Eastern European Humor
I love Eastern European literature, and often it is the gravitas that I gravitate toward. Still I recognize that there is often an undercurrent of humor that I often miss. I loved The Master and Margarita, but I didn’t find it funny, and I’ve felt that same tickling of “this is funny to other people.” I lived in Poland for a year and I can see the love of irony and when something is supposed to be funny, but, well, maybe I’m not very good at laughing at myself or life in general.
Back to Saša. This book contains hilarious and charming views of life from the eyes of a child. It’s playful and fun. And then suddenly the war happens. It’s a weird juxtaposition, but I’m sure it’s true to life, especially for a child who wouldn’t see the same factors leading up to conflict that an adult might. I can see the point of having this jump in subject matter, but from a narrative point of view it is jarring.
Jarring Change in Direction
Speaking of jarring. Mid-way through the book, the point of view changes or the author, kind of. That sentence is as confusing and not confusing as the narrative shift, because, though this is a work of fiction, the general arc is not dissimilar to the author’s life, and as a result, I never felt Saša was that far from Aleksandar to begin with. By switching narrators and re-starting the story, Mr. Stanišić is playing with metafiction—emphasizing his own relation to the story. For me it was unnecessary.
I enjoyed the tangential essay quality of the chapters, they helped me learn more about an unfamiliar culture, but I would have liked them stitched together in a different way. I firmly believe that an author’s work is intentional and purposeful. So the fact that I would have made other choices is maybe instructive to no one but me, but recognizing the choices he did make helps me understand what he might have been trying to say with this book. Here’s what I have come up with:
- Life is random. That is not a profound statement, but it is a statement of worldview that not everyone would agree with.
- Life contains great joy and great suffering, but we should focus on the joy.
- People are resilient.
- Everyone is affected by war, even those too innocent to see it coming.
I think sometimes I like Eastern European literature because it is a part of the world that has seen a wider breadth of human experience than I hope to live through and, somehow, retained an optimistic view. Reading How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, I encountered many city names familiar from planning an upcoming trip to Croatia. Because we aren’t going to Bosnia, I may not run into Saša Stanišić’s clever cornball relatives, but I am glad to have a richer view of the Yugoslavian cultures and I hope to experience all whimsy and no war.
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