How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is the story of young Alexandar, who flees war-torn Bosnia with his family, leaving behind his childhood love Asija. Politics shows its nasty face during the war; Alexandar has a Christian name (his father is Serbian and his mother Bosnian), whereas Asija comes from a Muslim family. Later in life Alexandar is haunted by memories of his hometown Višegrad by the river Drina, and resolves to look for Asija in Sarajevo. The relentlessly vivacious boy sounds like a tired and frustrated adult at the end of the book.
A review I read early on in order to establish whether there’d be more violence later describes the book as having “a chaotic structure. Stanisic fills his pages with a disorderly jumble of characters, stories, lists, ideas, phrases, jokes, vignettes and memories.” Yes, chaotic… But I also agree with the statement that the “roar of rage and regret seems like the only plausible response to such an appalling tragedy.” I think making light of it is the only way the author can cope with war. Saša Stanišic has had to move to Germany as a refugee with his family when he was 14.
A passage from one of the many letters Alexandar sends to Asija (none of them reach her):
“17 July 1993
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 MARKS AND 20 PFENNINGS 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 1 METRE 60 TALL, SO NO ONE EVER TELLS ME ANY MILITARY SECRETS. BUT I WOULD LIKE TO SAY SOMETHING VERY IMPORTANT TO SOMEONE VERY IMPORTANT, AND I DON’T MIND OF YOU READ THE REST OF IT JUST AS LONG AS YOU DON’T THROW THE LETTER AWAY AFTERWARDS. THANK YOU VERY MUCH!” (119).
This is Anthea Bell’s brilliant translation, which apparently won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize – deserves it every bit.
I was put off by all the animal cruelty at the beginning, but Stanišic’s narration grew on me later. He sounds confused, and so was I, so I think this messy plot went quite well with my mood.
And reading the book made me want to look up pictures of Višegrad, this is how it looks like: