READ THE WORLD – Bosnia and Herzegovina: How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić

Translated by Anthea Bell.

For young Aleksandar – the best magician in the non-aligned states and painter of unfinished things – life is endowed with a mythic quality in the Bosnian town of Višegrad, a rich playground for his imagination. When his grandfather dies, Aleks channels his storytelling talent to help with his grief. However, when the shadow of war spreads to Visegrad, the world as he knows it stops. Suddenly it is not important how heavy a spider’s life weighs, or why Marko’s horse is related to Superman. Suddenly it is important to have the right name and to pretend that the little Muslim girl Asija is his sister. Then Aleksandar’s parents decide to flee to Germany and he must leave his new friend behind.

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone Is one of those books where quotation marks aren’t used when characters are speaking. Personally, I find this stylistic choice really hard to read and I’m not saying I skim read, but having speech marks make the endless paragraphs easier to read and breaks up the text a bit for me. About midway through there’s some chapters where there isn’t any speech and instead it’s just Aleksandar’s thoughts and how he feels about the situation he’s in and I enjoyed them a lot more as they were easier to read. Then it was back to having conversations where I felt I missed bits because I wasn’t always certain when the dialogue started/ended or who was talking. It did make me smile though as clearly the author knew he was doing as at one point Aleksandar’s teacher gives the class a writing task and the teacher takes a moment to tell him that he has to use quotation marks and mustn’t forget them like he has done in previous work.

Aleksandar is a child at the beginning of the book and so has a child’s understanding of what’s happening when war breaks out, and even before that when his grandfather dies. As his grandfather told him he was magic, Aleksandar believes that he can bring him back from the dead, if only he could find his wand. Even before soldiers arrived in his hometown things are changing as teachers in his school need to now be referred to by “Mr” rather than “Comrade” and Aleksandar is the kind of boy to question things when adults tell him he shouldn’t.

When Aleksandar returns to Bosnia over ten years since he and his family fled to Germany, he’s in his twenties and he finds the place a lot different to how he remembers it. He still has some extended family and friends there and it’s interesting to see how there’s sometimes animosity against him from those who didn’t manage to leave and had to live through the war. He and his parents had it difficult too, having to learn a new language and having little support in a whole new place but it’s clear the trauma and difficulties were different for those who stayed behind.

Though it’s not gone into much I thought it was interesting that it showed that difference as other books I’ve read during my Read the World Project haven’t really shown both sides. Most just follow those who managed to leave or those who lived through the conflict in their hometown, without much consideration of what other people would’ve gone through as their own situation was already so difficult.

As I found How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone so difficult to read, I ended up not really liking the story much. Though the latter half where Aleksandar’s older and always thinking about the girl he had to leave behind and going through the address book to find her was interesting and sweet, it wasn’t enough to get me truly invested in his story.

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