Genocide. A word that marked a large part of the 20th century. A force that shaped the boundaries of the world through numerous conflicts and thousands of dead. And a topic that inspired so many authors to attempt and make sense of everything that happened.
I knew a little less to nothing about the events in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995. I had a vague idea that included the words war, genocide, and death but that was almost as far as I got. Saša Stanišić’s debut novel How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone necessitated that I actually learn something about it.
History is never simple and as my father cleverly pointed out on Saturday night, when my mom and I were close to fist-fight over politics, there is never a single truth or a single story. However, for the sake of simplicity, I will not go into the numerous political or religious reasons behind the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The breakup of Yugoslavia in the beginning of the 1990s resulted in the establishment of several new countries, among which the troublesome Bosnia and Herzegovina. Its population consisted of Muslim Bosniak, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats, which of course meant peace was far from easy. The result – a mass genocide committed by the Serbs against the Muslims in Bosnia. How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is one of those stories. A story about growing up with and in a war, a story about escaping from that war, and a story about returning to your post-war country to look for answers.
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is not your typical war story, though. Instead, Stanišić’s introduces us to the imaginative and magical world of Aleksandar – Chief in Comrade of unfinished things. He has painted nearly 100 paintings without finishing them. He has started many stories without ending them. And he has left Bosnia as a young boy without saving the girl he loves. Set both in Bosnia and in Germany How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is a striking account of a war, which, however, hardly mentions the war.
After his grandfather’s death, Aleksandar submerges even more into his imagination and into his storytelling. The reader is introduced to life in Eastern Europe – weird neighbours, peculiar stories, a river that has its own character, and a boy whose world is shattered by the war. As the conflict approaches the town of Višegrad, people begin to disappear and the few remaining are holding on to each other. In a cellar hiding from the bombs Aleksandar meets Asija – a mysterious orphan girl – whom he immediately likes. However, war doesn’t favour love (or logic) and soon Aleksandar’s family is forced to flee to Germany. Nearly ten years later Aleksandar is still haunted by the image of the girl he didn’t save, by the abandoned grave of his grandfather, and by the stories, people, and places he left behind. Returning is even more difficult than leaving – yet Aleksandar returns to the place that has nurtured his imagination and that has given him more that it has taken away.
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is beautiful. It is a rich novel that alternates between the voice of a little boy and the voice of a grown up man. It hardly mentions the war, it escapes from the brutalities and the death, it searches for something beyond the armed conflict. We feel the war through the distantly heard bombs, through the mysterious disappearance of people, through the shattered world of little Aleksandar. Unlike The Cellist of Sarajevo, which is a brutal account of the longest siege in the history of warfare, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is more about the life behind the war, which attempts to remain as normal and as sane as possible. Humorous, sad, tragic, real, romantic, touching are among the many adjectives that come to my mind when thinking of the novel. Beautifully written and beautifully executed, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is everything that is left when the bombs have died down, when the buildings have collapsed, when people have disappeared, and when one has to rebuild everything bit by bit, piece by piece, using his imagination. Comrade in Chief of going on and on.
I’m against endings, I’m against things being over. Being finished should be stopped! I am Comrade in Chief of going on and on, I support furthermore and et cetera!
Incompetence means doing something even though you haven’t the faintest idea how to – like governing Yugoslavia, for instance.