May 22, 2011


taken from Book Forum by Ross Benjamin

Writers have long used a child’s perspective to relate fictional accounts of historical catastrophe, notably Günter Grass in The Tin Drum and Imre Kertész in Fatelessness. Bosnian-born German author Sasa Stanisic offers the latest installment in this tradition with his 2006 debut novel, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, a sensation in Germany, now skillfully translated by Anthea Bell. Through the eyes of the fourteen-year-old narrator, Aleksandar Krsmanovi, we witness a massacre perpetrated by Bosnian Serbs against their Muslim neighbors in the town of Višegrad in 1992. The outlines of the plot are autobiographical: The protagonist’s escape to Germany from the attack on Višegrad parallels the author’s own at the same age. But rather than rendering a direct account, Stanisic refracts these events through his young narrator’s wildly imaginative storytelling. A hyperactive fabulist, Aleksandar embarks on madcap flights of invention and comic exaggeration, which clash movingly with the painfully real chronicle of terror, loss, and exile at the story’s heart.

His tall tales contain many wonders: a magic wand that can “revolutionize all sorts of things, just so long as they’re in line with Tito’s ideas and the statutes of the Communist League of Yugoslavia”; a catfish wearing glasses; a river that talks and is ticklish. The headings that precede each chapter playfully mimic Cervantes and Grimmelshausen by providing brief, tantalizingly eccentric synopses: “How long a heart attack takes over a hundred meters, how heavy a spider’s life weighs, why a sad man writes to the cruel river, and what magic the comrade-in-chief of the unfinished can work.”

Aleksandar learns the answer to the first in this series of conundrums when his Grandpa Slavko suffers cardiac arrest in the same 9.86 seconds in which Carl Lewis breaks the world record for the hundred meters; the race is playing on Slavko’s television. Unwilling to accept his grandfather’s death, Aleksandar recalls Slavko’s gift to him of a magician’s hat and wand that “work magic exclusively along Party lines.” But even though he believes that the resurrec-tion of such a devoted Socialist would surely receive Tito’s blessing, he proves powerless to bring Slavko back to life. Defiantly proclaiming himself opposed to death and all endings, he resolves to become “Comrade-in-Chief of going on and on,” to think up stories that never end, and to draw pictures of unfinished things. His “unfinished” subjects are among the novelist’s idiosyncratic strokes: “plums without stones,” “Tito in a T-shirt,” “books with no dust on them.”      read more....

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