Displaying a stylistic audacity that is often dazzling (and occasionally dizzying), this debut novel mixes fictionalized memoir, magical realism and a Catch-22 sense of war’s tragicomic absurdity.
Like his narrator, Aleksandar, novelist Stanišic left his native Bosnia for Germany as a teenager to escape the devastations of civil war and ethnic cleansing. But the 29-year-old author hasn’t simply translated his adolescent experience into fiction. Instead, he has fashioned a protagonist who considers himself a magician with words, an imaginative storyteller, “the artist of the lovely Unfinished!” Inspired by his grandfather, whose heart expired in a race with Carl Lewis in a record-breaking 100-yard dash (as they watch it on TV, his heart finishes before Lewis does), Aleksandar dedicates himself to spinning “stories that can make us laugh or cry, best of all both at the same time.” Some of these stories find him switching to the voice of a friend or an acquaintance. A significant part of the novel, and thus his story, is a series of letters to a girlfriend, perhaps imaginary, whom he hopes to help escape as he has (one of them is signed, “Do you remember me?”, another asks “Did I make you up?”). There’s also an extended book within the book, dedicated to his grandfather, with a foreword written by his grandmother (or written by Aleksandar in the voice of his grandmother?). Obvious throughout is that long after Aleksandar has left his homeland (“a country that doesn’t exist any more”), his homeland remains within him. He poetically describes what was once a part of Yugoslavia and later Bosnia as “A cold, bleak country / Naked and hungry…It is defiant / With sleep.” 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.