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How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone (2008)

by Saša Stanišić

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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5012248,143 (3.76)71
Fleeing the violence and destruction of his native Bosnia with his family for safety in Germany, Aleksandar Krsmanoviæ remains haunted by the past and his memories of Asija, the mysterious girl he had tried to save and whose fate he is desperate to discover.
  1. 20
    The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić (ivan.frade)
    ivan.frade: Both books share the same "balcan" mood and a special view over Yugoslavian history.
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» See also 71 mentions

English (16)  German (2)  Spanish (2)  Dutch (1)  All languages (21)
Showing 1-5 of 16 (next | show all)
I love the voice, the tone, the story, the... everything. First-person child voices are so difficult to do well, even when they are grounded in your own childhood. Playful with language in the way of those who have to relearn the world in another idiom. Creative, fragmented but whole, so specific and also so relevant to anyone who has lived through a world changing suddenly. I only wish I'd read this earlier, and maybe in the original.
Ok well that's not really a review, maybe I'll write one later. ( )
  Kiramke | Jun 27, 2023 |
This was Saša Stanišić’s first novel, focusing mainly on his early life in Višegrad and his childhood experience of the Bosnian war. In a patchwork of stories, pastiche school essays, and even a novel within a novel, the narrator Aleksandar tells us about his family connections, Serbian and Muslim, his rural grandparents, his neighbours in the town of Višegrad and the river he fishes in and talks to. Ivo Andrić is always there in the background, as is the famous bridge, of course. But the main theme, of course, is the puzzling and distressing experience of finding yourself caught up in a bloody conflict between groups you barely had any reason to identify as distinguishable groups before.

Clever and sophisticated writing: it’s no surprise that Herkunft turned out to be such a tour-de-force ( )
  thorold | Dec 23, 2022 |
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone By Sasa Stanisic Grove Press 345 pp., $24

Thomas Wolfe has nothing on Aleksandar Krsmanović. “You can’t go home again,” is much more than a saying once your town becomes the site of genocide, as Saša Stanišić details in his debut novel, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone.

As a boy, Aleksandar idolized his Grandpa Slavko, who made him a hat and wand, and told him that both were magic (and only to be used in accordance with the Statutes of the Communist League of Yugoslavia).

I doubted the magic, but I never doubted my grandpa. The most valuable gift of all is invention, imagination is your greatest wealth. Remember that, Aleksandar, said Grandpa very gravely as he put the hat on my head, you remember that and imagine the world better than it is.”

Aleksandar is hard-pressed to put that imagination of his to work when his grandpa dies that very evening. Grieving, the boy decides to never finish anything again, creating 99 paintings with something left out.

“I’m against endings, I’m against things being over. Being finished should be stopped! I am Comrade in Chief of going on and on, I support furthermore and et cetera!”

Even without his Grandpa Slavko to regale him with stories on their long walks, Višegrad is still full of a motley-yet-beloved collection of relatives and friends, from Walrus, a basketball umpire whose cuckolding becomes the stuff of local legend; to Amela, a tragic figure with long black hair who bakes the best bread in town.

Then in 1992, the Bosnian war comes to Višegrad, destroying the fishing trips, plum harvests, and parties to christen indoor plumbing (parties complete with a five-piece band and a feast with dishes that go on for three pages).

Stanišić, who fled Višegrad during the war and lives in Germany, shares some of his biography with his main character. Aleksandar is also 14 when his family escapes to Essen, Germany. Before that, he watches the soldiers, who take away anyone who doesn’t have the “right” name and rape anyone unfortunate enough to attract their attention.

Hiding in the attic one afternoon, Aleksandar (who has a Serbian father and a Muslim mother) helps a Muslim girl by pretending she’s his sister. He can’t find Asija when his family escapes a few days later and is haunted by her for years.

Once in Germany, Aleksandar briefly describes his family’s poverty and struggles to adapt to their new lives as refugees. But then his grandmother gives him a journal and a request: “you have to remember them both … the time when everything was all right and the time when nothing’s all right.”

Writing down the stories he collected during his boyhood, Aleksandar realizes, “I don’t have to invent anything to tell a story of another world and another time,” and carries the reader back to Višegrad.

Those stories range from a gleeful fish tale (a yarn involving a catfish and a pair of spectacles that could have come out of Twain) to the village’s embrace and then rejection of an Italian engineer who worked on the local dam.

The chapters follow the stream-of-consciousness style of the novel, with long lists of disparate-sounding headings such as “When flowers are just flowers, how Mr. Hemingway and Comrade Marx feel about each other, who’s the real Tetris champion, and the indignity suffered by Bogoljub Balvan’s scarf.”

In the first half of “How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone,” the horrors of the war are shown through the baffled eyes of a sensitive and naive child. This can lead to a frustrating confusion for readers, since it’s difficult to parse together exactly what’s happened to individual characters – a problem rendered more difficult by the purposely chaotic structure and Stanišić’s fondness for repetition and lists. After finishing the novel, I can’t say for certain what Aleksandar’s Uncle Miki was involved with, except that I’m pretty sure it wasn’t good.

After the grown-up Aleksandar comes back to Višegrad in 2002, the stories have a more adult bitterness to them, such as one detailing a soccer game between opposing forces where the ball ends up in a minefield and the cease-fire ends at halftime.

Stanišić splinters apart his plot, completely ignoring linear sequence and sometimes starting a new story without finishing the first. At its best, the result is like a shivered mirror – each fractured piece showing a different fragment of horror or memory.

Readers who appreciate a conventional story line are likely to be nonplussed; fans of more experimental writers such as Michael Ondaatje will want to pick up this deeply felt debut.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.
  agdesilva | Feb 15, 2021 |
95/2020. The novel is written in the narrative voice of an active, intelligent, imaginative boy who claims his age is a deliberate mystery between eight and fourteen. At the beginning he gave the impression an immature pre-teen. Then later a naive early teen when the Bosnian war broke out in April 1992 (the author would've been 14 in March 1992). It had the effect of immersing me as a reader in the moment as perceived by the protagonist but distanced from the more complex enveloping adult world.

Despite the apparent naivety of the protagonist, the story itself is carefully crafted to foreshadow the horrifying variety of wartime violence, so we're shown violent ethnic nationalism, animal cruelty, and misogynist violence. Then as the Croatian war kicks off to the west there's an interlude in which an elderly Jewish man, possibly a rabbi, recounts an incident of genocidal anti-semitic ethnic nationalism that happened during the Second World War. This serves as a subtle reminder of various historical massacres between all the local ethnicities, and why they're all still scared of their own neighbours, without arguing through the convoluted and disputed details of history (while also cunningly engaging the sensibilities of German readers). It's ethnic nationalism that's presented as the primary motivation for mass violence, not religion (although in reality religious rhetoric was certainly used to support ethnic nationalism, and recruit outside help, whether Orthodox Christian, Catholic Christian, or Sunni Muslim), but at a more fundamental level it's presented as "normal" human violence on a larger scale: whether someone is a serial killer or a war hero depends not on how many people they kill but on the time and place they live in. The story also makes it explicit that whether a person is or isn't safe in a particular time and place is determined by something as trivial as their name. Although, it should go without saying, even the most fanatical ethnic nationalism is never really about culture - it's about controlling who does and doesn't have access to the material resources necessary to create and maintain life (follow the money). The first half of the book ends with the protagonist settled as a refugee in Germany, while his parents and Bosniak grandmother have moved on to the US and his Serbian grandmother has returned to Višegrad in Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The second half of the book is, in effect, a series of short stories that range through the protagonist's life and link at many points with the previous, more linear, novella. These narratives also explore the various positions of "displaced persons" in situations where to survive is to flee: internal exile, emigrant refugee, or returnee whose place might no longer exist (or might have been taken by another displaced person). You can't go "home" to a place that no longer exists.

This all leaves unanswerable questions. Which is the most "normal" human behaviour: the time when murder is wrong and punished as a crime, or the time when murderers are heroes? Where is more historically "normal": the place where a government tries to protect people from death or the place where a government kills? For my parents this question was about war and peace, for me now it's about behaviour during a pandemic: will people band together to save life or choose to allow unnecessary death? Do we want "normal" human behaviour or can we be the people who do better than some historical average? Can we be the people who are abnormally good? ( )
  spiralsheep | Jul 28, 2020 |
I enjoyed much of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone because I thought Stanisic's childhood observations of war and culture were so interesting. The fractured narrative, though, was distracting.

(I wrote a bit more about the book on my blog here.) ( )
  LizoksBooks | Dec 15, 2018 |
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» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Saša Stanišićprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bell, AntheaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nordang, AstridTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Für meine Eltern | Mojim roditeljima
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Opa Slavko maß meinen Kopf mit Omas Wäschestrick aus, ich bekam einen Zauberhut, einen spitzen Zauberhut aus Kartonpapier, und Opa Slavko sagte: eigentlich bin ich noch zu jung für so einen Quatsch und du schon zu alt.
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Fleeing the violence and destruction of his native Bosnia with his family for safety in Germany, Aleksandar Krsmanoviæ remains haunted by the past and his memories of Asija, the mysterious girl he had tried to save and whose fate he is desperate to discover.

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