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 Vi¨egrad in 1992. The outlines of the plot are autobiographical: The protagonist’s escape to Germany from the attack on Vi¨egrad 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.”
Stanisic evokes the prewar period through a poignant collage of anecdotes that disclose the tension between the enchantments of stories and the harsh realities of the world. Far from trivializing the terrible history, the fanciful style makes it all the more acute, by presenting Aleksandar’s longing and failure to “imagine the world better than it is,” as Slavko exhorts him in the beginning. In one tale, his friend’s cuckolded father abandons Visegrad to find a new mother for his son and a fresh copy of Das Kapital, which his wife’s lover soiled. Flying into a rage when a bus driver belts out Serbian nationalist songs, he hijacks the vehicle and initiates a love affair with one of the two remaining passengers. The other passenger is the “three-dot-ellipsis man,” who cannot utter a complete sentence but only snatches of speech separated by ellipses, such as: “It upsets me . . . weapons . . . fighting . . . even with words . . . fighting . . . vulgar abuse . . . spitting . . . cursing.” When the bus careens down a mountainside and comes to rest on a sheet of ice, this fellow puts on skates and suddenly speaks fluently, “cured of those three dots!” He recounts how, during World War II, he lost “his home and his synagogue and his memory of how to end sentences.” A rabbi, he was bound to a Torah shrine in the middle of a frozen lake and left there with his holy books to await the cracking of the ice. He miraculously survived despite the onset of spring, but the objects most precious to him sank, leaving him with an altered view of life: “I knew that the whole world is only a very short bridge, and we need have no fear of the depths below it.”
This parable presages the tragedy that befalls Aleksandar in the next chapter. When Serbian soldiers occupy his building, killing his Muslim neighbor and raping a woman, Aleksandar protects an orphaned girl named Asija. After he flees with his family to Germany, her unknown fate haunts him. The middle of the book consists of letters he writes to Asija, though he is unable to locate her. In them, Aleksandar conveys the melancholy of exile and laments his truncated childhood: “I’m not comrade-in-chief of the unfinished any more, the unfinished is comrade-in-chief of me.” His refrain throughout the book—“If I were a magician who could make things possible . . .”—underscores his incapacity to affect the unfolding of events: “If I were a magician who could make things possible, then houses could keep their promises. And they would have to promise not to lose their roofs or go up in flames.”
The novel achieves a particular potency when Aleksandar returns to Visegrad to “compare [his] memories with here and now” amid the remains and to gather details of events that he could not fully grasp as a child swept up in them. He learns of a former acquaintance impaled and “roasted . . . like a lamb” and another forced to throw the bodies of slaughtered fellow Muslims into the Drina River from a bridge. The bloodstained river that Stanisic describes truly flowed through the Vi¨egrad of his childhood. How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone bears witness to this horror with tragicomic intensity, reflecting the possibilities and limitations of fiction in the face of atrocity.
Ross Benjamin is a writer living in Brooklyn. His translation of Friedrich Hölderlin’s Hyperion was recently published by Archipelago Books, and his translation of Kevin Vennemann’s Nahe Jedenew (Close to Jedenew) is forthcoming from Melville House.