DonŐt judge this book by its cover, which makes it look fifty years old. You canŐt judge it by its author, either, because itŐs a first novel, or by its title, because the title is absurd. So, what is How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone? A warm, farcical, honest book peopled by dozens of larger-than-life family members and neighbours. Even at its darkest, and it has some very dark moments, it celebrates the strength of the human spirit.

The narrator is young Aleksandar, about ten years old as the book opens. He enjoys an idyllic country-town childhood in Visegrad, fishing in the Drina River, playing football with his mates, picking plums at his great-grandparentsŐ place and watching in fearful fascination as his Uncle Miki goes on a pistol-wielding rampage during a family celebration.

He is a clear-sighted observer but is too young to understand all the adultsŐ concerns, so he doesnŐt really know what is happening when he finds himself hiding in a cellar with his family. He sneaks out to watch as soldiers take over Visegrad, and realises his new friend Asija is in danger simply because she has an Arabic name. At about this point, the reader becomes aware that he is caught up in the Bosnian War.

AleksandarŐs mother is from a Bosnian Moslem family and his father is Serbian; they escape to Sarajevo and then to Germany. Ten years later, Aleksandar returns to his homeland to try to make sense of his memories and his fractured life.

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is presented as a loose mosaic of fragments and anecdotes which gradually coalesce into a subtle, empathetic picture of the effects of civil war on ordinary people.

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, August 2008, $32.99

Review originally published November 2008
Page created March 2009