Friday, September 08, 2006

Review: Safe Area Goradze

Safe Area Goradze
Joe Sacco

Joe Sacco is one of the leading examples of a niche of non fiction writing called comic journalism. Written in comic book form, the book tells the story of his experience in the "other" Eastern Bosnian safe area of Goradze during the war.

Sacco has written several other books on the war in Bosnia in the same comic journalist style; but it is his book on Goradze that is both the most in depth, best written and perhaps, best known.

Entering Goradze during the siege, Sacco is treated nothing less than as a sort of savior. A little boy who has been wounded by Bosnian Serb troops gives him a few small trinkets, drunks offer him women to sleep with, a woman named Nudjejma bakes him a banana cake, even more remarkable given the low amount of food and desserts available during the war.
Of course, the reaction of the people to Sacco's arrival should come as no surprise. It is not the just the bravery/foolishness/intrigue of a man potentially risking his life to visit a war zone; he brings with him the promise of Western intervention in Bosnia, or at the very least, Western interest in Bosnia.
Throughout the book his new friends constantly ask him about America "Do they know about Goradze in America?" to which he lies, "yes."

The book utilizes several different layers of narrative to tell the story of Goradze against the larger backdrop of the war. One layer tells of Sacco's experience in the town, the view of Goradze through his eyes. The other layer tells the background story and personal narratives of the people of Goradze. Several of the people Sacco meets in Goradze are given their own chapter in which they tell about life in Goradze pre-war, the ethnic cleansing campaign of 1992 and of crimes and carnage. These personal narratives are set against a third layer of narrative, background information of historical events in Yugoslavia and the breakup of Yugoslavia.

One of my pet peeves in when people dismiss the breakup of Yugoslavia to "ancient tribal hatreds" or to "Western imperialism" (Diana Johnstone, I'm talking to you!).
Although he only briefly mentions some of the larger political factors of the war, I thought Sacco did a good job of showing how the war was the result of chauvinistic politicians, with Slobodan Milosevic front and center, and not on some "violent Balkan man" theory.

The sections on the ethnic cleansing campaign are not suprisingly, particularly graphic at parts. Although the drawings are not what I would deem "war porn" (to borrow a phrase from Peter Maass), the stark narrative and ever starker images are hard to forget.
I am a complete outsider to the war in Bosnia, and I do not pretend for one moment to have the experience of someone who was there firsthand, or who had friends or family members who experienced the war firsthand. So, I think it is a bit presumptuous of me to say that I "understand the war" after viewing the drawings. But, I must say the combination of the drawings along with the firsthand narrative of atrocities has certainly left an indelible image in my head.
There were times when I found myself saying "I can't believe this happened." I KNOW that it did happen, but I still find myself shocked by it all.

The major part of the book is dedicated to Sacco's own experiences, living in Goradze, interacting with the citizens. One of my favorite chapters deals with the town's disco, the Piramida, which is complete with video monitors and colored lights. There is no mention on how the Pirmamida stayed open in light of a siege where goods and electricity were scarce at times; but just as the chapter on the Piramida is welcome change of pace from the bleakness of the ethnic cleansing chapters (as necessary as those chapters are) the Piramida disco was a welcomed and well deserved break from the reality of war for the people of Goradze.
Sacco also discusses the mundane aspects of life under siege, for example, the lack of pencils and writing materials. While not having pencils pales in comparison to the larger issues of being under siege, i.e. being shelled, lack of electricity, etc. it does show how being under siege takes a toll on even the most mundane aspects of life.
Besides describing life under siege, we meet some unforgettable characters like Riki, who fast becomes Sacco's main man in the enclave and who has a obsession with the Eagles' song "Hotel California." These descriptions help give the people of Goradze an individual voice, besides a simple lump image.

The one thing that stuck the most was the incredible amount of passion and dedication it took to write the story. Not, just the passion and dedication to go into Goradze in the first place, or the passion and dedication of the people of Goradze to tell their stories, but the incredible amount of painstaking detail it takes to put together a complex 225 page piece of journalism in the form of a comic book.
Each drawing is done, which I feel to be a great amount of care and detail.
Sacco clearly cares about his subjects and their stories, and the amount of detail he draws with shows how years after the war, they still remain with him.


Owen said...

Shiana, like me you suffer from letter-transpositionitis!

Kirk Johnson said...

It's a fantastic book indeed, and I really can't improve on your excellent synopsis/review. Christopher Hitchens' wrote the introduction, in which he mentions how the detail of the "bear's paw" mortar shell craters brought back the look and feel of wartime Bosnia in an immediate, visceral way.

Shaina said...

Owen: (grin)

thanks for your comments.
On your blog you have it set up so that only team members (yourself) of your blog can comment.
I believe you probably want to have it set up for comment moderation instead.
That way people can comment on your blog, but their comments won't go through without you seeing and approving of the message first.
Under settings, go to the comment moderation page.
Under who may comment, click on "registered users" or "anyone" (if you want to get anonymous comments as well).
Then click on enable comment moderation. This allows you to moderate comments to ensure you don't get spam, abusive comments etc.
You have written some really good posts recently, and I would love to comment on them!

Owen said...

Kirk, I've had the same experience as Shaina of having my Comment disappear into the ether.

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This kind of books are really cool because it's hard to imagine what the characters really feel on a situation like that and also this books are so feel of feelings that sometimes you get confused.

newf said...

Shiana, like me you suffer from letter-transpositionitis!
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