; our physical bodies; our nationality; our religion? And then what happens if all of this is taken from us? What happens when our bodies continue to live but what we know as life no longer exists? These are the questions which Drakulic raises both directly through S’s thoughts but also indirectly through her use of only an initial to name each character and her refusal to locate the action of the book in any greater detail than the country in which it is occurring. As other reviewers have noted, Drakulic also refrains from providing much detail about the political aspects of the Balkan conflict. This is to emphasise the irrelevancy of politics to the day-to-day experience of war for its victims, an irrelevancy particularly felt by S who despite having a Serbian mother, is still the enemy because her father is Muslim. This is, of course, an absurdity but as with many great war novels have demonstrated (e.g. Catch-22), absurdity is often a key feature of conflict.
If I have one criticism of this book it is in the inconsistent use of italics. For much of the book, it seems italicised passages are to provide S’s first-person thoughts as distinct from the rest of the text which is written in the third-person. However, in the opening chapter, there is an italicised passage that is still written in the third-person. Moreover, the time when it would have been most sensible and effective to have S’s first-person thoughts – as she is deliberating over keeping her newborn – none are provided. Such a personal and deeply difficult decision to make, I think, would be best conveyed from S’s own perspective.
Overall, however, this is an extremely well-written and affecting book and it highlighted to me my ignorance of a conflict that, as I mentioned earlier, happened not so long ago and within my own lifetime, encouraging me to read further about it both throughfiction and non-fiction. Funnily enough, one of my Christmas presents was the book The Museum of Unconditional Surrender by Dubravka Ugresic, a Croatian writer who has been quite vocal about the Balkan conflict. I believe The Museum of Unconditional Surrender deals with the issue of identity when in exile and so it should provide an interesting companion piece to As If I Am Not There.
Next stop is Myanmar/Burma with Letters from Burma.
The Literary Nomad xx
| More on Bosnia
Area: 51,197 km2
Language: Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian
Religion: Muslim, Serb Orthodox, Roman Catholics
Currency: Convertible mark
Delay your stay: The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric; The Cellist of Sarajevo by Stephen Galloway; The Question of Bruno by Aleksander Hemon; Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filipovic;