With the rough time I’ve had with reading this month, my German literature project almost got off to a rough start. But I didn’t want to start 12 Germans in 2016 with a delay, so I pulled myself together these last few days and read my January selection just in time for the review date I’d set. What a ride! I so enjoyed reading Saša Stanišić’s literary debut, and I think if I had had more emotion to spare, the book would have happily sucked it up—in a completely good way.
Young Aleksandar, the narrator of the story, has a wild and wonderful imagination, which makes him a force to be reckoned with. He tells us of his childhood in Višegrad, a Bosnian town with many larger-than-life, sometimes almost mythical inhabitants. But at the beginning of the Bosnian War, in 1992, Višegrad was also a city that saw intense ethnic cleansing, with an estimated 3,000 people being massacred. To weave this into a story that frequently made me laugh is quite something; Stanišić uses the limited knowledge of his child narrator to perfection. The fragmented way in which he presents the story ensures that the underlying horror that Aleksandar has witnessed does not become overwhelming.
Early on, I was a little disoriented by the seemingly unordered way in which this story is told (which is only getting “worse” as the book progresses), but then it popped into my mind that this book is similar to a river, which is fitting because the river Drina, which flows through Višegrad, is a prominent feature throughout the book. If you ever sit by a stream and watch the water flow past, then you know that the water never takes a straight route. The current can change quickly and easily; there are lots of eddies and whorls. The water can rush over or around obstacles, sometimes simply going on and other times doubling back on itself. And that’s how this story is told. Sometimes, it flows in a more or less straight path, but soon thereafter, it starts to swirl and whirl and take a little detour before taking up the main narrative again. And while you are still basking in the anecdote of Musa riding past on his wonderful white horse, you are suddenly confronted with the awful knowledge of what happened to them. But then, just as quickly, you’re off again to go fishing for catfish in the Drina. I can see how this way of storytelling might not work for every reader, but I loved it.
There are many wonderful characters in this book, and I think it takes until the end to fully appreciate them all (which doesn’t mean you’ll like them all). There’s laughter:
“Edin and I are sharing a lemonade at Ĉika Doctor’s hotel, sitting there with our legs wide apart and acting as if we were Germans. hans kugel kluf nust lust Bayern meinen danke danke. We do it so maybe Ĉika Doctor will tell us which part of himself he adds to the Germans’ lemonade.”
And there’s sorrow:
“Asija puts her arms out to me and asks, sobbing: did you see my Mama and my Papa with the soldiers? Did my Mama and Papa maybe come back with those stupid soldiers? They took them away because they have the wrong sort of name. Asija doesn’t know where her parents would be coming back from: no one knows, she whispers, and no one must know we’re here. If the soldiers find you they’ll take your papers away, and if you have the wrong sort of name they’ll drive you away in the truck with the green tarpaulin.”
Through it all, there’s heartbreak, but also hope. It’s a book worth reading, and I hope you do. If you have already read the book, please let me know what you think. And if you have reviewed it, feel free to leave a link.
P.S.: I own and read the German edition of the book, but I checked out the English translation at the library. In my opinion, the translation works as well as the original, which is not surprising, considering that the translator is Anthea Bell.