Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone

by Sasa Stanisic Translated from German by Anthea Bell

“In Sasa Stanisic’s bittersweet, musical novel about a boy growing up in Bosnia-Herzogovina before and during the war, many things happen that are impossible to understand, startlingly visual, bordering on the surreal but all too real. . . . This is a funny, heartbreaking, beautifully written novel.” —Mary Brennan, The Seattle Times

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 368
  • Publication Date May 26, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4422-5
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

Heralded as a “sorcerer of narrative” (Foreign Policy) with an instinct for “poetic and intoxicating language” (Freie Presse), twenty-nine-year-old Sasa Stanisic bounded onto the international literary scene to great fanfare and acclaim. How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone—the tale of a boy who experiences the war in Bosnia and finds the secret to survival in language and stories—was the only debut novel to be short-listed for the top literary prize when it was published in Germany, and indeed every page of this glittering, exuberant tale thrums with the joy of storytelling.

For young Aleksandar Krsmanovic, his grandfather Slavko’s credo—“the most valuable gift of all is invention, imagination is your greatest wealth”—endows life in Visegrad with a kaleidoscopic brilliance. Neighbors, friends, and family past and present take on a mythic quality; even the River Drina courses through town like the pulse of life itself. So when his grandfather dies suddenly—just as Carl Lewis races to the finish line on their television screen—Aleks calls on this gift of storytelling to see him through his loss and grief. It is a gift he will have to call on again when soldiers transform Visegrad—a town previously unconscious of racial and religious divides—into a nightmarish landscape of terror and violence.

Though Aleks and his family survive by fleeing to Germany, he is haunted by his past, and especially by Asija, the mysterious girl he tried to save. Desperate to learn of her fate, he sends manic, anguished letters out into the abyss, once again turning to language to conjure all that he’s had to forfeit—his homeland, his mother tongue, his innocence.

Beneath the infectious vibrancy of Stanisic’s voice is a sweetness and pathos that will haunt the reader long after the book ends. Powerful, vivid, funny, and devastating, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone captures the catastrophe of war through a child’s eyes and shows how words have the ability to mend what is broken and resurrect what is lost.

Tags Literary


“A brilliant debut novel from a young Bosnian writer . . . Stanisic’s story is loaded on each page with galvanizing details, desperately making an inventory of an imperiled world. He maintains a delirious, jump-cut pace as words flash dark-to-light-to-dark, and sentences coil and snap, conjuring a macabre carnival atmosphere. . . . This crazy-quilt novel, a sensation in Europe, is a bold, questing work of art deeply rooted in the complex history of a blood-soaked, bone-planted land. . . . Stanisic is an exceptionally talented, impish and caring writer who has walked the edge of the abyss. One hopes that he will continue to grapple with the paradoxes intrinsic to the human condition and tell many more empathic, revealing and imaginative stories full of cathartic laughter and feeling.” —Donna Seaman, The Los Angeles Times

“In Sasa Stanisic’s bittersweet, musical novel about a boy growing up in Bosnia-Herzogovina before and during the war, many things happen that are impossible to understand, startlingly visual, bordering on the surreal but all too real. . . .This is a funny, heartbreaking, beautifully written novel.” —Mary Brennan, The Seattle Times

“In his tale of childhood and war, Stanisic populates the river Drina with a dying grandfather, ghostly voices, a glasses-wearing catfish, discarded cabinets, and mutilated corpses. [His] story never calms, it rages, rough and broad and joyful. It contains both brutal heartbreak and whimsical delight. In short, it’s great art. . . . Stanisic’s prose is wildly inventive, never satisfied with too straightforward or familiar a telling . . . [and] so carefully crafted, so full of thrilling associative leaps and spinning breathlessness, that the author achieves poetry. . . . We live, we survive, we heal, the author wants us to see, by telling stories. This is a writer to watch.” —Jesse Nathan, San Francisco Chronicle

“Displaying a stylistic audacity that is often dazzling . . . this debut novel mixes fictionalized memoir, magical realism and a Catch-22 sense of war’s tragicomic absurdity. . . . The innocence of Aleksandar, as he describes an upheaval that defies a young man’s understanding, is expertly filtered through the sensibility of a slightly older but still precocious novelist. . . . A novel rich with experience and imagination.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A lovely novel of the imagination . . . Through Aleksandar’s eyes, one of our most recent wars takes on a timeless and fantastical quality. . . . How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is about stories left unfinished, the boy that the man left behind, the ellipsis in the Rabbi’s words left unspoken, innocence and memory left whole. . . . It is a book that revels in the child’s gift of making the usual unusual, and in doing so evokes the poignancy when this ability begins to fade. It is a book about war, an often comic and extemporizing view of war, and a book about memory, and a world lost.” —Elinor Teele, California Literary Review

“A beautifully written, virtuosic recounting of Bosnian life before and after Europe’s last war.” —Charles McNair, Paste Magazine

“The human consequences of war are brought home to the reader with an immediacy beyond the reach of more conventional accounts. . . . How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone sees Sasa Stanisic take his place alongside Ivo Andric as a transformer of tragic history into poignant art.” —Ian McGillis, The Montreal Gazette

“An original literary voice is exceptionally rare. Yet Bosnian Sasa Stanisic’s debut novel has an entrancing spirit all of its own.” —Financial Times

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone [is] an energetic, magical romp through a childhood interrupted—and shaped—by the Bosnian War . . . [without] relying on the sentimentality of innocence. . . . This profound novel will surely come to be recognized as a classic of the Bosnian war, if not a classic in its own right.” —Anne McPeak, Words Without Borders

“Immensely satisfying . . . A novel that owes as much a debt to Auster’s The New York Trilogy as it does to O’Brien’s The Things They Carried . . . [but] Stanisic’s flawless writing . . . propels the novel into uncharted depths. . . . His voice captures that feeling of awe and helplessness that are prevalent in any childhood, and distilled even further by the chilling intrusion of the forces of war. He coils anecdotes and narratives on top of one another, allowing for multiple perspectives on the events leading up to Aleksandar’s involuntary departure. . . . Those looking for an original take on the horrors of modern warfare will not be disappointed.” —Sean McCarthy, Lit Mob (4 out of 5 stars)

“[Stanisic] renders a child’s-eye view of war and dislocation . . . with a startling degree of success. . . . He 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. . . . [How the Solider Repairs the Gramophone] 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. . . . [It is] a book that describes childhood without, as so many American novels do, glorifying childishness.” —Stefan Beck, BN.com

“A powerful story about escaping from the past . . . [How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone] compellingly asks how damage may be healed. . . . Stanisic bravely and ambitiously examines ways of perceiving history and identity in a war-torn world, and of leaving places and people behind while retaining respect for lost relationships.” —Anita Sethi, The Independent (UK)

“Sasa Stanisic manages to be both funny and moving, showing both the initial horrors of the war and the awful depth of the scars it leaves behind. An impressive debut from a gifted young writer.” —The Big Issue

“Stanisic splinters apart his plot . . . like a shivered mirror—each fractured piece showing a different fragment of horror or memory. . . . Fans of more experimental writers such as Michael Ondaatje will want to pick up this deeply felt debut.” —Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor

“The offensively gifted Sasa Stanisic, who’s either some kind of freak genius or utterly immersed in modernist and experimental fiction. Or maybe both. There are shades of Joyce here, and Pynchon too, but the whole retains a breathlessly unique, charmingly youthful and deliciously foreign voice. There is some kind of innate divine spark animating this story of childhood memories and the revisions of bloodied maturity. . . . The effect is astonishing. And the literary talent on show in this book is simply world-class.” —Irish Examiner

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is a dazzling debut novel. . . . Stanisic is masterful; he combines innocence, humor, tragedy, wistfulness, and hope. . . . This novel is brilliant in the way that Catch-22, Clockwork Orange, and The Empire of the Sun were all brilliant. These novels make us see the world as it is and as it could be—a vision of grotesque, surreal human behavior in war—a killing world that ‘lies beneath God’s feet’ as though forsaken—and a vision of hope and redemption, with story as a saving grace.” —Mary Jo Anderson, the Chronicle Herald (Canada)

“For all the fun Stanisic has with his protagonist, he makes no attempt to sugarcoat the war’s horrifying violence and lingering psychological traumas. . . . A story that reveals the lingering scars of a conflict some Bosnians may rather forget. Aleksandar’s obsessive search for Asija, the girl he simply calls ‘Beautiful,’ becomes a convincing representation of the need for survivors to find moral clarity and personal resolution among the emotional and physical wreckage of war.” —Paul Whitlatch, Boldtype

“The organization of the book and the author’s brilliant use of language makes [How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone] an astonishing accomplishment. . . . Highly impressionistic . . . Enthralling, something you can’t put down.” —Dennis Lythgoe, Deseret News (Salt Lake City)

“Beyond succeeding as a compelling fictional account of the very real tragedy of a town in Bosnia-Herzegovina, [How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone] is also testament to the power of the imagination—and its limitations. . . . Stanisic’s tale will remain exceptional: A gifted storyteller, he’s able to translate unspeakably gruesome history into something poignant and hauntingly beautiful.” —Sidra Durst, The Village Voice

“Stanisic’s debut novel How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone will convert skeptics with the sheer force of its emotional power. . . . Stanisic’s perfectly chosen observations refract and amplify the horrifying, maddening surroundings, heightening both ends of the emotional spectrum, creating a story that, like war itself, is too large and chaotic to ever leave simply.” —Karla Starr, The Oregonian

“How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is an accomplished, tragic-comic tale that magnificently captures the space between fantasy and reality.” —Three Percent

“Even with hindsight, the Clinton-era conflict in the Balkans remains a confusing mess of clashing ethnic, national, and religious identities. A handful of compelling stories about this period have been bubbling to the surface . . . [and] How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone stands out as one of the best . . . A challenging and haunted work.” —Drew Toal, Time Out New York

“Stanisic’s talent blazes off page after page . . .That his tale contains so much natural, laugh-out-loud comedy speaks volumes for the author, whose autobiographical hero, Aleksandar, ‘somewhere between eight and fourteen,’ is a talkative, precocious delight, determinedly optimistic in the face of heartbreaking losses, forever making startling little observations on life that somehow get it all wrong and yet sort of right . . .Stanisic is so prodigiously full of big, open-hearted wisdom, I shudder to think what he has lived through to produce, at such an early age, such a transcendent little masterwork.” —Nick DiMartino, Shelf-Awareness

“Wildly imaginative storytelling. . . .Through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Aleksandar Krsmonovic, we witness a massacre perpetrated by Bosnian Serbs against their Muslim neighbors in the town of Visegrad in 1992. . . . Madcap flights of invention and comic exaggeration clash movingly with the painfully real chronicle of terror, loss, and exile at the story’s heart. . . .Far from trivializing the terrible history, the fanciful style makes it all the more acute. . . .How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone bears witness to this horror with tragicomic intensity, reflecting the possibilities and limitations of fiction in the face of atrocity.” —Ross Benjamin, Bookforum

“I love this book. It’s funny and it’s heartfelt and it’s brazen and it’s true. Find some space on your shelf beside Aleksandar Hemon, Jonathan Safran Foer, William Vollmann and David Foster Wallace. This is a great rattlebag of a book that will stay with you on whatever long journey you choose to go on. What a welcome voice rising up amongst the great voices. Sasa Stanisic. Or Sasha Stanishitch. We should all learn how to pronounce his name, because he’s here to stay.” —Colum McCann, author of Zoli and Dancer

“Aleksandar Krsmanovic tells stories of his home town Viegrad before and after violence forces his family to flee to Germany. The stories run together, between each other, and often interrupt another story that may finish later in the novel. It is Aleksandar’s attempt to follow his grandmother’s advice to remember everything from a time when the world was right. A great debut novel.” —Jason Kennedy, Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop, Milwaukee

“An astounding first novel—broad-minded, dynamic, daring.” —Frankfurter Rundschau

“The novelistic debut of the year . . . [filled] with poetic and intoxicating language, and a burlesque panorama of lovable figures. An extravagant, theatrical, overboard, entirely great, and above all captivating book.” —Freie Press

“A magnificent feast of storytelling bestowed upon one unlucky Bosnian town. Sharp, funny, humane and sometimes even magical.” —Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan

“How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is the story of a childhood in Visegrad, a city on the Drina, in which Christians, Muslims, Bosnians, and Serbs are living together in a peaceful world—until politics, war, and unfathomable powers destroy it. How, in this book, Sasa Stanisic writes the stories of this city with such an incredible passion for invention and for storytelling, and how a short time later he allows this city to be devoured, at first by tiny details, then by hate, blood, and war—that is great art.” —Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

“[The] voice of a bold young Europe . . . Brilliantly cockeyed prose that borders on the surreal—or maybe the psychedelic. . . . Highly recommended.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“This astounding debut is . . . a story of the loss of homeland, the story of growing up during the time of war, and a family photo album of high-level humor. . . . This novel stands the world on its head, on quite a clever head. . . . We have much to look forward to in this novelist.” —Die Welt

“How The Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is a novel in the tradition of The Things They Carried. It is about war and stories, but it is not a traditional ‘war story’ per se. Sasa Stanisic has crafted a beautiful, complex novel about the conflict in Bosnia, his homeland, which defies the conventions of storytelling, and yet keeps the reader hanging on his every word. Stanisic shows us conflict through the eyes of a child: curious, impulsive, innocent. He also writes with the voice of someone who escaped the height of the conflict by emigrating to Germany, conveying the haunting and emotional reality of those who have left loved ones behind—those who ask, ‘Why not me?’ Stanisic is an immensely talented writer, and his first novel is not to be missed.” —Sandra Brown, Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, AZ


2008 Seattle Times Best Book of the Year
2008 Los Angeles Times Favorite Book of the Year
Selected as a July ’08 Indie Next List title (formerly Book Sense)
Longlisted for the Arts Council England’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize


How long a heart attack takes over three hundred feet, how much 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

Grandpa Slavko measured my head with Granny’s washing line, I got a magic hat, a pointy magic hat made of cardboard, and Grandpa Slavko said: I’m really still too young for this sort of thing, and you’re already too old.

So I got a magic hat with yellow and blue shooting stars on it, trailing yellow and blue tails, and I cut out a little crescent moon to go with them and two triangular rockets. Gagarin was flying one, Grandpa Slavko was flying the other.

Grandpa, I can’t go out in this hat!

I should hope not!

On the morning of the day when he was to die in the evening, Grandpa Slavko made me a magic wand from a stick and said: there’s magic in that hat and wand.

If you wear the hat and wave the wand you’ll be the most powerful magician in the nonaligned states. You’ll be able to revolutionize all sorts of things, just as long as they’re in line with Tito’s ideas and 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. He handed me the magic wand, and I doubted nothing anymore.

It’s usual for people to think sadly of the dead now and then. In our family that happens when Sunday, rain, coffee and Granny Katarina all come together at the same time. Granny sips from her favorite cup, the white one with the cracked handle, she cries and remembers all the dead and the good things they did before dying got in the way. Our family and friends are at Granny’s today because we’re remembering Grandpa Slavko who’s been dead for two days, dead for now anyway, just until I can find my magic wand and my hat again.

Still not dead in my family are Mother, Father, and Father’s brothers—Uncle Bora and Uncle Miki. Nena Fatima, my mother’s mother, is well in herself, it’s only her ears and her tongue that have died—she’s deaf as a post and silent as snowfall, as they say. Auntie Gordana isn’t dead yet either, she’s Uncle Bora’s wife and pregnant. Auntie Gordana, a blonde island in the dark sea of our family’s hair, is always called Typhoon because she’s four times livelier than normal people; she runs eight times faster and talks at fourteen times the usual speed. She even sprints from the loo to the wash basin, and at the cash register in shops she’s worked out the price of everything even before the cashier can tap it in.

They’ve all come to Granny’s because of Grandpa Slavko’s death, but they’re talking about the life in Auntie Typhoon’s belly. Everyone is sure she’ll have her baby on Sunday at the latest, or at the very, very latest on Monday, months early but already as perfect as if it were in the ninth month. I suggest calling the baby Speedy Gonzales. Auntie Typhoon shakes her blonde curls, says all in a rush: are-we-Mexicans-or-what? It’ll-be-a-girl-not-a-mouse! She’s-going-to-be-called-Ema.

Or Slavko, adds Uncle Bora quietly, Slavko if it’s a boy.

There’s a lot of love around for Grandpa Slavko today among all the people in black drinking coffee with Granny Katarina and taking surreptitious looks at the sofa where Grandpa was sitting when Carl Lewis set the new world record in Tokyo. Grandpa died in 9.86 seconds flat; his heart was racing right up there with Carl Lewis, they were neck and neck. Then his heart stopped and Carl ran on like crazy. Grandpa gasped, and Carl flung his arms up in the air and threw an American flag over his shoulders.

The mourners bring chocolates and sugar cubes, cognac and schnapps. They want to console Granny with sweet things, they want to comfort themselves with drink. Male mourning smells of aftershave. It stands in small groups in the kitchen, getting drunk. Female mourning sits around the living room table with Granny, suggesting names for the new life in Auntie Typhoon’s belly and discussing the right way to put a baby down to sleep in its first few months. When anyone mentions Grandpa’s name the women cut up cake and hand slices around. They add sugar to their coffee and stir it with spoons that look like toys.

Women always praise the virtues of cake.

Great-Granny Mileva and Great-Grandpa Nikola aren’t here because their son is going home to them in Veletovo, to be buried in the village where he was born. What the two have to do with each other I don’t know. You should be allowed to be dead where you really liked being when you were alive. My father down in our cellar, for instance, which he calls his studio and he hardly ever leaves, among his canvases and brushes. Granny anywhere just as long as her women neighbors are there too and there’s coffee and chocolates. Great-Granny and Great-Grandpa under the plum trees in their orchard in Veletovo. Where has my mother really liked being?

Grandpa Slavko in his best stories, or underneath the Party office.

I may be able to manage without him for another two days. My magic things are sure to turn up by then.

I’m looking forward to seeing Great-Grandpa and Great-Granny again. Ever since I can remember they haven’t smelled very sweet, and their average age is about a hundred and fifty. All the same, they’re the least dead and the most alive of the whole family if you leave out Auntie Typhoon, who doesn’t count—she’s more of a natural catastrophe than a human being and she has a propeller in her backside. So Uncle Bora sometimes says, kissing his natural catastrophe’s back.

Uncle Bora weighs twice as many pounds as my great-grandparents are old.

Someone else in my family who’s not dead yet is Granny Katarina, although on the evening when Grandpa’s great heart died of the fastest illness in the world she wished she was and wailed: all alone, what’s to become of me without you, I don’t want to be all alone, Slavko, oh, my Slavko, I’m so sad!

I was less afraid of Grandpa’s death than of Granny’s great grief crawling about on its knees like that: all alone, how am I going to live all alone? Granny beat her breast at Grandpa’s dead feet and begged to be dead herself. I was breathing fast, but not easily. Granny was so weak that I imagined her body going all soft on the floor, soft and round. On TV a large woman jumped into the sand and looked happy about it. At Grandpa’s feet, Granny shouted to the neighbors to come around. They unbuttoned his shirt, Grandpa’s glasses slipped, his mouth was twisted to one side . . . I cut things out in my mind, the way I always do when I’m at a loss, more stars for my magic hat. In spite of being afraid, and though it was so soon after a death, I noticed that Granny’s china dog on the TV set had fallen over and the plate with fish bones left from supper was still standing on the crochet tablecloth. I could hear every word the neighbors said as they bustled about, I heard it all in spite of Granny’s whimpering and howling. She tugged at Grandpa’s legs and Grandpa slid forward off the sofa. I hid in the corner behind the TV. But a thousand TVs couldn’t have hidden Granny’s distorted face from me, or Grandpa falling off the sofa all twisted sideways, or the thought that I’d never seen my grandparents look uglier.

I’d have liked to put my hand on Granny’s shaking back—her blouse would have been wet with sweat—and I’d have liked to say: Granny, don’t! It will be all right. After all, Grandpa’s a Party member, and the Party agrees with the Statutes of the Communist League, it’s just that I can’t find my magic wand at the moment. It’s going to be all right again, Granny.

But her grief-stricken madness silenced me. The louder she cried: leave me alone! flailing around, the less courageous I felt in my hiding place. The more the neighbors turned away from Grandpa and went to Granny instead, trying to console someone obviously inconsolable, as if they were selling her something she didn’t need, the more frantically she defended herself. As more and more tears covered her cheeks, her mouth, her lamentation, her chin, like oil coating a pan, I cut out more and more little details of the living room: the bookcase with works by Marx, Lenin and Kardelj, Das Kapital at the left on the bottom shelf, the smell of fish, the branches of the pattern on the wallpaper, four tapestry pictures on the wall—children playing in a village street, brightly colored flowers in a brightly colored vase, a ship on a rough sea, a little cottage in the forest—a photograph of Tito and Gandhi shaking hands, right above and between the ship and the cottage. Someone saying: how do we get her off him?

More and more people came along, one taking another’s place as if to catch up with something, or at least not miss out on anything else, anxious to be as lively as possible in the presence of death. Grandpa’s death had been too quick. It upset the neighbors, it made them look guiltily at the floor. No one had been able to keep up with Grandpa’s heart running its race, not even Granny: oh no, why, why, why, Slavko? Teta Amela from the second floor collapsed. Someone cried: oh, sacred heart of Jesus! Someone else immediately cursed the mother of Jesus and several other members of his family. Granny tugged at Grandpa’s trouser legs, hit out at the two paramedics who appeared in the living room with their little bags. Keep your hands off him, she cried. Under their white coats the paramedics wore lumberjack shirts, and they hauled Granny off Grandpa’s legs as if prizing a seashell off a rock. As Granny saw it, Grandpa wouldn’t be dead until she let go of him, so she wasn’t letting go. The men in white coats listened to Grandpa’s chest. One of them held a mirror to his face and said: no, nothing.

I shouted that Grandpa was still there, his death didn’t conform to the aims and ideals of the Communist League. You just get out of the way, give me my magic wand and I’ll prove it!

No one took any notice of me. The lumberjack-paramedics put their hands inside Grandpa’s shirt and shone a flashlight in his eyes. I pulled out the electric cable, and the TV turned itself off. There were loose cobwebs hanging in the corner next to the power socket. How much less does a spider’s death weigh than the death of a human being? Which of her husband’s dead legs does the spider’s wife cling to? I decided that I would never again put a spider in a bottle and run water slowly into it.

Where was my magic wand?

I don’t know how long I stood in the corner before my father grabbed my arm as if taking me prisoner. He handed me over to my mother, who hauled me down the stairs and out into the yard. The air smelled of mirabelles mashed to make schnapps and there were fires on the megdan. You can see the whole town from the megdan, perhaps you can even see into the yard in front of the big five-story block, practically a high-rise building for Visegrad, where a young woman with long black hair and brown eyes was bending down to a boy with hair the same color and with the same almond-shaped eyes. She blew some strands of hair off his forehead, her eyes filled with tears. No one on the megdan could hear what she was whispering to the boy. And perhaps no one could see that after the woman had taken the boy in her arms and hugged him for a long, long time, he nodded. The way you nod when you’re promising something.

On the evening of the third day after Grandpa Slavko’s death I’m sitting in the kitchen, looking through photograph albums. I take all the photos of Grandpa Slavko out of the album. Out in the yard our cherry tree is arguing with the wind, it’s stormy. When I’ve fixed it so that Grandpa Slavko can come alive again, for my next trick I’ll make us all able to keep hold of noises. Then we can put the wind in the cherry-tree leaves into an album of sounds, along with the rumble of thunder and dogs barking at night in summer. And this is me chopping wood for the stove—that’s how we’ll be able to present our life proudly in sounds, the way we show holiday snaps of the Adriatic. We’ll be carrying small sounds around with us. I’d cover up the anxiety on my mother’s face with the laughter she laughs on her good days.

The brownish photos with broad white rims smell of plastic tablecloths, and show people with funny trousers that get wider at the bottom. There’s a short man in a railwayman’s uniform standing in front of a train, looking straight ahead, upright as a soldier: Grandpa Rafik.

Grandpa Rafik, my mother’s father, died for good a long time ago—he drowned in the river Drina. I hardly knew him, but I can remember one game we played, a simple game. Grandpa Rafik would point to something and I’d say its name, its color, and the first thing that occurred to me about it. He’d point to his penknife, and I’d say: knife, gray, and railway engine. He’d point to a sparrow, and I’d say: bird, gray, and railway engine. Grandpa Rafik pointed through the window at the night, and I said: dreams, gray, and railway engine, and Grandpa tucked me up and said: sleep an iron sleep.

The time of my gray period was the time of my visits to the eye specialist, who diagnosed nothing except that I could see things too fast, for instance the sequence of little letters and big letters on his wall chart. You’ll have to cure him of that somehow, Mrs. Krsmanović, said the eye specialist, and he prescribed drops for her own eyes, which were always red.

I was very scared of trains and railway engines at that time. Grandpa Rafik had taken me to the disused railway tracks, he scratched flaking paint off the old engine; you’ve broken my heart, he whispered, rubbing the black paint between the palms of his hands. On the way home—paving stone, gray, railway engine, my hand in his large one, black with sharp scraps of peeling paint—I decided to be nice to railway trains, because now he had me worried about my own heart. But it had been a long time since any trains had passed through our town. A few years later the first girl I loved, Danijela with her very long hair who didn’t return my love, showed me how silly I’d been to protect my heart from being broken by trains.

Peeling scraps of paint and the gray game are all I remember of Grandpa Rafik, unless old photos count as memories. And Grandpa Rafik is absent from our home in general. However often and however readily my family like to talk about themselves and other families and the dead over coffee, Grandpa Rafik is very seldom mentioned. No one ever looks at the coffee grounds in a cup and sighs: oh, Rafik, my Rafik, if only you were here! No one ever wonders what Grandpa Rafik would say about something, his name isn’t spoken with either gratitude or disapproval.

No dead person could be less alive than Grandpa Rafik.

The dead are lonely enough in the earth where they lie, so why do we leave even the memory of Grandpa Rafik to be so lonely?

Mother comes into the kitchen and opens the fridge. She’s going to make sandwiches to take to work, she puts butter and cheese on the table. I look at her face, searching it for Grandpa Rafik’s face in the photos.

Mama, do you look like Grandpa Rafik? I ask when she sits down at the table and unwraps the bread. She cuts up tomatoes. I wait and ask the question again, and only now does Mother stop, knife blade on a tomato. What kind of grandpa was Grandpa Rafik? I ask again, why does no one talk about him? How am I ever going to know what kind of a grandpa I had?

Mother puts the knife aside and lays her hands in her lap. Mother raises her eyes. Mother looks at me.

You didn’t have a real grandpa, Aleksandar, only a sad man. He mourned for his river and his earth. He would kneel down, scratch about in that earth of his until his fingernails broke and the blood came. He stroked the grass and smelled it and wept into its tufts like a tiny child—my dear earth, you’re trodden underfoot, at the mercy of all kinds of weight. You didn’t have a real grandpa, only a stupid man. He drank and drank. He ate earth, he brought earth up, then he crawled to the bank on all fours and washed his mouth out with water from the river. How that sad man loved his river! And his cognac—a stupid man who could love only what he saw as humbled and subjugated. Who could love only if he drank and drank.

The Drina, what a neglected river, what forgotten beauty, he would lament when he came staggering out of a bar, once with the frame of his glasses bent, another time after wetting himself, oh, the stink of it! What a messy business old age is, he wept when he stumbled and fell, trying to hold tight to the river in case he took off. Oh, how often we found him at night under the first arch of the bridge, lying on his belly with his fingers clutching the surface of the water. Swollen, blue hands, half-clenched into fists. He’d be holding flowers in the river, stones, sometimes a cognac bottle. It went on like that for years. Ever since they took the railway out of service, so that there were no more trains running through the town with that sad man switching the points for them, setting the signals, raising the barriers. He lost his job and never said a word about it, he had nothing to do now and nothing at all to say. He was sent into retirement and he drank day after day, first in secret up at the railway station that wasn’t a station anymore, though the old engine still stood there, and later by the river and in the middle of town, overcome by sudden, stupid love for the water and its banks.

You didn’t have a real grandpa, only an embittered man. He drank and drank and drank until he was tired of life. If only he’d loved chess or the Party or us as much as he loved his trains and then his river, and most of all his brandy! If only he’d listened to us and not the deep, unfathomable Drina!

One evening he scratched a farewell letter into the river bank. He had drunk three liters of wine, and he used the broken neck of a bottle as his pen. We pulled him out of the mud by his feet, and he whimpered and cried out to the river: how am I to save you, how am I to save something so large all by myself?

To think that something so sad can stink like that! We were called when his shouting and his songs got to be more than anyone could bear. Papa carried him home in his arms and put him in the bathtub, clothes and all, and in the bathtub your drunken grandfather threw up twice, in a fury, cursing all anglers: may your weapons turn against your own mouths, he said, prodding the river’s belly like that with your hooks, tearing the fish’s lips—ah, what silent pain! May your skin be flayed with blunt knives, you criminals, may the depths take you along with your boats, your filthy gasoline, all your weirs, all your turbines, all your mechanical diggers! A river: a river is water and life and power and nothing else.

Around midnight I washed his hair and his tortoise neck, I washed behind his ears and under his armpits. He kissed my hands and said he knew exactly who I was. In spite of his tears he knew whose knuckles he was patting, he remembered everything: what a jewel Love was, and Fate such a bastard!

I’m your daughter, I told him three times, not your wife, and on that night, his last, he made me three promises: from now on, he’d wear clean clothes, he’d drink no alcohol, and he’d stay alive. He kept only one of them. His railwayman’s cap was found under the first arch of the bridge, his cognac bottle was also found, but he himself was never found. We probed the water near the banks of the Drina for him with pitchforks. Why had he gone out again? What was there left to love on that May night? The bars had all been shut for ages when I tucked him up after his bath, after he’d made his promises. An angler, of all people, found his body in the reeds downstream. His face was under the water, his feet were on the bank—his beloved Drina was kissing him in death, marrying that sad man who kept only one of his promises. He had smartened himself up for the wedding and was wearing his uniform with the railwayman’s badge. He had spent so many nights looking for death, but until then he didn’t have the courage to find it; he didn’t keep his head under water long enough for the Drina to be the last and only tear he wept.

And when he was to be laid out for the funeral, twelve hours after I’d washed him into making his three promises, I was the one who took the loofah again, the hardest I could find, I was the one who scrubbed his thin torso the way you scrub a carpet, rubbed soap into his yellow, wrinkled belly and brushed his flabby calves. I didn’t touch his fingers or his face. Your sad grandfather had dug his hands into the bank, and what kind of daughter would I have been to scrape the earth out from under his fingernails? After he had said: when I die I don’t want any coffin? How that sad man loved his cruel river, how he loved the willows and the fish and the mud! You didn’t have a grandpa, Aleksandar, only a naive man. But you were too little to remember his naivete. You liked the way he said gray, gray, gray to everything, for some reason you thought it was funny. It was only for his river that he thought up the brightest of colors, he saw the detail of nothing but the Drina, that sad man who could laugh only when he saw his reflection in the water. You didn’t have a grandpa, Aleksandar, just a sad man.

I look at my mother with a thousand questions in my eyes. She has sung me the song of the sad man as if she’d been rehearsing it since the day he drowned. She has sung as if he hadn’t belonged to her, as if someone else had written the lines, yet with such loving anger that I was afraid a mere nod of my head might disrupt the song. Now she shakes her head over something I can’t see and lays slices of bread out in a row on the table.

I ask only two of my thousands of questions. What did Grandpa write on the bank? And why didn’t any of you help him?

My mother is a small woman. She runs her fingers through her long hair, combing it. She puffs in my face as if we were playing. She unwraps the butter. Unwraps the cheese. Spreads butter on the bread. Puts a slice of cheese on the butter. Puts tomatoes on the cheese. Sprinkles salt on the tomatoes with her thumb and forefinger. Takes the bread on the palm of her hand. Puts another slice of bread on top of it. Presses them firmly together.

The cherry tree withstands the storm, whipping its branches about. At first the tapping on our front roof comes like a few coins dropping into a cash register, then it goes faster and faster; it’s a hailstorm. After my mother has silently left the kitchen I open the window and put a photo of Grandpa Slavko and me on the sill. The cold wind reaches out for my face, I close the window. In the other brownish photos people are standing about in bathing suits with vertical stripes, ankle-deep in the Drina. There are no such bathing suits anymore; the dog and her four puppies probably aren’t around either. My young Grandpa Slavko, with his hat on, is patting the puppies, enjoying himself. Which is the last photo of him? How long do dogs live, and do I know any of the puppies? A time comes when there are no new photos of dogs or people because their lives are over. And how do you photograph a life that’s over? When I die, I’ll tell everyone, photograph me in the ground. That’ll be in seventy years’ time. Photograph my nails growing, photograph me getting thinner and thinner and losing my skin.

Everything that’s finished and over, all deaths seem to me uncalled-for, unhappy, undeserved. Summers turn to winter, houses are demolished, people in photos turn to photos on gravestones. So many things ought to be left unfinished—Sundays, so that Mondays don’t come; dams so that rivers aren’t held up. Tables ought not to be varnished because the smell gives me a headache; holidays shouldn’t turn into going back to school; cartoons ought not to turn into the news. And my love for Danijela with her very long hair shouldn’t have turned into unrequited love. And I should never finish making magic hats with Grandpa, but go on talking endlessly to him about the advantages of life as a magician in the service of the Communist League, and what might happen if you season bread with dust from the tail of a shooting star.

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!

I find a picture of the bridge over the Drina in the last photo album. The bridge looks the same as usual except that there’s scaffolding around its eleven arches. People are standing on the scaffolding, waving as if the bridge were a ship about to sail away down the river. Despite the scaffolding the bridge looks finished. It’s complete; the scaffolding can’t spoil its beauty and usefulness. I don’t mind the gigantic completeness of our bridge. The Drina is fast in that photo and rushes along, the broad, the dangerous Drina—a young river!

Flowing fast is like shouting out loud.

Today it rolls lazily by, more of a lake than a river; the dam has discouraged the water so much—the slow Drina, with driftwood and dirt near the banks as if it’s fraying at the edges. I carefully take the bridge out of the photo album. The surface is cool and smooth, like the once wild, untamed river is today. I put the photo in my trouser pocket, where it will get crumpled and dog-eared.

I want to make unfinished things. I’m not a builder, and I’m rather bad at math except for mental arithmetic. I don’t know how you make bricks. But I can paint. I get that from my artist father, along with my big ears and his constant cry of: not now, can’t you see I’m busy! I’m going to be the artist of the lovely unfinished! I’ll paint plums without stones, rivers without dams, Comrade Tito in a T-shirt! Artists have to create pictures in a logical series; that, says my father the spare-time artist, is the recipe for success, he told me about it in his studio. As well as his canvases and paints there are tubs of sauerkraut stored there, boxes of old clothes, and the child’s bed I’ve grown out of. My father spends entire weekends in his studio. A painter must never be satisfied with what he sees—painting reality means surrendering to it, he cries when I knock at the door to say the air’s leaking out of my soccer ball again, or the inner tube of my bike tire. Artists have to reshuffle and rebuild reality, says my father in his beret as he pumps up the soccer ball. He isn’t really talking to me, he doesn’t expect any answer. There are French songs playing in the studio, Pink Floyd late in the evening, and the door is locked.

Logical series are the answer. Other people can fly planes and delouse the pelicans in the zoo, but I’m going to be a soccer playing, fishing, serial artist of the Unfinished! None of my pictures will ever be painted to the end; there’ll be something important missing from every one of them.

I get my painting things, my paint box; I borrow paper from my father. I put water in a jam jar and soften my brushes in it. The empty sheet of paper lies in front of me. The first picture of something unfinished must be the Drina, the mischievous river before it had a dam. I put blue and yellow on the plate where I mix them; I make the first green brushstroke on the paper, the green is too pale, I darken it carefully and paint a curve, I lighten it, too cold, I add ochre, green, green, but I’ll never get a green like the green of the river Drina, not in a hundred years.

The dead are lonelier than the living ever can be. They can’t hear each other through coffins and the earth. And the living go and plant flowers on the graves. The roots grow down into the earth and break through the coffins. After a while the coffins are full of roots and the dead people’s hair. Then they can’t even talk to themselves. When I die I’d like to be buried in a mass grave. In a mass grave I wouldn’t be afraid of the dark, and I’d be lonely only because my grandson will be missing me, the way I miss Grandpa Slavko now.

I don’t have any grandpa now, and the tears are building up behind my forehead. Everything important in the world can be found in the morning paper, the Communist Manifesto, or the stories that make us laugh or cry, best of all both at the same time. That was one of Grandpa Slavko’s clever sayings. When I get to be as old as he was I’ll have his clever sayings, I’ll have big veins like the veins on my father’s forearms, I’ll have my granny’s recipes and my mother’s rare look of happiness.

On the morning of the fourth day after Grandpa’s death Father wakes me, and I know at once: it’s Grandpa’s funeral. I dreamed everyone in my family was dead except me, which felt like being suddenly very far away and unable to find my way back.

Pack your things, we’re leaving.

My father wakes me up only when there’s some kind of disaster; otherwise Mother comes to kiss my hair. Father doesn’t kiss me on principle. It’s awkward between men. He sits down on the edge of the bed as if to say something else. I sit up. So there we are now, sitting. Papa, I look at you the way you look at someone when you’re listening, look, I’m not getting up, it’s a good thing for you to tell me everything I already know, explaining what I already understand, because the thing isn’t complete until a father has told his son and explained it all. But I don’t say that, and Father doesn’t say anything either. That’s the way we talk to each other. We often talk like that. He goes to work, then after work he goes into his studio and spends the whole night there. He sleeps in late on weekends. If he’s watching the news there’s a ban on talking. I’m not complaining, he talks to other people even less than he talks to me. I’m content and my mother is happy that she can bring me up on her own, without interference from Father.

Sitting there saying nothing today, my father looks as if he doesn’t have any muscles. He’s been staying with Granny since Grandpa died. Granny phoned late yesterday and asked how the boy was doing. She thought it was my mother who’d picked up the phone, so I said nothing. We’re going to wash Slavko now, she added, and said good-bye. I imagined Grandpa being washed and dressed for his own funeral. I didn’t see any faces, just hands pulling Grandpa about. The hands threw all the bed linens out of the bedroom and boiled the sheets, you do that when there’s a dead person in the place. Little veins in your eyes burst from washing your dead father; your hands get smaller and you have to keep looking at them. My silent father sits on the edge of my bed with his red-rimmed eyes, hands on his knees, palms turned up. When I’m as old as Father I’ll have the lines on his face. Lines show how well you’ve lived. I don’t know if lots of lines mean you’ve lived better. Mother says no, but I’ve heard the opposite too.

I get up. Father straightens the sheet and plumps up the pillow. Do you have anything black to wear?

Not: Grandpa.

Not: Grandpa’s dead.

Not: Aleksandar, your grandpa won’t be coming back.

Not: Life can never be as quick as a sudden heart attack.

Not: Grandpa’s only asleep—I’d resent that even more than the way he opens the window now and hangs the blanket out to air.

I take a black shirt off its hanger. Suddenly I realize that my father is counting on me. He understands that magic is our last chance. We can start right away. I say, I just have to fetch something from Grandpa’s apartment first. Something important.

On the way in the car he says: Granny and your uncles have gone ahead. Hurry up, everybody else is already there. “There” he calls it.

Not a word from him about the funeral, and I don’t say that I’m the most powerful magician-grandson in the nonaligned states. Don’t worry, step on the accelerator and I’ll get my grandpa back for me and your father back for you. I don’t say anything because suddenly being a child seems so difficult.

Grandpa’s apartment. I take a deep breath. The kitchen. Fried onions, nothing left of Grandpa. Bedroom. I press my face against the shirts. Living room. I sit down on the sofa.

That’s where Grandpa was sitting. Nothing. I go into the corner behind the TV set. Nothing. The cobwebs are still there. I look out of the window into the yard. Nothing. Our Yugo with its engine running. Father has got out. My magic hat on the glass case. I climb on a chair, carefully fold up the hat and put it in my rucksack. The rucksack! I search it for the magic wand, and voilá! I was going to show the wand to my best friend Edin, I remember, and for demonstration purposes I was going to break some unimportant bone in our history teacher. He skips almost every lesson with Partisans in it, even though there’ve never been better battles than the fighting of the People’s Liberation Army and Red Star Belgrade’s matches. Red Star Belgrade is my favorite soccer team. We almost always win and when we lose it’s a tragedy. Grandpa’s death has saved the history teacher for now.

Like all the others I wear black, but wearing black can’t be all you have to do at a funeral, so I imitate Uncle Bora and my father in turn. When Uncle Bora bows his head, I bow mine. When Father exchanges a few words with someone, I listen to what he says and repeat the words to someone else. I scratch my stomach because Uncle Bora is scratching his own big belly. It’s hot; I unbutton my shirt because Father is unbuttoning his. That’s the grandson, people whisper.

Auntie Typhoon has caught up with the pallbearers and has to be called back. She asks if she can help. Oh-this-slow-creeping-about, she says, it’ll-be-the-death-of-me.

Great-Grandpa and Great-Granny walk behind the coffin. Great-Grandpa isn’t wearing a hat on his long white hair. When I get to be as old as he is, mine will be even longer. I’d like to tell him about my magic plan because he’s a magician himself, but I can’t find a good opportunity. Grandpa Slavko once told me 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 suggested, 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. Grandpa said Great-Grandpa didn’t just muck out the gigantic stable; on the very same night he helped two cows to calve, he won an immense sum of money against the best rummy players in town, and he repaired an electric lightbulb in his father-in-law’s house—which I thought was the most difficult task of all, when you remember that nothing in the world is deader than a dead lightbulb. None of it could have been done without magic. Princess Great-Granny said nothing about it, but smiled a smile full of meaning. You should have seen his arms, she said; no one ever had eyes of a color that suited his arms as well as my blue-eyed Nikola.

I stand beside the grave and I know it can be done. After all, I magically made it possible for Carl Lewis to break the world record. So not all Americans are capitalists; at least Comrade Lewis isn’t because my wand and pointy hat work magic exclusively along Party lines. I stand beside the grave where Grandpa, formerly chairman of the Visegrad Local Committee, is going to be buried, and I know it can work.

Great-Grandpa climbs down into the grave and tears roots and stones out of the earth walls with both hands. Oh, what a sight! he says. My son, my son!

It’s hard to imagine Grandpa Slavko as anyone’s son. Sons are sixty at the most. In fact, almost all the people saying goodbye to Grandpa today are around sixty. The women have black scarves over their hair and wear perfume because they want to drown out the smell of death. Death smells like freshly mown grass here. The men murmur, they have colored badges on the breast pockets of their black jackets, they clasp their hands behind their backs and I clasp mine too.

Father helps Great-Grandpa out of the grave and stands behind me. His hands press down firmly on my shoulders. The speeches begin, the speeches go on and on, the speeches are never going to end, and I don’t want to interrupt anyone making a speech with my magic spells, that would be rude. I’m sweating. The sun is blazing down; cicadas are chirping. Uncle Bora mops the sweat off his face with a pale blue handkerchief. I mop my forehead with my sleeve. Once I secretly watched a funeral where there weren’t any long, boring speeches, just a short incomprehensible one. A bearded man wearing a woman’s dress sang and waved a golden ball about on the end of a chain. Smoke was coming out of the ball, and death smelled of green tea. Later I found out that the man was a priest. We don’t have priests—the people who make speeches at our funerals are sixty years old with badges on their breast pockets. No one tells any jokes. They all praise Grandpa, often saying exactly the same thing, as if they’d been copying from each other. They sound like women praising the virtues of cake. As the dead can’t hear anymore when they’re in the ground, the last thing they hear up here ought to make them feel good. But correct as my grandpa was, he would always put anyone who tried sweet-talking him right. No, Comrade Poljo, he would say, I have not been busy reforming our country every single day, last Friday I did nothing at all to lower the rate of inflation, I slept in late on Saturday instead of going ahead to implement the plan in our regional collectives, and on Sundays I go walking with my grandson the magician. We always go a different way and think up stories, that’s the great thing about Visegrad, you never run out of new ways to walk and stories to tell—little stories, great ones, comical and tragical, they’re all our stories! And where else would you find a place where a grandson knows more stories than his grandpa? When he was this big, Grandpa would say, raising his thumb, forefinger and middle finger, he thought up stories about the later life of Mary Poppins. Comrade Poppins gets tired of her silly queen, changes her name to Marica, moves into our high-rise building in Yugoslavia and marries Petar Popović the music teacher. He’s already married, and allergic to umbrellas, but he plays the piano so well that Marica can’t resist him. She enchants him with her singing and her tightly laced boots. Marica flies over the town with her umbrella, she doesn’t want to be a children’s nanny anymore, she gets a job on the assembly line of the Partisan machine-tools factory, whereupon it exceeds the planned production quota twice over, month after month.

But I’m straying from the subject, Grandpa would say, snapping his fingers, I really had something else to say: I don’t always have good advice for everyone. For instance, for young people—I really don’t know what to tell them to do, except perhaps to trust us less and listen to Johann Sebastian more. It’s also not true that I carry coals down to some old widow’s cellar for her, Grandpa would say, dismissing the notion, I’m not particularly fond of old widows! In one thing, however, you are right, Grandpa would have said, taking Granny’s hand and running his thumb over the back of it. I help my Katarina do the dishes, I vacuum the apartment, and I love to cook. Katarina has never had to spend all day on her feet, not as long as I could stand on mine! And why shouldn’t men cook? Best of all, I like cooking catfish for my grandson and my proud wife Comrade Katarina. With lemon, garlic, and potatoes with chopped parsley. And there’s one thing I treasure above all others, Comrade Poljo: Aleksandar is the best angler from here to the Danube, his grandpa’s sunshine, that’s what he is.

I don’t know how long I stood, deep in thought, beside Grandpa’s coffin. I don’t know when I freed myself from my father’s heavy hands and ran around the grave with the smell of summer rain rising from it. Or when I put on my hat with its blue and yellow stars turning around the crescent moon, although on the day of the evening when he died a death that proved stronger than any magic, Grandpa had told me that stars didn’t turn around moons, moons turned around stars. How long did I point my wand at the five-pointed star at the head end of the coffin? How often did I hit out when people tried to carry me away? What curses did I utter? How much did I cry? And will I ever forgive Carl Lewis for using up all of my magic power on his world record, leaving none for Grandpa? All of it went during those 9.86 seconds on 25 August 1991, the day before the day before the evening when someone on the megdan might not have heard a mother whispering to her son: you had a loving grandpa, and he will never come back. But his love for us is never-ending, his love will never be gone. Aleksandar, you have a never-ending grandpa now.

We made a promise about stories, Mama, the son said, nodding, and closed his eyes as if he were working magic without his hat and magic wand, a very simple promise: never to stop telling them.

Reading Group Guide

Reading Guide by Nick DiMartino

1. The opening chapter, with the deaths of Grandpa Slavko and Grandpa Rafik, sets the tone for the whole novel. The elaborate funeral sequence framing the deaths of the two grandfathers is particularly heartbreaking—and comic—because of the childlike point of view. Why begin the novel with the deaths of the two old men? Do the two deaths have anything to do with each other?

2. Aleksandar describes himself as an “artist of the lovely unfinished.” What does he mean by that, and how is the novel a reflection of Aleksandar’s attitude?

3. Author Stanisic delights in lengthy, old-fashioned chapter titles, often shaping them out of unusual or very subtle elements in the chapter. These titles are designed to be riddles that are opaque as you begin reading the chapter but make sense by the time you finish it. There are over sixty of them, framed as questions, with the answers all included in this study guide. Go around the room, make a game of it, see who can answer the most. Try it with teams.

4. Stanisic is a comic genius. Generously sprinkled throughout the novel are delightful, original moments—often only a sentence—that cause the reader to laugh out loud: the magic that works only along Party lines, the referee who blows the whistle on his wife’s adultery, the pig who runs away, Comrade Mary Poppins. But there’s a difference to Stanisic’s humor—it’s got a dark undercurrent. Discuss the use of humor in this often-tragic novel.

5. In many ways, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone resembles a folk epic that’s been pieced together. There are self-contained sequences as in the Iliad or the Kalevala, as well as fragmentary pieces. The prose borders on poetry, and the characters are larger than life, like myths. Discuss the ways this novel undercuts epic conventions but at the same time spreads out in a larger-than-life style that is truly epic.

6. With the grim tale of the three-dot-ellipsis man, the war enters the novel. Rather than making his Bosnian novel an unbearable catalogue of atrocities, Stanisic limits himself to just a few, brief, unforgettable images of war—the soldiers shooting at the dog, Cauliflower refusing to be pushed off the bridge, Asija’s uncle shot through the window while shaving. Discuss this “miniaturist” technique—does it capture the horror in a bearable way, or does it minimalize the war too much through restraint?

7. A number of young girls pepper the story—Danijela, Asija, Emina, Marija, Natasa. Are they just replaceable romantic stereotypes, easily confused or interchanged, or do they come alive as individual human beings?

8. Once Visegrad falls, the storyline—which has been proceeding in orderly chapters up to then—disintegrates into Aleksandar’s letters to Asija and a couple notes. The fragmentation of the plot structure here surely mirrors the disintegration of Bosnia itself, but what other pluses and minuses does this epistolary effect have on the novel?

9. Exactly halfway through the novel, it all begins over again in another novel that’s a mirror image of the one we’ve been reading—except this one is written not by Sasa Stanisic, but by his creation, Aleksandar Ksmanovic. Why? What effect does this have?

10. Cika Hasan and Cika Sead are first introduced as they’re being captured and roughed up by the invading soldiers. Their delightful fishing story is narrated after that. Only later do we learn of their terrible deaths. How would the emotional impact of these two characters have been different had their stories unfolded in chronological order?

11. In the novel-within-a-novel, Stansic presents fifteen pieces which he separates from the rest of the narrative. Are these pieces significantly different from the other chapters and fragments making up the novel? Do they have a different flavor? Do they gain anything by being set apart?

12. The search for Asija—without even knowing her last name—is carried on to absurd lengths, almost like a mythical quest. The sheer lunacy of trying to find someone in the city of Sarajevo knowing only her first name gives the quest a million-in-one chance of being successful. Yet it is. Or is it?

13. Aleksandar is “between eight and fourteen.” How is his narrative of the war coming to Visegrad affected by his youth, by his protected childhood vision of life and his lack of knowledge and experience? How might the story have been different recorded by an older, wiser narrator?

14. The ceasefire soccer game is the most original, shocking sequence in this unusual, original book. It’s the only sequence narrated in objective third person. What’s the effect on the story and the reader of not viewing the ceasefire soccer game from a single point of view? How does Stanisic make it fit into the rest of the first-person-narrated novel?

15. With the chapter, “I’ve made lists,” the novel begins the final sequence, Aleksandar’s return to his homeland and hometown. His discovery of what happened after his family escaped is often communicated to him through very minor characters scarcely mentioned in the preceding narrative. Why do it this way? What is the effect Stanisic achieves?

16. How exactly does the soldier repair the gramophone? How is that an appropriate title for this novel?

17. The entire book can be seen as Aleksandar’s attempt (and maybe Stanisic’s too) to reconstruct the past out of fragments, to put it back together again, to understand what happened to all the pieces. Is this novel just scraps pasted together, a random grab-bag of vignettes stream-of-consciousness style? Or is there an underlying pattern to the mosaic of story chunks? Is there an overall structure? Is the story more tightly constructed than it appears?

18. Although Grandpa Slavko dies at the very beginning of the novel, his spirit presides over the entire story, mostly in the huge influence he exerts over Aleksandar. The novel begins and ends with the Krmanovic family gathered around his grave. How is he a symbol of the old Yugoslavia?

19. At the novel’s end, rather than lamenting the war losses chronicled in the story, the characters are last seen grieving over the loss of Grandpa Slavko, the heart attack victim who started the story and preceded the war. Why does Stanisic make that choice?

20. What are we to make of the phone call on the last page?

Suggested authors for further reading:

Ismael Kadare, Hawi Rage, Ivo Andrić, Eduardo Galeano, Gabriel García Márquez, Kurt Vonnegut, Rudyard Kipling, Jerzy Kozinski, Marjane Satrapi, Miljenko Jergović, Danilo Kiš

Author Interview

Sasa Stanisic speaks with Lucy Kogler of Talking Leaves Books.

LK: It’s such a pleasure to continue our conversation started at the American Bookseller’s Association Winter Institute 3 in Louisville, Kentucky. You were exhausted after having flown from Germany to New York and then New York to Louisville, and I had been enjoying the company of other independent booksellers in the hotel bar. Our conversation was a lovely example of what can happen when two relaxed minds meet. I told you then how much I loved How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone. I just reread it and love it all the more. I have been given this glorious opportunity to ask you some questions about you, your book, and your whimsically morose imagination. How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is told by a precocious young boy who experiences his immediate environment and the natural environment in an incredibly direct yet thoroughly heartbreaking way. Are you as earnest as Alexsandar?—in your writing, in your dealing with friends and family?

SS: No, actually I think Aleksandar and I wouldn’t get along too well. He’s not a funny person, which is okay, and it doesn’t mean that I consider myself funny (I also find that being earnest is much easier than being actually witty and humorous). But there is a certain way in which he deals with things and people that I don’t like at all. He is very self-centered, very eager to please his own curiosity and find a cure for his own loss and pain. All of that is a basic in our social behavior—we all need our little egoisms—but I tend to take myself not very seriously, how and what I think, how I do things, and how I deal with my demons and joys. So, I guess, if we would meet, we would probably have a huge fight about our ways to use our past in order to tell stories (and also about many other things).

LK: You left Bosnia when you were fourteen. Did you ever or do you now define yourself as a refugee? Displaced person? Asylum seeker?

SS: My first German word was actually “refugee.” If not counting the names of German football clubs. But I never really felt like a refugee because my parents always tried to do all in their power in order not to evoke this feeling. Obviously, you can’t hide or oversee the lack of money, living with twenty other people in a small dirty house and being called “refugee” in school and state institutions. But, from the beginning, I tried to focus on making plans and achieving things that would give me the opportunity to escape from poverty. And I was very lucky to find my way, learn the language fast and with small jobs keep myself out of trouble.

LK: When you fled were you aware that you were escaping genocide?

SS: No, the genocide in and around my city began months later and after we left. But the fear and danger and anxiety were everywhere, the soldiers themselves seemed to be frightened and were very tense, you could see desperate people not knowing how serious the situation really was or what to do, where to go; you got warnings about things that were to happen, you heard about people being beaten and others threatened, and all of it came to be too much for many of us, so we packed our things and left the city before the borders were closed.

LK: In Soldier the river Drina is a character. It flows between relatives, factions, it breaks hearts, unites friends, is a receptacle for death and stores memory. In your life does any non-human object serve the same purpose?

SS: No, I am not very good with objects. I tend to lose stuff a lot. Even things that really mean something important to me. And I also never talk to chairs or bananas or even to myself. But I do find it crucial to remember that stories are connected to things. Not only in a manner of who brought them or where you bought them but also—what is behind the fact of possessing them and where their beauty comes from or whatever aesthetic value they carry.

LK: Your book won the prestigious Ingebourg Bachmann Reader’s Prize for a German Book. (She was twelve years old when the Nazis marched into her town and Soldier’s Alexsandar is fourteen when the Bosnian travesty occurs.) Did you know her work before you won or have you become acquainted with it since winning the prize? Does her line “It’s not as if I say—that was then.” Ring true for you? Or, have you mostly situated your childhood experiences and let go?

SS: I knew some of her work before—I had to read it in school. And I think that not every past has to stay remembered and some “rememberers” even need to forget. (Not that you can actively provide that). Anyway: How you deal with your past—I find that to be one of our biggest intimacies. It is also something that makes us older—the future is what feels young to us. And the more often I say “that was then” the more I actually move away from that moment. And I don’t really want that. I need the past very much, I need it also to be true for me and find it very distracting and confusing when someone corrects the events that lay neatly chronologized in my head. Aleksandar follows the lists of his memory to find out more about the now. I follow the now to find and understand my past.

LK: What was the impetus that started you writing? Were there any impediments?

SS: Well, it all started as a belated diary of all events in my childhood. At that point—I was twenty-four—I never thought that pages could become anything more than my own search for answers about my own life. But soon I noticed that there was a story in it bigger than me, bigger than my personal memories, and big enough to emerge into a universal tale of loss, storytelling, and magic that a childhood everywhere in the world can have if it isn’t disrupted. And so I started to invent, started to gather other tales of other people, and soon started to realize, it was a book that I was making personal and full of the world at the same time.

LK: You seem to have quite expansive gifts—books, plays, radio, movies. Do you have a favorite medium? Is the feeling reciprocal?

SS: No, I just let the characters chat with each other and they decide where they want to continue chatting. Most of the time they even continue their conversations after I finished their stories . . . annoying actually.

LK: Do you worry that people will miss the humor or the seriousness of your book?

SS: I am very sure they will find both in it even at the same time.

LK: What should every reader of Soldier know about you—a delicious little secret?

SS: I’m not important in that at all. But I’ll tell you a secret about the book: They can start reading in the middle. I actually suggest that they do. Start with the book-in-book—chapter named “When everything was good.” And then at some point—they will realize when—return to the beginning of the actual book.

LK: Anything else you would like to tell your soon-to-be legion of American fans?

SS: Hope to see you in Buffalo.