Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone"

REQUIRED READING: How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić
Book Review by Teresa Friedlander, Copyright 2009

Once upon a time, a boy named Aleksandar lived in Visegrad, Bosnia-Herzegovina, when it was part of Yugoslavia. While the adults in his world worried about who was in charge of what and which political faction was getting a better deal from the Yugoslavian government, Aleksandar did what little children have always done and always will do: he laughed and played and made friends and went to school and got to know his neighbors. For him, this was also a time of magic: his grandfather, Slavko, made him a sorcerer’s hat and magic wand with which Aleksandar could be “the most powerful magician in the non-aligned states,” as long as his magic accorded with “Tito’s ideas and the statutes of the Communist League of Yugoslavia.” The boy was skeptical; he didn’t really believe in magic until his grandfather died. He did, however, believe what his grandfather told him, and Slavko believed the only thing more important than Communist ideals was the power of imagination. When Slavko died, suddenly, in the same instant that Carl Lewis was setting a world record for the 100 metre sprint in 1981, Aleksandar knew his only chance to bring his grandfather back to life was by magic. Aleksandar stood at Slavko’s grave with the magic wand and wearing his magician’s hat, refusing to be moved and having to be carried away. It made no sense that the magic failed, after all Grandfather was a loyal party member and supporter of Tito. With his understanding of the world shattered, Alexandar fell into a prolonged state of grief and confusion from which he would never fully emerge until two decades later when he returned to Visegrad in search of memories.

Aleksandar inherited his grandfather’s gift for story-telling as well as his ability to see beyond the obvious. Before he died, Slavko exhorted Aleksandar to “imagine the world as better than it is.” And he did. How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is Aleksandar’s stream of consciousness remembrance of the people and events of his childhood and how the wars ruined everything and caused his family to flee to Germany. Aleksandar narrates the story in present tense, returning life and color to people and places that are long gone: family, friends, neighbors, teachers, and townspeople; stores, houses, streets, and schools. The book is written with the innocence and sensibility of a child, the language of a poet, and the yearning heart of a young adult trying to make sense of a lost childhood.

We describe wars in terms of battle lines, weaponry, casualties, and troop levels. Looking deeper, into the grieving families, disrupted daily lives, empty markets, destroyed infrastructure, and most poignantly, bombed out schools is too uncomfortable for many of us, especially if we tend to think romantically of war heroes and decisive battles. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is the classic novel of how conflict and regime change run roughshod over social order and civilization. How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is a modern variation on that theme, pulling back the curtains on the horrors of the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s. Unlike Tolstoy’s masterpiece, however, this book is about the devastating effects that wars have on the landless and powerless – and sometimes faceless and voiceless – members of a society. The author, Saša Stanišić (pronounced “Sasha Stanish-itch”), gives a virtuoso performance with his poetic description of life in Yugoslavia after the death of Josip Broz Tito who, during his life, was celebrated by world leaders as a great statesman who united the quarrelling Balkan nations into a peaceful and prosperous whole.
In the decade following Tito’s death in 1980, long-repressed tensions began to boil over and caused irreconcilable conflicts over cultural, religious, and national identities. When, Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence in 1991, the wars began in earnest. The struggle that ensued was brought to a head by Slobodan Milošević (milosh-a-vitch) a prominent Communist leader who used his political skill to increase Serbia’s power in the region while reducing that of Croatia, Kosovo, and Vojvodina. Milošević operated within the framework of the greatly flawed governmental structure created by and for Tito and was able to tilt the balance of power in favor of Serbia. By enflaming racial hatred toward the Bosnian Muslims, Milošević succeeded in creating a common enemy for both the Serbians and the Croatians, and the term “ethnic cleansing” came into common use.
Saša Stanišić, born in 1978, grew up in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and as the violence and armed conflict moved into their town, he and his family fled to Germany. Before the Serbs invaded Bosnia, children played and neighbors mingled without caring too much about tribal loyalties. Once the war moved into their town, everything changed. How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone shows how a child might interpret inconsistent and irreconcilable facts of life under a crumbling Communist regime, as explained by the adults in his world. In the book, Aleksandar has a friend named Asija (pronounced “As-EE-a”) who wears a headscarf, in other words, she is a Muslim. For reasons he doesn’t understand, this headscarf becomes a problem for Asija and one day Aleksandar cannot find her. Rumor has it that they fled to Sarajevo, but no one knows for sure. Her loss broke Aleksandar’s heart and finding her becomes an obsession.
Everyone in Aleks’ town knew about Serbo-Croatian aggression and the spreading of conflict, but are still caught off guard when the war arrives. Aleksandar tries to convey this by explaining “…how fast war moves when it really gets going.” One day everything is normal and the next day, soldiers sit down at the dinner table demanding to be fed and putting the moves on pretty young women in the household. Soon there are bombing raids and everyone is forced into cellars. While frightening, this is a fun adventure for about five minutes and then Aleksandar gets bored and manages to slip out. He witnesses executions of people he knows, good people, not criminals. The River Drina, the lifeblood of Visegrad, a river which can be loving and gentle when not swollen by snow-melt, becomes a conveyance for the dead.

When Aleksandar is a young man, still living in Germany, he tries to piece together his past and begins by making lists of things he remembers. The child-like quality of his narrative has moments of comedy, such as the time when Aleksandar tries to get his family to invite the neighborhood drunk to join them on their summer vacation trip to the seashore. Most of Aleks’ early memories are of how bewildered and amused he was by the adults in his life, several of whom are eccentric to the point of insane, and others who are merely delusional. As the story progresses, Aleksandar seems to lapse into a psychological breakdown brought on by the horrors of war. His great grandparents who are “at least 150 years” old maintain their ancestral home in an increasing state of decay. Whether they are alive or merely ghosts is unclear, but their presence in Aleksandar’s life is real. His grief over losing his childhood to a senseless war pours out of this book, and yet the book isn’t emotionally heavy. Through Aleksandar’s delightful voice and way of imagining things as better than they are, Saša Stanišić transcends the tragedy and trauma of the Bosnian war and brings the reader into a time and place most Americans know very little about, as if on the wings of a butterfly.
There are many reasons to read this book. First, it is an extraordinary feat of story-telling. How the soldier does in fact repair the Gramophone is an episode so absurd that it is must be a real story; no one could make it up. The author creates a visual and emotional world that feels real, featuring characters with intertwined lives filled with tragic and comic events which move the story along. Second, the writing is original, compelling, and poetic. Saša Stanišić’s writing has a dream-like quality and moves fluidly between past and present while keeping the various plot threads intact. Finally, under the veil of artistry, this book provides insight into what the Balkan wars were all about and why NATO sent troops, including US forces, into the area to try and stop the conflict.
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone reminds us that war is a very bad way of resolving conflicts. Even wars fought for the right reasons leave people and places in ruins, and have the effect of obliterating history. When we speak of “civilian casualties” we mean children with innocent hearts and curious minds and parents who dearly want their children to grow up and enjoy good lives. It is possible that Aleksandar, the narrator, suffers from a variety of psychological problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post traumatic stress disorder. The streams of memory rush like a swollen river or dance like a brook over rocks and sometimes it is difficult to keep up with the narrative. To enjoy this book, you must slow down and allow Aleksandar to tell you his story. Think of him as a child who needs to talk about what happened to his hometown, who had a crush on a Muslim girl who disappeared, and who still visits with his dead ancestors. That Saša Stanišić could write such a beautiful book about such a terrible time is an act of grace and generosity, and a reflects his faith in the human spirit. I hope the author, like his subject, has made peace with his past.

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