Saturday, 3 April 2010

Long Black Or Flat White?

It was at first a tiring, action-packed media hunt by Tourism Australia. I still couldn't believe that we emerged the winners of the grand prize. I will maintain that it was thanks to my ex-colleague's go-karting skills.

"Long Black Or Flat White?", Off The Edge, April 2010

The five days and four nights in Melbourne, 2009 were a vivid dream for one who has never left South East Asia all his life. I don't think I made the very, very best of the opportunity, but I'm glad of the attempts I made.

I'm proud of the photo of the wedding entourage; it was, like many things I encountered, unexpected, quaint and beautiful.

I walked almost everywhere within the Central Business District. Everywhere. Despite fears of swine flu I never felt so healthy and so refreshed. It was spring, and it was lovely.

I managed to save the notes I made when I was there. Someday soon I'll finally blog about this trip.

Flat white for me. Always.

Friday, 2 April 2010

The Great Unfinished War Tale

A long overdue piece on an unconventional novel from a Bosnian playwright - whose name gave the editor some trouble when she tried to spell it - darn Cyrillic characters.

Out of the box

first published in The Star, 02 April 2010

The limited time I’ve spent with novels and storybooks convinced me that, for my tastes at least, plain narrative is the only way to go. Then came this tale of growing up amidst war from a Bosnian author and playwright that’s very unconventional and that stretched my literary muscles nicely.

How The Soldier Repairs The Gramophone is about young Aleksandar Krsmanovic of Višegrad who is given a “magic wand” by his grandfather, along with these words of wisdom: “The most valuable gift of all is invention, imagination is your greatest wealth.” Then the old man dies.

Although “the best magician in the non-aligned states” – and future painter of all unfinished things – is unable to bring his grandfather back, young Aleks tries to weave some semblance of magic into his daily life, and the events about to unfold.

His homeland, Yugoslavia, will be riven by war, and he and his family will escape it by fleeing to Germany. He will encounter a girl, Asija, whom he tries to rescue and, later when he grows up, tries to find when he returns to his hometown.

Caveat emptor, dear reader. This novel is work. All dialogue is free from quotation marks, something Aleks more or less explains in one chapter. The story of his life after grandpa features a cast of thousands, from family members to neighbours and soldiers and victims of war. Some have nicknames such as Walrus and Mickey Mouse. At times, it seems as though somebody else other than Aleks is narrating the tale.

It gets stranger towards the middle, as narratives give way to letters, poems, lists and transcripts of messages left on answering machines. Pretty much a huge, messy jumble of text – not something that one can flip through and “get” without effort, like the more conventional, linear novels elsewhere.

As far as I can tell there are no cues such as, “Aleks and family leave Yugoslavia”, or “Aleks returns home”, and many chapter titles are as long as those in Lim Kit Siang’s blog. You can’t tell whether something is happening in the present, past, or even in a dream. Perils for the inattentive reader – or reviewer – trying to connect the dots.

Despite the novel’s shambolic structure, though, one can find a kind of poignant, folksy touch in the way Aleks interprets or makes sense of everything that’s going on around him, even as he witnesses history in the making.

A couple of tucked-away gems – to me, at least – is the observation of how similar war-torn Bosnia and Somalia are in the 1990s, except for the “short-haired, black children” with guns; and, in response, an uncle provides some brutal honesty: “We don’t have any oil either. That’s why the Americans aren’t helping.”

If you don’t skip the author introduction, you will notice that, like Aleks, the author was also born in Višegrad. Which explains the vividness in the descriptions of town life and the River Drina that’s so prominent in the story. Could “Aleksandar Krsmanovic” be the author’s alter-ego?

Yes, I would recommend this to anyone who wants to expand their literary horizons – a peek over the wall or the top of the box where the grass may be greener, or just a different colour. While I did get how the soldier (kind of) repaired the gramophone, I never quite found out if Aleks was finally reunited with the girl he tried to save. Perhaps Aleks and the author are one and the same: a creator of unfinished things, as this novel seems to suggest.

How The Soldier Repairs The Gramophone
Saša Stanišić
Translated from the German by Anthea Bell
277 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7538-2473-3