“What's going to happen is so improbable that there'll be no improbability left for a made-up story.” So thinks Aleksandar Krsmanović on April 6, 1992, the day the war forces his family to move into the basement of his grandmother's apartment building along with friends, neighbors and refugees from other parts of the former Yugoslavia. We follow Aleksandar from Bosnia to Germany and back again in Saša Stanišić's remarkable debut, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone(seamlessly translated by Anthea Bell), an energetic, magical romp through a childhood interrupted—and shaped—by the Bosnian War.
Aleksandar is somewhere between eight and fourteen years old (“There are various rumors…it all depends, but too old to have my cheeks pinched anyway,” he reprimands a cheek-pincher). His father is a painter too absorbed in his work to build a relationship with his son; his mother is a pragmatic counterpoint, always in the background, smoking, sighing. Their town of Višegrad is small enough for everyone's business to get around, and Aleksandar is a natural raconteur: there's the story of Walrus, who goes on a Tetris-high-score-smashing-and-revengeful-defecation rampage after being cuckolded by his wife in front of his son; there are Hasan and Sead, best friends who compete on everything but especially fishing; Francesco, an Italian engineer who comes to Višegrad to work on the dam and teaches Aleksandar a hard lesson on bigotry. Aleksandar takes this all in while also making time for soccer, fishing, minced meat and plums, and his grandfather Slavko.
It is Slavko who gives us the first hint of what lies at the true heart of the novel: not war, but reconciliation; and not the reconciliation between victims and their victimizers, but rather a reconciliation between the hard realities of the past and the way they shape the present. Aleksandar's first reconciliation comes right before the war arrives in Bosnia, when his beloved Slavko, who serves as a surrogate father since Aleksandar's father is so distant, dies of a heart attack. But there's no need to panic, because Aleksandar has a magic hat and a magic wand and he knows that he will be able to bring his grandfather back to life. Everyone else is counting on him to do this, he believes, even his distracted father. So at the funeral, Aleksandar waits until the coffin is being lowered to attempt his magic; he wildly fights off the family members who try to pull him away from the graveside, and finally collapses in tears of defeat. His mother gently speaks to Aleksandar about the necessity of accepting Slavko's death; she also tells him that he has a “never-ending grandpa,” because Slavko's love for them is never-ending. Aleksander begins to understand that the things that really matter to us today stay with us for life, a central idea in How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone.
Aleksandar's second reconciliation comes ten years later, long after his family, like many other families, flees Višegrad, their cars barely visible under so much baggage, first for Belgrade, then for Germany. This reconciliation occurs long after he learns “how fast war moves when it really gets going,” long after he sees things no child should ever see, and long after he befriends Asija. Asija is one of the refugees from elsewhere in the country who finds her way to the basement where Aleksandar and his family have taken shelter. She arrives with her uncle, who says simply, “[w]e are the last of nowhere. Our houses are gone. I am telling you all this so that you will know who you are dealing with.” (He dies not long after their arrival, shot in the neck while shaving by a window.) Asija doesn't spend much time with Aleksandar as his family decides to flee the country soon after she arrives, but Aleksandar cannot get her out of his mind once he's safely in Germany. He writes her a series of letters, making up last names since he never knew hers, and tells her about his new life. This is a life in which “we're all a little angrier than we were at home, even in our dreams,” a life in which his mother wrecks her hands working at a laundry and his father is forced to find work on the black market. He tells Asija the first word he forgets in Bosnian (“breza,” the word for a birch tree); he tells her when he begins to dream in German. “Asija, I don't remember the birch trees. I feel as if one Aleksandar stayed behind in Višegrad…and there's another Aleksandar living in Essen…Do you remember me?”
Aleksandar loses something in that basement during the war, something he knows he is as unlikely to recover as he is to find Asija again, even if she survived the war. He comes to realize he is ready to face his past, and so ten years after his family's escape, he returns to Bosnia, something even his parents haven't done. He makes lists of people and things he remembers, and sets out to revisit them all. He finds that people have been marked by the war in different ways: an old teacher has gone senile, trapping Aleksandar in an endless cycle of introductions while his wife wryly comments, “Maybe it's for the best…he can hide from memory and not suffer the horrors of the present day by day.” Some find the adjustment to peacetime difficult: “During the war,” says a neighbor, “my main worry was whether a grenade or a sniper would get me; now I have so many worries I don't know which is the main one.” A bus driver advises: “If you don't know anything you're an idiot. If you know a lot and admit it you're a dangerous idiot.”
Aleksandar also discovers a way in which the war has marked him. He encounters a policeman he knew as a child, whose acts of brutality during the war traveled even as far as Germany, and Aleksandar cannot tell the man what he truly thinks of him. Worse still, when the man asks Aleksandar's mother's name, Aleksandar cannot say it—because she is Muslim. “Perhaps it's a groundless fear, but it's enough to make me disown my mother,” he thinks bitterly. There are other confrontations that he cannot bear to face: for example, the one with his uncle Miki, who fought with the Serbs and has been disowned by Aleksandar's father. But for Aleksandar, reconciliation is a one-step-at-a-time process; his first step is simply to accept that, like water, time cannot run backwards. And so he must face the past he has tried to forget.
The trope of war as seen through the eyes of a child is not new, but this novel never relies on the sentimentality of innocence. There are reminders throughout the book that racial conflicts are senseless—the Croats, Serbs and Muslims of Bosnia found ways to live in peace for years, after all—and especially senseless to Aleksandar, who is a product of a mixed marriage and understands only that some people have “the wrong names.” These reminders feel wise rather than oversimplified. This profound novel will surely come to be recognized as a classic of the Bosnian war, if not a classic in its own right.
Anne McPeak is the Managing Editor of A Public Space. She lives in Brooklyn.