Borisav Stankovic’s novel, Bad Blood, was first published in 1910 in his native Serbian and has recently been translated into English for the very first time. Bad Blood is about Sofka, a strong-willed Serbian beauty who is destroyed and humiliated by a cold and hypocritical society that she tried to transcend. That description makes Bad Blood sound seem like a joyless slog (and it does sometimes read that way) but it doesn’t do justice to Stankovic’s sharp critique of Serbian society and his deep probing of Sofka’s psyche.
Bad Blood is set during the first years of Serbian independence from the Ottoman Empire (Serbia was granted independence by the Great Powers at the Congress of Berlin in 1878). It was a time of revolutionary instability as the estates of wealthy Serbian landowners were broken up and given to the laborers who toiled in their fields. Sofka is born into a landowning family brought to the brink of extinction by these reforms and the mismanagement of money by her father, effendi-Mita. And to say that the society is patriarchic and misogynist is a vast understatement.
Despite these disadvantages, Sofka believes she can maintain an independent existence, only to be badly let down by her father and the rest of society. Because of the threat of pauperization, Sofka is basically sold to a wealthy, if culturally backwards family in an arranged marriage (there is a long sequence where Sofka thinks that they are selling the house, not her. To make matter worse, her husband is a pre-teen and her father-in-law, Marko, tries to rape her. Later on, Marko essentially kills himself for dishonor by launching a suicidal attack against a rival clan. With Marko gone, Sofka tries to “raise” her husband, Tomca, which works until Mita shows up demanding money; this enrages Tomca and he takes on the personality of his violent father. Sofka becomes the victim of increasing brutality, imprisoned in a sadomasochist relationship.
Sofka’s demise is used to underline the hypocrisy of society. There are many colorful ceremonies and rituals to consecrate their engagement and marriage, yet what it comes down to is a simple financial transaction. Status matters more than humanity as well; Mita is desperate to maintain his standing and Marko wants to move up. Sofka is a vibrant, intelligent, sensual woman and yet the society she grows up in has no place for her. Instead, people are chained to pointless medieval rituals and customs.
_Bad Blood_is an important historical document; it was the first major Serbian novel with a strong female protagonist and can be interpreted as a turning point in Serbian literary history. Readers interested in Serbian history will find much of interest as well; Bad Blood can be seen as a snapshot of life in southern Serbia after independence (the translator’s essay in the book makes much of how the Turkish ties of the protagonists leads to their downfall). Although Stankovic repeats himself quite a bit with far too many descriptions of the festivals and ceremonies the descriptions of ceremonies goes on for way too long) his prose has a lot of power, especially when he writes from Sofka’s perspective. Even though the plot often devolves into melodrama, the book never fails to sustain interest. Bad Blood is recommended both for its intrinsic worth as a novel and for its usefulness as a window into Serbian literary history.