Anna's Reviews > How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić
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May 15, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: reviewed-for-watermark, translated
Read in May, 2008

Let me over-generalize for a second and say there are two kinds of novels: the ones we read for the plot ("Gone With the Wind," say, or my beloved "Dragonlance" series) and the ones we read for the writing (Nicholson Baker's "The Mezzanine", where all that "happens" over 144 pages is that the narrator buys some shoelaces on his lunch hour). Bosnian-born Saša Stanišic;'s first novel, "How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone," which was short-listed for the 2006 German Book Prize, manages to be both.

Aleksandar Krsmanovic is somewhere between eight and fourteen, the most vivid and traumatic time of anyone's life-but in 1992 Bosnia, history conspires to make any normal coming-of-age impossible. First, he loses his beloved Grandpa Slavko, a storyteller and staunch Communist; then, he loses his country. To deal with the sudden senselessness of his existence, he appoints himself Comrade in Chief of unfinished things: "Starless starry sky. A sniper's gun without the sniper. Snow without footprints." He collects moments before human tragedy intrudes. Eventually he flees to Germany with his family-Serbian father, Bosnian mother-and the novel becomes a tale of separation, as the maturing Aleksandar reaches out to a Muslim girl he met once, whose last name he doesn't remember, trying to make sense of his memories. In his early twenties, he returns to Sarajevo to sort out what is real and what imagined, and is plagued with the guilt of having escaped.

Stanišic's writing is like water, like the river Drina Aleksandar fishes and has conversations with: it's violent and funny and wanders away from itself only to come back stronger than ever. The narrative's timeframe is recursive, wavelike: we hear stories before we know what they mean, grow up with Aleksandar and join his longing for a time "when everything was all right." Stanišic essentially creates a common childhood, full of hazy, half-remembered magic and larger-than-life characters (the walrus-mustached ex-basketball player who comes home to find his wife in flagrante with the tobacconist, Aleksandar's John Wayne-obsessed great-grandmother, two elderly Muslim men who live only to bicker with each other). When that childhood is torn apart by meaningless suffering, it happens to us; when Aleksandar becomes an exile, relating the first time he forgets a Bosnian word ("birch"), the disconnect with the past is the reader's as well. "How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone" is a stunning achievement.
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09/09 marked as: read

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