HOW THE SOLDIER REPAIRS THE GRAMOPHONE, by Sasa Stanisic, Grove Press, 345 pages, $24
Sasa Stanisic, a native of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was only 14 when he fled his country for Germany after the eruption of the Bosnian War. Now 29, he has drawn on his own experience to describe the nature of war through the eyes of a child.
His protagonist, Aleksandar Krsmanovic, uses storytelling and imagination to get him through the horrors of war. Because he had tried to save a mysterious, red-haired girl, he sends painful letters trying to learn of her existence. For him as for the author, it is the power of words that allows him to summon the courage to face the enormous anguish of war.
Not that the author sees himself as Aleksandar, who takes himself much more seriously than Stanisic. But the author was displaced by the war and suffered the humiliation and discomfort of being a refugee, living in a dirty house with 20 other people while he desperately tried to learn a new language.
Stanisic has uniquely organized his book by placing "a book within a book," entitled "When Everything was All Right," beginning on page 177. If the reader starts there, he/she can taste how much the author enjoyed life before the ravages of war ruined it all. Then the reader can judge when the best time comes to revert to the beginning. The middle explains about trips, ice cream, storytelling, magic chess, music and grandfathers dominating Aleksandar's life.
The author has tried to tell a universal story of loss, storytelling and magic that ought to be a part of everyone's childhood. When starting again, at the beginning, the reader deals with the effect of a heart attack, when flowers are just flowers, the impact of death, the speed of war, how much weight a bridge will bear and how a town breaks into splinters.
The organization of the book and the author's brilliant use of language makes this book an astonishing accomplishment, sure to be a multiple-award-winner. In the first chapter, Stanisic writes, "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."
Getting into this book isn't easy. It's eccentric because of its structure, the choice of words is unusual, and the author's sense of humor pops up in strange places, but it shines through even the most dismal events.Although the chapter headings are very long, they add an extra dimension of the author's soul. The book itself is highly impressionistic, often written in very short sentences emphasizing a straightforward thought. About a third of the way into the book it becomes enthralling, something you can't put down.
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