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Saša Stanišić: Wie der Soldat das Grammofon repariert (How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone)

Well, it is certainly cute and clever. This book has been very much hyped (translated into 32 languages, the publisher proclaims) and it certainly is quite a good novel but not, I feel, that good. It owes a certain amount to Ivo Andrić and, indeed, he does get a couple of mentions. It is about the Bosnian war. Sort of.

Stanišić tells us the story of Aleksandar, a boy growing up, like his creator, in Višegrad. The story is, like a lot of similar stories, both idyllic and full of witty stories. For example, the young Aleksandar accompanies his uncle Milenko, known as The Walrus, a basketball referee, to a basketball game. The uncle makes sure the home town always wins and, as his reward, he gets a slap-up meal, with lots of drink. On the way home, in the car, uncle and nephew wake up in a field, where the uncle, who had fallen asleep, had driven the car. Luckily, uncle and nephew survive. When they get home, earlier than expected, the uncle (and nephew) find Aleksandar’s aunt/Milenko’s wife performing oral sex on the local tobacconist. Milenko chases both out of the house, proceeds to trash the tobacconist’s house and shop and then leaves for Belgrade, leaving his son Zoran, Aleksandar’s friend on his own, while disappearing for a year. He returns, driving a bus, with a new and very young-looking girlfriend. Aleksandar is a good communist and follows the fate of Marshal Tito with interest, but is more interested in his family. He is close to his grandfather who dies of a heart attack while Carl Lewis breaks the world record in the hundred metres.

But then the war intervenes. While he does mention it and, in particular, the occupation of the town by the Serbian soldiers (including the one in the title) and, almost casually, the slaughter of the adult male population, also like his creator, Aleksandar is soon off to Germany. We hear how he learns, as a Bosnian, to become more or less German. But the key issue here is his attempt to track down the girl he fell for back in Bosnia. Her name is Asija and, as a Muslim, her life was at risk. He does not know what happened to her but had heard from his grandmother that she might be in Sarajevo. He takes to phoning random numbers in Sarajevo, as well as writing but has little luck. He even goes back home for a visit but it has changed a lot and he does not stay and does not find her. By the end, he may have found her, but Stanišić leaves it deliberately ambiguous.

The story is certainly witty and cute and we cannot help but like Aleksandar as well as feel for the plight of the Bosnians, both those that remain as well as the refugees in Germany, who suffer some harassment from the German authorities. The novel is inventive and humorous but I am not sure that it is great literature.

Publishing history

First published 2006 by Luchterhand
First published in English 2008 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Translated by Anthea Bell