How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone

Kids say the darnedest things — and, when it comes to warfare, the most damning. Adults may take comfort in the soulless brevity of reportage, the headlines of factions and troop movements and body counts, but as long as there is war, children will go on shaming us with their blunt hyphen-bullets and Crayola wounds. Lacking “context,” they make perfect sense out of senselessness.

Sasa Stanisic, born in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1978, was forced from his home by war at age 14. His debut novel recaptures the confusion and horror of that experience: it tells the story of Visegrad, a mixed Muslim and Christian city on the River Drina, which fell to the Serbian-backed Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) on April 16, 1992. The precise identity of the aggressors is never revealed by Stanisic’s young narrator, Aleksandar Krsmanovic, lending an air of unreality to a very real catastrophe.

Indeed, the proceedings will be difficult to interpret for readers not reasonably well-versed in the history of Yugoslavia’s violent dissolution. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, this works in favor of the novel. It isn’t a history lesson so much as an attempt to render a child’s-eye view of war and dislocation, and this it manages with a startling degree of success.

Why startling? Innocence, particularly innocence lost, isn’t easy to depict without sinking into the maudlin and manipulative. The American novel Stanisic’s debut most closely resembles is Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, not only because Foer’s book is narrated by a child and retails a tragedy (September 11th) but also because both novelists have a distracting penchant for whimsy and mannered verbal invention. Stanisic’s very first chapter is entitled “How long a heart attack takes over a hundred metres, how heavy a spider’s life weighs, why a sad man writes to the cruel river, and what magic the comrade-in-chief of the unfinished can work,” and the reader can’t help wondering how or why a Bosnian refugee in Germany (where the narrator has relocated) is channeling the Park Slope–Mission District Axis of Eggers.

When the somewhat grown-up Aleksandar searches for Asija, the girl who holds a key to his lost childhood, American readers may recall the tedious storybook quest of Foer’s boy narrator for the key to his own mystery. The question is why it works, more or less, in Stanisic’s case; the answer is sincerity. Aleksandar is more than the usual mix of precocity and naivete, the prodigy slinging Family Circus koans of piercing moral vision. He is an ordinary child engaged in an extraordinary act of memory, attempting to preserve for himself and his family the things war is taking away from them.

Here, for instance, his paternal grandfather’s funeral summons an important fragment of family history — or is it mythology?

Grandpa Slavko once told me about a festival in Veletovo, he said that long ago Great-Grandpa mucked out the biggest stable in Yugoslavia in a single night because in return its owner promised him his daughter’s hand in marriage-today she’s my Great-Granny. Grandpa wasn’t sure just when it all happened. Two hundred years ago, I cried, and Uncle Miki tapped his forehead: there wasn’t any Yugoslavia back then, midget, those were the royal stables after the First World War. I liked Uncle Miki’s version because it made Great-Granny into a princess.

Necessity being the mother of invention, Aleksandar embellishes and amplifies his memories in order to give them more force as they recede in time. The death of his maternal grandfather, Rafik — an alcoholic who drowned in the Drina — is transformed in Aleksandar’s imagination into a macabre ceremony: “His face was under the water, his feet were on the bank — his beloved Drina was kissing him in death…. He had smartened himself up for the wedding, he was wearing his uniform with the railwayman’s badge.”

Alongside surrealistic tableaux like this are scenes that should be pure fantasy but are anything but — like a group of prisoners forced to play soccer for their lives. In an unforgettable moment one of them is forced to retrieve the ball from a forest “with more mines in the ground than mushrooms.” He is given a bullet-proof vest: “Wrap it up well before you bring it back,” a soldier tells him. This is gallows humor at its blackest.

But Meho wasn’t blown up, he just crapped in his trousers, it would wash out. His own side and some of the Serbians applauded as he stalked back to the clearing with the ball under his arm and his head still on his shoulders, looking as if at the very least he’d just scored in extra time in the final against Brazil, making it one-nil, and was on his way to the terraces to acknowledge the cheers.

Stanisic has a fantastic talent for blending the mundane and the soul-shattering. To see his characters fretting over their Tetris scores while being shelled by unseen enemies is to understand that this can and does happen anywhere. But war isn’t Stanisic’s true subject. Nor is religious conflict: the names of his mother’s parents, Rafik and Fatima, are our only clues to a mixed heritage that gives Aleksandar his special sensitivity. The book is above all a tribute to individuality, how the inner world of memory and invention must assert itself in the face of forces that divide and level.

Aleksandar, like his creator, escapes to safety in short order, but he is undeniably changed by the ordeal. This is reflected expertly in Stanisic’s prose. When Aleksandar returns to his home years later, his voice is subdued; it is unmistakably his but filled with solemnity and respect. He is no longer a child at the center of his own strange universe. He is both grateful and ashamed to have escaped. And so when his uncle Miki launches into a tirade about Aleksandar’s father, who “sends money, and photos of a swimming pool and your mother in a bathing costume,” Aleksandar forces himself to accept the anger. It is a fine moment in what is a very rare achievement: a book that describes childhood without, as so many American novels do, glorifying childishness.