Friday, May 23, 2008

Reading Frenzy - (How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic)


Aleksandar Krsmanovic is a young boy living in Tito's Yugoslavia whose unique view gives voice to the political events that finally propel his family to emigrate to Germany.

I'm looking forward to seeing Great-Grandpa and Great-Granny again. Ever since I can remember they haven't smelled very sweet, and their average age is about a hundred and fifty. All the same, they're the least dead and the most alive of the whole family if you leave out Auntie Typhoon, who doesn't count - she's more of a natural catastrophe than a human being and she had a propeller in her backside. So Uncle Bora sometimes says, kissing his natural catastrophe's back.

It is Sasa Stanisic who gives voice to Aleksandar. He is a 30-year-old Bosnia-Herzagovina born writer now living in Germany and How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is his first novel. His voice lays the sepia patina of well-worn urban-bougeoisie over the bright colors of childhood - its the way the film Amelie looks, if you are familiar with it. Memory tints all the colors slightly brown and odd shots makes someone's ear look bigger than the rest of their face and then the lens swings and focuses on the air vent in the wall. He describes the day his grandfather died in the opening pages of the book.

I noticed that Granny's china dog on the TV set had fallen over and the plate with fish bones left from supper was still standing on the crochet tablecloth. I could hear every word the neighbors said as they bustled about, I heard it all in spite of Granny's whimpering and howling. She tugged at Grandpa's legs and Grandpa slid forward off the sofa. I hid in the corner behind the TV. But a thousand TVs couldn't have hidden Granny's distorted face from me, or Grandpa falling off the sofa all twisted sideways, or the thought that I'd never seen my grandparents look uglier.

I'd have liked to have put my hand on Granny's shaking back - her blouse would have been wet with sweat - and I'd have liked to say: Granny, don't! It will be all right. After all, Grandpa's a Party member, and the Party agrees with the Statutes of the Communist League, it's just that I can't find my magic wand at the moment. It's going to be all right again, Granny.

But her grief-stricken madness silenced me. The louder she cried: leave me alone! flailing around, the less courageous I felt in my hiding place. The more the neighbors turned away from Grandpa and went to Granny instead, trying to console someone obviously inconsolable, as if they were selling her something she didn't need, the more frantically she defended herself. As more and more tears covered her cheeks, her mouth, her lamentation, her chin, like oil coating a pan...

The curling sentences and the quirky humor are a stark contrast to Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing, which I'm also reading now. I've been greedy for some real reading time and with exams over and a weekend with The Ragazzo's family near Columbus, Ohio, I may actually get some.

A visit to Three Lives Booksellers yesterday afternoon turned up more treasures than I actually bought. Three of them - The Lazarus Project an historical novel about the murder of an Eastern European Jewish immigrant in Chicago in the early twentieth century by Aleksandar Hemon, A Curious Earth by Gerard Woodward about the rekindling of love in a lonely widower, and Ian Buruma's insightful political examination of the murder of the provocative Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Dutch Islamic extremist called Murder in Amsterdam and how it has challenged the limits of the famously Dutch political progressiveness- are going on my library list.

I did go home with How the Solder Repairs the Gramophone as well as The Last Chinese Chef, a novel by Nicole Mones the author of Lost in Translation. It is billed as a foodie-mystery-love story. And Margot Livesey's new novel The House on Fortune Street. I really enjoyed her The Missing World, with its neuropsychological theme, and after hearing an interview with Livesey on this new novel, I found myself tempted. As if I'm a hard sell!

2 comments:

Mark Thwaite said...

"Murder in Amsterdam" is certainly compelling, but it left me a little perplexed after reading it. I was never quite sure what Buruma was trying to say, but then I do think he was right to be very sceptical of the use to which the views of, say, Ayaan Hirsi Ali have been put ...

Anyway, a very good debate on Sign and Sight here:

http://www.signandsight.com/features/1167.html

Ted said...

Thanks, Mark, I'll check that debate out. I couldn't tell from my little dip into the book at the bookstore whether I would be entirely satisfied or not so I thought it would be a good library read. Having worked a good deal in Amsterdam, admiring the Dutch society, and seeing it change over the last ten years, I really wanted to read something thoughtful about it.