I just noticed Anthea Bell's translation of Saša Stanišic's Wie der Soldat das Grammofon repariert is due out any day now. Stewart at the World Literature Forum doesn't like it, but acknowledges it "seems tipped to be this year's translation success." So I thought I'd add a little more to what I bravely wrote in response.
First off, although I have friends and acquaintances from various former Yugoslavian states, my entire "knowledge" of the culture is based on Cliff Richard's Summer Holiday and Kurt Held's book Die Rote Zora. Incidentally, this is an absolute classic German children's book, written by a disillusioned Communist in Swiss exile and published under a pseudonym in 1941. It seems to have been published in English back in 1967 under the title The Outsiders of Uskoken Castle, translated by Lynn Aubrey. Time for a rediscovery, I feel, especially after the gorgeous film recently made of it. Bloomsbury, could Zora be the new Harry Potter?
But back to the soldier and the gramophone. Now I haven't read the translation, obviously, but I thoroughly enjoyed the original. I even enjoyed the meandering titles that got Stewart's goat - and which Ross Benjamin describes in Bookforum as "playfully mimic(ing) Cervantes and Grimmelshausen by providing brief, tantalizingly eccentric synopses: 'How long a heart attack takes over a hundred meters, 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.'" In fact, at the end of each chapter I went back and checked if everything was included. Sometimes it isn't - deliberately.
The first half or so is a fairly straight-forward tale of a boy of unspecified age growing up in pre-war Yugoslavia. Here, it's the language that carries the novel - whimsical non-collocations and lists half a page long, no quotation marks but rapidly changing perspectives, stories upon stories. And the critics that don't like it say it's Balkan kitsch. They might be right - the rural summer party with a table groaning with hearty food and slivovitz, the enraged husbands, the speeches at grandad's funeral. You can often hear the accordeons in your minds ear - and in fact there is an actual band playing brass instruments every now and then. But the narrator Aleksandar Krsmanovic - a thinly veiled Saša himself - is a born storyteller, packaging all the everyday dramas into melodramas, adding just that little bit of technicolour to life.
And then comes the war. For Aleksandar, the war is a bit like a Kammerspiel - it takes place in a single setting, the cellar and corridors of his housing block. The soldiers arrive - sitting down at the impromptu communal dining table and asking what's for tea. The horror is never spoken out loud, we leave the room or close our eyes along with the narrator every time something bad threatens to happen. He protects a Muslim girl from the countryside seeking shelter in the building, then wanders the empty streets with his best friend and forgets about her again. As events reach a crescendo, the family packs up and leaves - a sudden interruption that divides the book into two.
The second part has another contents page, a very different style, and is almost a book about the book. This is where you realise that Stanišic studied creative writing on the renowned Leipzig University course - which has been churning out well-read young writers for a few years now. He didn't graduate, incidentally - too busy being a feted literary starlet. This is where the narrator, or Stanišic himself, grows up. In this section, Yugoslavia is no longer the paradise of the first half, peopled by smocked Titoists and emotional drunks. Whereas the harbingers of war were almost too subtle to notice before, now they are everywhere. We see the real events, no longer swathed in kitsch - or do we? Because Aleksandar is still the inveterate storyteller - only now, instead of his magic wand that makes everything better, "someone should invent an honest plane, which can rasp off the lies from the stories and the delusions from the memories. I am a collector of shavings."
Aleksandar returns to Bosnia from Germany, visiting his grandmother and his old home town. He searches for the little Muslim girl, but is she real or just a device in a plotline? In this second half, Stanisic really plays with his readers, picking up on countless tiny details from the first part, describing various possible realities, turning facts on their heads - the one that got away, the football match between the lines. The humour turns from light to dark, the characters from glittering to down-to-earth. Whereas before, I gladly suspended my disbelief, now that disbelief is the whole point. It felt like I had gone back to Bosnia with Aleksandar and been just as shocked by all the things I had refused to see beforehand. That, I think, is one of the great strengths of the book.
And although the structure of the second half could be tighter, I really think the book deserves to be a hit in English, as it has in German. As long as people can get past the Balkan kitsch.
Update: I finally found the outcome to that little cultural misunderstanding in Summer Holiday. Now that's Balkan kitsch.