- How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone
- Grove Press, 304 pp.
Stories left Unfinished
People are always excited to discover a young author, as if he or she were a rare kind of beetle that spent all its time lurking under rocks and waiting for the revelation.
“Ho ho,” the critics cry, scooping up the author into their glass jar. “Look what we have here. We must take this magnificent specimen home to analyze. And when we are done feeding it, and watering it, and showing it off to our friends, let us dissect its heart, to see what makes it tick.”
The beetle, naturally, is presumed to be grateful for the attention.
We should always remember, however, that authors are not beetles, even if the more reclusive scribes might resemble them at times. They are, dare we say it, artists, striving to develop their own particular style. And too much attention early on can be deadly to this growth.
Indeed, if it weren’t for the fact that a budding talent would starve without book sales, it would be tempting to ignore How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišic and let the readers come by his innovative work naturally, and in their own good time.
That way, they might discover a lovely novel of the imagination – surreal, somewhat scattered, full of childhood memories and stories – from a man who experienced the Bosnian Serbian war as a boy. Then they might let him alone to continue to develop his considerable talents.
But who am I kidding? The American creed does not admit any mention of the words “let well enough alone.” So scalpel, please, let us begin the dissection.
When the novel begins, Stanišic’s narrator and presumed twin, Aleksandar Krsmanovic, is a young boy living peacefully in the Bosnian town of Višegrad.
Beginning with the death of his beloved grandfather, Aleksandar shows us a world of a child’s reality, where characters and objects jostle for control. His life is awash with senses, as if his beloved river Drina had somehow burst its banks and sent his thoughts swimming:
Male mourning smells of aftershave. It stands in small groups in the kitchen, getting drunk. Female mourning sits around the living room table with Granny, suggesting names for the new life in Auntie Typhoon’s belly and discussing the right way to put a baby down to sleep in its first few months.
It is also a world of comical joy, where a family can hold a party for the inauguration of an indoor bathroom and a diminutive great grandmother can step right out of the Wild West:
The cutlery clatters in the plastic bucket that Great-Granny bangs down on the table beside the stack of plates. She plants herself four-square in my way, looking just like her hero the Comrade in Chief of all cowboys, Marshal Rooster, although with forks at her hips instead of Colts: where are you going jailbird?
Yet it is no accident that Aleksandar begins with an account of death, nor is it an accident that he wishes himself a magician, able to wave a wand and make things okay again. For tucked in the lines of his narrative we hear ominous rumblings, like shellfire in the distance.
Communism is discredited, nationalist sentiment is on the rise. At a party, a friend of his uncle Miki puts his pistol in the mouth of a trumpet played by a Turkish gypsy. People look askance at Aleksandar’s maternal Muslim grandmother, Nena Fatima. Other people’s narratives, stories of black humor, begin to creep into the book – Milenko, for instance. Also known as the Walrus, the comical Milenko disappears for a time and brings back the tale of the three-dot-ellipsis man, a Rabbi he met while hijacking a bus. His synagogue looted, Rabbi Avram tells of how soldiers tied him to the Torah Shrine in the middle of a frozen lake, then waited for the spring to thaw the lake and sink them both. The ice holds, and the Rabbi is rescued by priests, but he no longer has the breath for saying long sentences:
To think we always have to settle things by violence… we always have to… it upsets me… it upsets me… weapons… fighting…
Milenko’s return heralds the dogs of war. Though Aleksandar cannot prevent his town from being engulfed in conflict, the ensuing violence does not suffocate his imagination, it just warps it. In his mind, for instance, the heavenly smell of baking bread cannot be divorced from a soldier scraping the dough from his fingers after raping a girl with braided hair.
His humor survives, too, an ironic humor of contradictions. The soldier of the title, the one who repairs the gramophone, does so by assaulting it:
The victor with the biggest head in the world puts the pickup arm on the record, but nothing happens. Don’t you dare! he shouts, hitting and kicking the gramophone. Right, men, I’ll get it working in a minute! and he pulls at the knobs, works the switch, shakes the pickup arm, looks hard at the record, thinks it over and sticks the barrel of his gun in the horn.
Through Aleksandar’s eyes, one of our most recent wars takes on a timeless and fantastical quality, broken only by the occasional detail like a soldier playing on a gameboy. We hear about atrocities but do not see them; we smell the bread, but we do not eat it.
But Aleksandar is not destined to see the ending. After saving a Muslim girl, Asija, with a lie, Aleksandar escapes from Bosnia with his family. Here the book becomes more prosaic and more haphazard, and Stanišic loses his way a little in the jumble.
In the second part of the book, Aleksandar writes a number of letters to Asija, telling of his life in Germany. He recounts some more of his childhood in a story entitled “When Everything Was All Right.” He remembers the fishermen Hasan and Sead and the Italian Francesco, falsely suspected of being a pedophile:
If I were a magician who could make things possible, I’d have lemonade that always tasted the way it did on the evening when Francesco explained how right it was for the Italian moon to be a feminine moon.
When he finally returns to his homeland as a grown-up, trying to trace Asija’s whereabouts – a modern Orpheus on his quest for Eurydice – he discovers a normality wholly abnormal. While others have had to rid themselves of some of their memories, cleared the storerooms of tragedy in order to face the day, Aleksandar feels removed and therefore experiences the disconnection.
Mr. Bloodbath, a man notorious for his war crimes, for instance, is still the local policeman. Sead has been impaled and roasted “like a lamb somewhere near the Sarajevo Road.” Hasan, forced to dump bodies in the river, jumped after them.
And, as if Stanišic feels like he needs readers to experience the full frontal horror Aleksandar missed, he adds an account of football game played during a ceasefire, where brutality becomes entangled in the rules of fair play.
Though never stated explicitly, the Višegrad massacre was a real event, a slaughter of Muslims during the spring of 1992. For Aleksandar, the quest to find Asija is a quest for the past before this time, when his river Drina was not choked with corpses and the gramophone could retaliate:
If only I were a magician who could make things possible. I’d give objects the gift of defiance: banisters, gramophones, guns, the napes of necks, braided hair.
The tragedy is, of course, that Stanišic, through of the voice of Aleksandar, knows he is not a magician. He and history can only go forward:
A good story, you’d have said, is like our river Drina: never calm, it doesn’t trickle along, it is rough and broad, tributaries flow in to enrich it, it rises above the banks, it bubbles and roars, here and there it flows into shallows but then it comes to rapids again, preludes to the depths where there’s no splashing. But one thing neither the Drina nor the stories can do: there’s no going back for any of them.
This is, self-consciously no doubt, a spot-on description of the novel’s style.
For How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is about stories left unfinished, the boy that the man left behind, the ellipsis in the Rabbi’s words left unspoken, innocence and memory left whole:
I’m going to be the artist of the lovely unfinished! I’ll paint plums without stones, rivers without dams, Comrade Tito in a T-shirt!… None of my pictures will ever be painted to the end; there’ll be something important missing from every one of them.
And in a list of such pictures, Aleksandar also includes:
Cauliflower galloping far and wide without a bridle. Gramophone without soldiers dancing near it. Wound without blood. Hammer without sickle.
War without violence, he might have added. Love without loss.
In the final reckoning, Stanišic is, to use the cliché, a young and gifted writer. His novel, like Aleksandar’s imagination, comes with an explosion of ideas and impressions, bursts that sometimes fizz out but often excite.
It is a book that revels in the child’s gift of making the usual unusual, and in doing so evokes the poignancy when this ability begins to fade. It is a book about war, an often comic and extemporizing view of war, and a book about memory, and a world lost.
So, is the heart still beating in our beetle, or have we successfully completed the dissection? It would be nice to fantasize that Stanišic will now be left alone to work and wrestle and surprise us with another work in peace. But the idea of peace, unlike war, is much a harder proposition for us to accept.
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.