Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 665
The beginning of The Woman from Sarajevo finds Rajka Radakovi, a middle-aged spinster, in Belgrade, the capital city of Yugoslavia, where she moved after World War I from her native Sarajevo. She has lived alone with her mother since the age of fifteen, when her beloved father, a well-known businessman, died, bankrupt and in disgrace. In flashbacks, the story of her happy childhood and unhappy girlhood is told. The only child, withdrawn and overly serious for her age, she felt secure while her father was alive. Just before he died, he warned her to “save, save always, everywhere and in everything,” and not to trust people because “all our feelings and concerns for others show our weaknesses only.” He wanted to warn his child not to become a victim, as he had, of scrupulous ethics in business, which had brought him to ruin. This warning marks the beginning of an aberration in young Rajka that will eventually grow to monstrous proportions. She takes her father’s advice literally and from an early age begins a life of excessive thrift and self-denial that borders on obsession. As soon as she comes of age, she takes over her father’s business and, with a remarkable dexterity, rebuilds the family fortune, mainly by lending money at exorbitant rates. She denies both her mother and herself all normal pleasures, save for very basic needs. She isolates herself from her friends and, little by little, turns away all family friends and most of her relatives. Her life centers exclusively on money matters, out of a pathological fear that she will suffer the same financial ruin as her father. That insecurity, coupled with some peculiar strains in her character—excessive egotism, selfishness, miserliness, and lack of normal human drives—follows her throughout her life, until she ruins everyone with whom she associates and, finally, herself.
Not even World War I can make her change her ways. As a Serb, she escapes the pogroms, to which many of her compatriots have fallen victim, mainly by continuing her old way of life—by lending money and even supporting the enemy. Because of her activities, she is forced to flee with her mother to Belgrade, where she loses herself in a big city while finding greater opportunities for financial deals. As in Sarajevo, she shuns relatives and friends, oblivious to the world outside her narrow financial concerns. Not even her uncle, a friendly and sociable man, succeeds in drawing her out of her shell.
To be sure, she meets people and even allows herself to become friendly with some of them, but such efforts last only a short time; in the end, the old distrustful Rajka reasserts herself. There is only one occasion when she lets her guard down and allows herself to be sidetracked from her single-minded direction. An attractive and pleasant young man, a war hero, needs money to obtain a Ford dealership and asks Rajka for it. Because he resembles so much her younger uncle, whom she loved and who died young and penniless because of his irresponsibility, Rajka lends the young man a sizable amount of money, against her better judgment. When, after patiently waiting for him to return the money, she discovers that he has been squandering it on women and an easy life, she is almost crushed, but she recovers. She is also reaffirmed in her belief that no one is to be trusted and that one must think of oneself exclusively. The most disturbing aspect of this affair is her realization that she has let her emotions guide her even after so many years of conditioning herself to do the opposite.
This experience makes Rajka even more suspicious of everything, so much so that she develops a persecution mania. She is frightened to death by the apparition of an intruder who, she thinks, has come to rob her, and she dies of a heart attack, all alone. Her body is discovered two days later by a mailman.
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