In his sophomore novel, Bosnian-born writer Stanišic (How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, 2008) meditates on history, real and counterfactual.
Fürstenfelde is a sleepy little burg somewhere down along the German-Polish border, territory whose cultural conflicts have proved such fertile ground for Günter Grass. Not much happens there; the wolves stir and the woodpeckers peck, while a diligent vixen sniffs her way through one henhouse after another to feed her kits. Not much happens, that is, until the ferryman goes missing right before the Feast of Saint Anne, a high point on the local calendar. “Big hairy terrorist-type beard, fingernails and all that,” mutters the narrator, who marvels all the same at the way the ferry provides a little light at night. Readers with a sense of classical mythology will be alert to the possibilities when death, or at least the oarsman across the River Styx, takes a holiday. When time stands still, history becomes a jumble; one of the townspeople finds her nicely done hairdo squashed by a Pickelhaube, or spiked helmet, of a century past, while another, bound up in the doings of the old East German police state, is given to saying portentous things such as (this time concerning the vixen) “if a chicken is fearless, that doesn’t make it brave.” Another principal is introduced with a near-Homeric epithet each time he appears: “Herr Schramm, former Lieutenant-Colonel in the National People’s Army, then a forester, now a pensioner.” In the face of a neo-Nazi rally in town, first-generation Nazis are still in view, and when the town archive is broken into, stories from other times and voices come tumbling out. Stanišic’s yarn is a sprawling mess at first glance, but as it unfolds, it’s clear that he has given great thought to structure, to repeated and echoed motifs and themes, and in the end each element in the storyline ties up more or less neatly, if sometimes with a little confusion in getting there.
A brilliant, quirky entertainment.