Friday, March 16, 2012
Many contemporary authors drink more than they write.
Exra studies Tasmanian history. Stanley, Tasmania's North West. February 2012.
Saša Stanišić’s debut novel, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone offers a moving portrait of the breakup of Yugoslavia (and the Bosnian conflict more specifically), as seen through the eyes of a child. The novel explores the barriers of race and religion and the absurd constructs that they are, and – perhaps unsurprisingly – it fails to offer up any real explanation as to how neighbours who previously laughed, drank and sang together suddenly started raping, torturing and killing each other.
The central chronicler is Aleks, of mixed Serbian and Bosniak heritage, as he struggles to comprehend the rapid descent into war and chaos of the once blissful Yugoslav town of Višegrad. This is an emotionally gruelling read. If you had any kind of awareness of what was happened in the former Yugoslavia, you’ll recognise the sense of dread from a reader’s perspective. Ultimately, it highlights the irrational and brutal nature of ethnic violence, set against the naive child’s view of the world. There is a great deal of charm in the detail of growing up by the beautiful river Drina, which makes what happened there (and the role of the river in disposing of the dead) all the more depressing.
Stylistically this is a challenging book. It flouts grammatical norms and the chronology and narration s jumbled. Aleks is an imaginative boy, which adds to the confusion. Throw in the absurdity of internecine warfare, and you have the recipe for a fair bit of head scratching. However, the diligent reader can manage a bit of untangling. I think that this tangled nature is part of the true genius of the book. It is confusing. It doesn’t make sense, child or otherwise. How else does a twelve year old process the casual murder and systematic rape of some members of his town (the bakers wife, the science teacher) by other members (the bus driver, the policeman) simply because they have the ‘wrong’ last name?
I hesitate calling a novel that features such ugliness ‘beautiful’, but I think that it is. Stanišić has pulled off an incredible feat here in trying to capture what ‘reconciliation’ means in the context of such horror. The fact that for most of our characters here ‘reconciliation’ means ‘silence’ is all the more terrible. This is an incredibly moving book, probably the best I have read thus far this year. A warning though, I did need a good sit down and was utterly emotionally gutted by the end. Well worth reading if you are up for it.