First published: 1999
First published in: Feral Tribune (Split)
Original title: Kao da me nema
The Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulic is one of the most insightful and evenhanded observers of recent Balkan history. Her novel As If I Am Not There is set in Bosnia in the years 1992 and 1993. The narrative tells of the horrifying experiences endured by S. – a schoolteacher of mixed Serbian and Bosnian heredity – when Serbian forces enter her village. S. spends months in an all female compound of a Serbian concentration camp where she is subjected to continual sexual violence and beatings. The novel culminates with her arrival in Scandinavia as a refugee – pregnant, homeless, and ambivalent about her unborn son, conceived during a gang rape in the camp. What is more, S. is unable to find and individual or a community who will listen to her story without judgment.
Told in sparse, unflinching detail, devoid of literary tricks, this is a haunting novel. Simply told but morally complex, it draws powerful links between warfare, masculinity, sexual violence, and the female body, but offers no simplistic conclusions. Most strikingly, the novel refuses to demonize Serbia in its depiction of the war, and the use of initials to identify characters means that questions of nationality and religion are handled with great subtlety. We are asked to see each character in his or her own light, as an agent and an actor, as flexibly rational, as well as terrifyingly irrational. Samuel Thomas