18 July 2011

Balkan Book Review

Today's feature is How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić.  I actually found it through a fashion blogger I occasionally read and the name was a dead give-away: I had to read it.  This was my foray into Balkan literature.  Saša, while Bosnian, has lived in Germany since he was 14 and the novel was originally written in German.  This article on the Goethe Institute's site discusses Saša's feelings about being an example of "exemplary integration".  This background information makes reading he novel an interesting debate on art and its reflection on the author, but I will discuss that later on.

I initially had a hard time getting used to the style.  He flouts grammatical norms, which is reflected by the protagonist Aleksandar, who irritates his Serbian teacher by refusing to use quotation marks.  Even the way stories are told, the chronology is somewhat unclear and takes a little mental untangling.  It's the story of an imaginative boy named Aleksandar who passes his days in an idyllic childhood, though the picturesque Višegrad is disrupted by ethnic conflicts.  The novel is written from Aleksandar's perspective and appropriately does not go into great depth of the Serbian and Bosnian conflict.  Aleksandar only knows that he has "the right kind of name" and his young love, Asija, does not.  The conflict is confusing in the novel and rightly so.  To a child, let alone an adult, it was a confusing mess of tit for tat warfare between Serbs and Bosnians.  The title comes from when soldiers occupied his wartime home and decided to celebrate by fixing a gramophone and forcing women to dance with them.  Aleksandar cannot erase the image of a soldier with dough under his fingernails––the soldier raped Amela, the woman who makes the best bread in the world.  This is all obliquely referred to, but the lack of confrontation does not erase any of the tension or visceral reactions I experienced.

The story follows Aleksandar to Germany, where his family flees and meets up with his Uncle Bora and Aunt Typhoon (so nicknamed because of her unnaturally fast pace), who had been working there years before the war erupted.  Most of the stories from his childhood are recounted while Aleksandar is living in Germany.  He keeps making lists and keeping records so he won't forget.  When he is old enough, he travels back to Višegrad to compare his memories before and after.  His friend Zoran tells him, "You don't know a thing about this place and you're lucky for it!"  His time there does not bring him peace of mind, but teaches him that nothing was resolved and that Višegrad will never be the idyllic place on the Drina, his beloved river.  The only thing that remains the same is the Drina, the beautiful Drina.

The parallels between Aleksandar and Saša could lead one to conclude that the author is exorcising some of his own doubts, experiences, and difficult lessons.  This is a distinct possibility, but I think that Saša is doing more than writing about himself through an avatar.  I think he is channeling the experience of people displaced by war, who have to find themselves through all the rubble of their past and the present picture.  Višegrad was no longer the town of Aleksandar's youth and Germany was not his home.  Some part of him lie buried in that mess, under the rubble of war, and the rest of him had to go on knowing he couldn't exhume those remains.  His return trip only taught him that lesson; he could not find completeness.  Does Saša feel the same way?  Perhaps.  But that isn't to say that he's the only one and that his experience is the only one he writes about.

The fantastical elements spoke to the surrealist element of war and memories of childhood.  Both are warped in their contexts.  It reminds me of O'Brien's The Things They Carried when he writes about a true war story.  In essence, the only true story is the one that makes you feel the same way as the teller.  Facts are not true, not in war.  I think that Saša's novel is an excellent illustration of this principle and how it applies to more than just war.  Life is not a series of facts, but impressions, and the truth of the story does not matter as much as the way it makes you feel.  Perhaps the fantastical elements of Aleksandar's stories were to cover up the atrocities, but much like movie Pan's Labyrinth, the fantasy does not disguise the beautiful or ugly.  It paints the picture that Aleksandar sees that is touching, ugly, and full of whimsical beauty.  I would call this novel an impressionist novel since it reinterprets reality to cast a more truthful light on it.  It is a lovely novel that I certainly recommend.