Sasa Stanisic’s spirited debut, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, well earns its space on the overcrowded shelf of coming-of-age-during-wartime novels. Beyond succeeding as a compelling fictional account of the very real tragedy of a town in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it’s also testament to the power of the imagination—and its limitations. First published in Germany in 2006, the book owes its English incarnation to noted translator Anthea Bell.
Beneath a veil of magical realism, the narrative of young daydreamer Aleksandar Krsmanovic reads with an intimacy that smells suspiciously autobiographical. There’s reason for that: The 30-year-old Stanisic and his bright-eyed protagonist have more than a little in common. Both were born to a Serbian father and a Bosnian mother in the town of Visegrad, and both fled with their families to Germany after the fighting started in 1992.
The story opens in 1991, with the death of Aleks’s beloved Grandpa Slavko. Aleks heeds his grandfather’s last words of advice, delivered with the gift of a homemade magic wand and wizard hat: “Imagine the world better than it is.”
Aleks does exactly that, sharing a series of entertaining anecdotes about life in Visegrad, many embellished to the point of fable. He tells us of his jet-propelled Auntie Typhoon, who speaks in hyphenated bursts; a man whose trauma leaves him only able to talk in ellipses; and his Muslim grandmother, who hides secrets in her head scarf. But all this embroidered whimsy only brings into sharp relief the moments of truth hidden in his stories—the tensions that portend the town’s imminent devastation.
As the violence begins and his family is captured by Serb forces—a time “when only lunatics thought of being lighthearted”—Aleks spins yarns to cope. His description of the siege is at once absurd and fitting: “An army of bearded bridegrooms drove by, shooting at the sky to celebrate taking their bride, our town. Legs in green and brown hung out of the backs of the trailers, dangling like decorations.”
His family escapes before the widespread slaughter begins, and Aleks brings his tales with him, which nourish him through his subsequent years as a refugee in Germany. When he returns to his hometown a decade later, the reality of violence finally confronts Aleks’s world of homemade myths. The opaline water of his river Drina runs red with the blood of friends and neighbors, and he realizes that no story, however magical, will wake the dead.
Visegrad was immortalized in 1945 in The Bridge on the Drina, a book of stories by Ivo Andrić about the volatile coexistence of Christian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims. (Andrić won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961.) But the massacre of some 3,000 of the city’s Muslims in the spring of 1992 has been overshadowed by better-known bloodbaths like Srebrenica; despite human-rights testimonials and war-crime proceedings, the story of Visegrad never fully made it to our corner of the world. (A trip to the town’s official website leaves you no better informed: It insists that its Vilina Vlas hot-springs spa is a must-see, but forgets to mention its former use as a rape camp.)
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is just one of many novels and memoirs that have come out of a war that killed over 100,000 people and displaced almost two million more. But Stanisic’s tale will remain exceptional: A gifted storyteller, he’s able to translate unspeakably gruesome history into something poignant and hauntingly beautiful.