Sunday, June 1, 2008

Other worldliness is appropriate when you're in another world (Books - How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic)

Displacement. The other-worldliness of picking up your family by the roots and transplanting them somewhere else because over-proud religious or national factions have decided that they no longer wish to live with the inconveniences of others. Sasa Stanisic reveals the hypocrisy of the adults who teach children that they should share, the religions that teach children they should love thy neighbor, and who then make life impossible for each other because it is too much damn work for them to understand others not exactly like them. It seems to me that his fantastical novel How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is not fantastical because the writer thinks it will be interesting but rather because it is the form that best expresses the fantasmogorical nature of being a refugee, of trying to adopt a new country, a new language, of missing the food traditional to your homeland, of wondering whether those you left behind are still alive. A dream-like Fantasy seems, well, realistic, if you are a young man named Aleksandar who maintains his emotional connection to home by writing letters to a young girl with whom he shared wartime horrors, but never learned her last name. So, knowing that she moved to Sarajevo, he simply adds a new last name to each letter and sends it off. The child Aleksandar wanted to be a magician, but the grown-up still seems to have lots of reasons for magic.

I paint ten soldiers without any weapons.

I paint Mother's face, smiling, happy, carefree.

If I were a magician who could make things possible, then pictures could talk while we painted them.

If I were a magician who could make things possible, then houses could keep their promises. And they would have to promise not to lose their roofs or go up in flames. If I were a magician who could make things possible, the scars made in them by bullet holes would close up again over the years.

What music does an apartment building make in war?

This passage of a novel is like a poem - the words are displaced enough to not be reportorial - so that the ugliness of the situation can be put off to one side for just a moment as we focus on the longing - just the longing. Making that longing crystal clear, letting it sing. The passage reminds me of Pablo Neruda's The Book of Questions.

In the last section of this novel, Aleksandar returns home to Bosnia from Germany:

I wanted to know what people were talking about in the city, but I didn't dare ask. I listened. I wanted to know how you get up on the rooftoops. I went to sniff the air in stairways, at the library they gave me a number belonging to a table with a reading lamp. I saw students studying. Orpheus and Eurydice was being performed that evening, I wanted to see what kind of underworld the river god's son goes down into, only to lose the woman he's already lost yet again, but I couldn't get a ticket. I was glad to find that such things were sold out. I was glad of everything that looked like riches rather than ruins or that seemed carefree, although I told myself that being carefree is no good...

The trip home includes a thoroughly other-worldly soccer game between Bosnians and Serbs rife with hatred. It is a difficult section in which, for one thing, this reader realizes that our narrator had grown up. I won't ruin these last chapters with excerpts, because they constitute the well-earned climax of this novel and are best appreciated in context.

Don't let my earlier posts fool you 1, 2, 3, the endearing child-narrator of this story does not make this an 'easy' book, although it is sometimes wryly amusing and often very beautiful, it steers clear of cute. I strongly recommend reading it. I should say that it was translated from German by Anthea Bell. I haven't read it in German, nor could I, but I can say that the tone is consistent, inventive, colloquial, and I didn't look up from it once thinking it self-conscious. So I am going to call the translation a good one. I don't know if Stanisic is doing a book tour. He might be as he has a reading scheduled in NYC at McNally Jackson Bookstore on June 13. It's the day before I take off for my holiday, but I will try to go just the same.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this intensive, thorough and thoughtful reading! Amazing to see what the text is capable of communicating. I really appreciate this a lot.

Dragana said...

"Migrant-lit" is in, and for a good reason. For personally patriotic reasons I am glad you enjoyed the work of a population group that is on the fringes of globalization. Not to scoff at Junot Diaz et al., but not all come from the Ibero-American world! :-))) This kid Saša Stanišić (how sad that I am calling someone kid who just turned 30 and was 28 when the book was published), who recently argued that the very term "migrant literature" was a misnomer, came to Germany as a Serbian refugee from Bosnia when he was 14 without speaking a word of German. How he pulls off this incredibly poetic, touching, witty book (think Jonathan Safran Foer getting drunk with Gary Shteyngart), after having started publishing back in 2001 iz amazing. I checked out his blog (in German), which he presumably writes on quicker notice and without much editorial assistance, and he's just brilliant. Unfortunately, when I inquired at Barnes & Nobles today, they didn't have it on order, at least in mine. Dean Koontz, Greg Iles and Janet Evanovich, you could make some room for others!

Ted said...

Dragana - I got mine at a local non-chain store. And, thank goodness for the internet, Powell's has it on-line.

Ted said...

iwontforget... - Having read your grateful comment one way for nearly a week (as the thanks of someone enjoying getting a good book recommendation), I realized after dragana's comment that it might instead be the writer who has thanked me - if so, my pleasure. It must be strange and interesting to experience reactions to your novel in translation, especially given what it is about. I was pleased to read that you had written a play. I hope that it makes its way into English!

Dragana said...

Ted-- I was pretty impressed by you book list, particularly The Chess Story, Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain. Can't vouch for the translation, as it's tight stuff, but hey, who even bothers these days?! Safe to say that some books, these among them, change one's reading standards forever.
If you're interested in more international substance, check out my list on my blog (click the goodreads link)