How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone

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The hardcover publication of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone launched Stanisic as an exciting and important new voice in literary fiction and earned exuberant praise from readers and critics alike. Now in paperback, Stanisic’s debut about a boy who experiences the Bosnian War and finds the secret to survival in language and stories is bound to dazzle a whole new readership.
For Aleksandar Krsmanovic, Grandpa Slavko’s stories endow life in Višegrad with a kaleidoscopic ...

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The hardcover publication of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone launched Stanisic as an exciting and important new voice in literary fiction and earned exuberant praise from readers and critics alike. Now in paperback, Stanisic’s debut about a boy who experiences the Bosnian War and finds the secret to survival in language and stories is bound to dazzle a whole new readership.
For Aleksandar Krsmanovic, Grandpa Slavko’s stories endow life in Višegrad with a kaleidoscopic brilliance. Neighbors, friends, and family past and present take on a mythic quality; the River Drina courses through town like the pulse of life itself. So when his grandfather dies suddenly, Aleksandar promises to carry on the tradition. But then soldiers invade Višegrad&#8212a town previously unconscious of racial and religious divides&#8212and it’s no longer important that Aleksandar is the best magician in the nonaligned states; suddenly it is important to have the right last name and to convince the soldiers that Asija, the Muslim girl who turns up in his apartment building, is his sister.
Alive with the magic of childhood, the surreality of war and exile, and the power of language, every page of this glittering novel thrums with the joy of storytelling.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Stanisic's debut novel is the moving story of a young Bosnian refugee named Aleksandar Krsmanovic. Aleksandar is the apple of his family's eye, but his sheltered childhood ends when ethnic wars brewing in the surrounding republics make their way to his hometown in the spring of 1992. As Serbian troops storm the village, Aleksandar's family hides, but nowhere is safe. The violence forces the family to Germany, where they struggle to adjust to their new lives as refugees. In the depths of their despair, Aleksandar's grandmother makes him promise to "remember when everything was all right and the time when nothing's all right." Aleksandar keeps his word, and the memories pour out of him like a river. The author organizes Aleksandar's recollections as a stream of consciousness, operating on no distinct linear time line and often stopping one story and starting another in the same breath. It is difficult to keep up with this frantic pace, but it pays to be patient because a remarkable life's journey unfolds. (June)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

It's the early 1990s in ViAegrad, and young Aleksandar Krsmanovic´ is devastated by the death of his grandfather, who taught him that with his imagination he can do anything. And so he devises a kaleidoscopically cracked and beautiful view of the world that carries him through any boy's normal growing pains to the ominous moment when a classmate announces that he doesn't have the right name; soon, his city is conquered by former countrymen, and his family escapes to Germany. There, Aleksandar struggles to contact the girl he left behind and makes wildly fractured lists, trying to anchor his life in memories of a homeland that's changed forever. Having fled ViAegrad, first novelist StaniAic´ now listens to his protagonist's grandfather and writes brilliantly cockeyed prose that borders on the surreal-or maybe the psychedelic. (One chapter is titled "How the soldier repairs the gramophone, what connoisseurs drink, how we're doing in written Russian, why chub eat spit, and how a town can break into splinters.") This book won Germany's Readers' Prize and was nominated for the Deutscher Buchpreis, and rightly so; it's voice of a bold young Europe and a child's-eye view of war all the more poignant because it's not gritty realism. Highly recommended for anyone not expecting standard plot. [See Prepub Alert, LJ2/15/08.]
—Barbara Hoffert

The Barnes & Noble Review
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. --Stefan Beck

A writer living in Palo Alto, California, Stefan Beck has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Sun, The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and other publications.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802144225
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/6/2009
  • Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 526,791
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 12, 2012

    Wonderful and fantastic (as in "full of wonder" and &q

    Wonderful and fantastic (as in "full of wonder" and "of fantasy") but at the same time a story of very real events, very real people leading very real lives, and very real war-time tragedies. The mixing of real events, and events of questionable believability is beguiling. And five cheers for the translator! Now that I see where the story goes, I will read it again. Best book I've read in a while (but I'm stingy with stars. Five stars is reserved for future classics.)

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  • Posted July 9, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    I guess it was the writing style

    This is sort of a stream of consciousness novel....the characters are well developed but I was bored was actually a good story way way underneath the writing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 12, 2008

    A reviewer

    Sasa Stanisic's sensational novel 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

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