Saa Stanii´c, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone (Grove, 2008)
Saa Staniić’s premiere novel, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, begins in a kind of mythologized Bosnian world, a place of magical-like tales—many of them emanating from the young hero’s recently dead grandfather Slavko—mixed with a humorous presentation of the collapse of Tito’s Communist rule of Yugoslavia. Indeed, a good part of this fiction enchants the reader through the young boy Aleksandr’s imaginative retelling of various stories from the small village of Viegrad on the river Drina (made famous by Ivo Andrić’s novel Bridge on the Drina). These include stories from his family members—Uncle Bora, Uncle Miki, Auntie Typhoon, the deaf Nena Fatima, his grandparents, great-grandparents, and his own Muslim-born mother and Serbian father—as well as their colorful neighbors, the referee of the Yugoslavian league, Milenko Pavlovic (better known as Walrus), his son Zoran, the arguing friends Čika Sead and Čika Hasan, and Aleksandr’s school friend Edin.
At the time of these stories, from 1990-1992, Viegrad was nearly 64% Muslim and 32% Serb; today the town is almost entirely Serbian. Anyone picking up Staniić’s book, accordingly, should be prepared for the inevitable shift in tone from comic to darkly tragic. Yet, in part because the author presents this information through his young narrator’s point of view, we witness the arriving soldiers less as deadly murderers than as ineffectual brutes. Aleksandr and his family, who are hiding a young Muslim girl in their midst, Asija, camp out with neighbors in their basement as soldiers from both sides come and go, tearing apart the magical world they all know. Ultimately, Aleksandr, his parents, and other family members escape to Germany, where they face new prejudices but potentially more stable lives.
As Aleksandr thrives in his new home, outwardly growing into a young man, fluent in German, he retains the internal character of a slightly coy, cocky maker of lists and Comrade in Chief of the unfinished.. What the reader finds appealing at the beginning of the book, accordingly, seems slightly embarrassing and, at times, shockingly immature later in the novel, particularly when the young adult returns for a visit to his former hometown.
It is hard to know, particularly since the narrator and author are so closely aligned, whether Staniić is suggesting that such horrific war-time experiences have psychologically damaged Aleksandr, have turned him into a kind of soccer-loving boy-man, or whether he is oblivious to his character’s no-longer-charming immaturity. It may represent a kind of catharsis when he calls random telephone numbers in Sarajevo, leaving a series of cryptic queries and messages about the young girl he seeks, Asija.But it also suggests that the character—still a major list maker and self-enchanted wizard—may need psychological help.
Perhaps Aleksandr’s manically absurd humor is the only way he knows to deal with his country’s dreadful and repeating history. The long description of a soccer game played by opposing forces in the brief cease-fire is certainly one of the most rewarding stories of this book of stories-within-stories. Long time friends, now dreadful enemies, Kiko (for the Bosnians) and Milan Jevrić, better known as Mickey Mouse (for the Serbians) battle to win the game and, as the cease-fire comes to an end, fight for their very lives. While outwardly they seem only to be “playing” at their favorite sport, the game itself becomes a mirror of their fears and hates. As the ball goes into the woods, strong soldiers such as Meho—forced to retrieve the ball among the hundreds of landmines buried there—shit their pants, burst into tears, and ultimately go crazy before they are shot to death. It does not fit our easy notions of war—our feelings of absolute moral outrage—to speak of a battle between life and death in terms of a pitiful sporting event. Yet it is hard to doubt that such an event might have happened, or actually happened, in a world so completely and absurdly split apart.
In the end, we must recognize that the author-narrator—despite our justifiable discomfort with his often too clever childlike actions—burdened by the two million dying voices from his homeland has to breakdown, must metaphorically come apart:
The echo comes back, I have to sit down, I’ve eaten and drunk in-credible amounts, twice, I can’t take any more, I let myself drop, I lie there among the sweet humming of a rain of voices. Where? Howl
two million voices at once. I feel sick. I can’t cope anymore, above me
the clouds, five or perhaps six feet above me. The rain fills my mouth, voices like flies in my hear.
Yes, I say, I’m here now.
DOUGLAS MESSERLI is a poet, fiction writer, and dramatist. He is also the publisher of Green Integer.