I have been enjoying the singular voice of Aleksandar, the young narrator of Sasa Stanisic's How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone all along, but when his family emigrates to Germany because of the racial unrest and military take over of Yugoslavia, the book seems to really hit its stride. At this point the book's chapters slip almost unnoticed into letters - Alkesandar writes to his beloved Asija. They are observant of the hypocricies noticed by a child, new enthusiasms, longing, and intense anger.
If my Grandpa Slavko were still alive, I'd ask him what we ought to be most ashamed of now.
I'm writing to you because I couldn't find you, I was ashamed of the earth itself for carrying the tanks that came to meet us on the road to Belgrade. My father hooted at every tank, every jeep and every truck. If you don't hoot, they stop you.
They did stop us at the Serbian border. A soldier with a crooked nose asked if we had any weapons in the car. Father said: yes, gasoline and matches. The two of them laughed and we were allowed to drive on. I didn't see what was so funny about that, and my mother said: I'm the weapon they're looking for. I asked: why are we driving into the enemy's arms? and then I had to promise not to ask any more questions for the next ten years.
I love the observations in this next one and the young writer's love of letters.
Yesterday we got a permit to be in Germany. We waited at the letter K for three hours, in a big office with a hundred doors. The people waiting spoke our language, which we're not supposed to call Serbo-Croat anymore. They gathered around the ashtrays and left slush on the floor and the marks of the soles of their shoes on the walls. Mrs. Foß was looking after us Ks. She smiled wearily, had little dimples, and a pink brooch that had bitten into the collar of her pink blouse. A mouse called Diddl grinned out at us from postcards all over the K room. Mrs. Foß was the friendliest, most patient person in the world; she smiled like her mouse and gave my mother a handkerchief. We couldn't say much but we didn't have to, Mrs. Foß knew what to do with us. We got our passports stamped because Mrs. Foß agreed to having us here. ß is my favorite letter of the alphabet now and a very good invention, because it has two letter s's in it.
I know from Granny Katarina that you got away to Sarajevo last winter. She gave me this address too. She couldn't tell me whether you got my first two letters, she said hardly any post was arriving, and no parcels, but letters were disappearing without a trace as well.
SO I AM SENDING 17 MARK 20 PFENNIGS IN THIS LETTER, IT'S ALL I HAVE. DEAR WHOEVER-OPENS-THIS-LETTER, KEEP THE MONEY, BUT PLEASE IN RETURN SEAL THE ENVELOPE UP AGAIN AND SEND IT ON. THERE'S NOTHING BUT WORDS IN IT, AND SOMEONE MISSING SOMEONE ELSE, AND IT DOESN'T GIVE MILITARY SECRETS AWAY BECAUSE I'M ONLY 5 FEET, 3 INCHES TALL, SO NO ONE EVER TELLS ME ANY MILITARY SECRETS...
That breaks my heart. This on the experience of adopting a new language.
Yesterday I was playing the city-country-river game with Philipp, Sebastian and Susanne, and I didn't come in last with Duisburg, Denmark, Drina, daylily, dentist and Dalmatian. I'm not sure how to explain a daylily to you, and yesterday for the first time I couldn't remember a Bosnian word, the word for a birch tree, I had to look it up: "breza." There are birch trees in a park here called the Kruppwald. All Essen is really on huge garaged, you have to be grateful to the weeds between the paving stones for growing at all.And when he finally receives a response, the anger pent up from the hardships of life in Sarajevo spill out
Birth trees and daylilies and water milfoil and gentian and the Ruhr. I'm noticing everything, Asija. I'm collecting words in my new language. Collecting helps to make up for the hard answers and sad thoughts I have when I think of Visegrad.
...Basketball referees are the last thing anyone needs around here, no one plays anything anymore, the gym is crammed full of people, I don't know if they're prisoners or refugees. I hate the soldiers. I hate the People's Army. I hate the White Eagles. I hate the Green Berets. I hate death. I'm reading, Aleksandar. I like to read. Death is a German champion and a Bosnian outright world champion. I hate the bridge. I hate the shots in the night and the bodies in the river, and I hate the way you don't hear the water when a body hits it, I hate being so far away from everything, from strength and from courage; I hate myself for hiding out up at our old school, and I hate my eyes because they can't see exactly who's being pushed into the deep water and shot there, or maybe even shot while falling...
This chapter of outpouring is the strongest bit of writing in the novel so far. And the section I am just up to seems to be a novel within a novel. If you're someone who usually rolls your eyes at the devices of meta fiction, in this case I do not find them gimmicky- the multiple forms feel completely natural in the telling of this story. I have never been a refugee, but this novel gets me inside the experience from a child's point of view. This story uses humor to great effect, it gets me closer to the experience rather than distancing me. I find the reading experience very immersing. A beautiful book.