Bosnia and Herzegovina: out of the mouths of babes

Novels in children’s voices tend to be the Marmite of literature. While some people love the fresh, quirky insights that pepper works such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Emma Donoghue’s Room, others find them contrived, suspect and twee. Usually for such works to be in with a fighting chance of success, the child narrators must describe traumatic events beyond their understanding, creating a poignant gap between their generally upbeat interpretation of reality and the sad truth.

Saša Stanišić’s English PEN-championed How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone comes from this stable. Presenting the Bosnian War of the early-mid nineties through the eyes of young Aleksandr Krsmanoviæ, the book is a striking portrait of the way conflict ravages homes, lives, and psyches and the personal implications of events watched on TV screens hundreds and thousands of miles away.

Much like Hwang Sok-Yong’s The Guest, the novel intercuts periods of reflection and domesticity with scenes of extreme violence, revealing the psychological rifts that trauma inflicts. The difference is that where Hwang puts his outrages into the mouths of characters and ghosts, Stanišić rumples the chronology of the novel, sending the adult Aleksandr ricocheting back and forth between his memories and his inability to process them.

When they work, the time shifts and child’s voice, which is also varied with a third-person narrator, allow for some telling comment on the cruel illogic of war. The young Aleksandr walks us through the absurd hypocrisy of concepts such as enforced ‘voluntary repatriation’ and ‘our language which we’re not allowed to call Serbo-Croat anymore’ more succinctly and memorably than any adult would.

There are also some extraordinarily tense scenes and some powerful experimental passages. I particularly liked the chapter recording some of Aleksandr’s attempts to phone every house in Sarajevo in search of his long-lost childhood friend Asija.

Occasionally, though, the shifts become a little wearing and overly disorientating. This is not helped by wonky formatting in the e-edition, which means that chapter headings are split between pages for much of the second half of the book.

Some of the more surreal scenes towards the end also fall a little flat. The passage where the young Aleksandr has a long dialogue with the river in which he is fishing, for example, while indicative of his retreat into fantasy in the face of horror, is hard work.

Nevertheless, this is a powerful and, for the most part, compelling book. Its unflinching presentation of the extremes of human suffering makes for some gripping sequences, which will stay with me long after I’ve archived the book away into the great e-library in the sky. And my tweeness radar barely beeped once.

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić (translated from the German by Anthea Bell). Publisher (Kindle edition): Grove Press (2008)