- The Sacrificed Body: Balkan Community Building and the Fear of Freedom by Tatjana Aleksić
Tatjana Aleksić has written a fascinating volume that examines the trope of immurement in Balkan literature and film. If the building of Skadar, depicted in the Serbian epic of the same name, or that of the bridge of Arta, from the eponymous Greek ballad, required a living female sacrifice, then more contemporary works portray, as Aleksić convincingly demonstrates, the sacrifices of an entire array of others in what ultimately turn out to be failed attempts at producing a homogenous community.
The introduction to the book covers the immurement legend as one “known to exist in numerous variations in all literary traditions of the Balkan region” (1), but also announces a primary focus on Greece and Yugoslavia. From the latter, the book addresses both works produced in Yugoslavia—its most recognized literary product, The Bridge on the Drina, as well as the Black Wave films of the 1960s and 1970s—and a selection of Bosnian and Serbian literary pieces written after the country’s break-up. Albania’s best-known author, Ismail Kadare, also receives treatment that is impressive for its careful investigation into his seeming complicity in, as well as his potential furtive subversion, of Europe’s most oppressive communist regime. Aleksić’s circumscribed attention is justified in light of “the bloodbath that marked the death of Yugoslavia” (12) and Greece’s post–World War II turbulent development; however, given her repeated emphasis on the ubiquity of the immurement legend to the entire Balkan region, a list of the versions outside of the countries that the book’s focus comprises would have been appreciated.
Chapter 1 is the highly informative theoretical chapter of the book, worth reading on its own even by those not particularly interested in the legends and literatures of the Balkans, as it discusses the notion of female sacrifice in patriarchal societies from psychoanalytic and feminist perspectives. Aleksić’s use of Julia Kristeva in reading immurement as the imposition of the symbolic over the semiotic, the latter of which not only creates the necessary conditions for the existence of the former but also continues to disrupt it, is particularly enjoyable. Most importantly for the rest of the book, though, the first chapter defines the sacrificed body as feminine instead of female, with feminine as a stand-in for all sorts of social marginality, whether it be related to class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender itself. This move allows Aleksić in the subsequent chapters to read all undesirable bodies as sacrificial victims of systems experiencing an existential threat. The concept of heteronormativity, as conceived by [End Page 185] Michael Warner, though not utilized by the author, clearly plays a role here, especially in its broad application to much more than just heterosexuality or traditional gender roles; its extension to Balkan macho-nationalism would have made for an even more fascinating read.
Chapter 2 covers the broadest swath of geography and history, including works that span the twentieth century, from Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Master Builder (1909) to Aris Fakinos’s The Dream of the Master Builder Nikitas (1998). In addition to these two Greek works, the chapter discusses Ivo Andrić’s famous The Bridge on the Drina (1945) and Kadare’s The Three-Arched Bridge (1978). Kazantzakis’s little-known play is significant as “the final occurrence of woman’s immuration at the bridge that Balkan literature is to record” (53), the victim being the lover of the master builder himself, who, in an act reminiscent of the classical hero Aeneas’ abandoning of the suicidal Dido in order to found an empire, as well as of contemporary football coaches’ prohibiting their players from sexual intercourse before a big game, must rid himself of the object of his lust in order to focus his energies on completing the bridge. Subsequent works discussed in the chapter substitute the female victim with “various male bodies of socially or politically marginalized subjects” (55...