The Redemption of Humor

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone  Laughter. Reading groups need it. Like in that last novel about Bosnia.

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic is a brand new novel about the young author’s childhood in Bosnia circa 1991, just as life turned into a nightmare and neighbor turned against neighbor. It includes some harrowing stuff. But it’s all seen through the eyes of young Aleksandar, naively optimistic, and every other page is laugh-out-loud funny. With charming characters you genuinely care about, Stanisic lures you into going anywhere and enduring anything.

Yes, the book has teeth. Yes, it leaves its mark on your mind. Especially an unforgettable soccer game near the end of the novel between Bosnian and Serb boys who grew up together, at ceasefire, in between fighting each other on opposite sides of the war. But for every heartbreaking incident there is a compensating comic jewel, the opening scene, for instance, where a little boy at his grandfather’s funeral believes his magic hat will enable him to awaken his grandfather from death, and a hilarious, deeply touching fishing story about two bickering, endearing arch-rivals. The author’s sheer narrative delight and the young hero’s determination to be affirmative triumph over the story’s heartbreaking content.

I tried to follow that book with one I’d been looking forward to for months.

Say You’re One of Them  Written by Uwem Akpan, a Nigerian Jesuit priest, Say You’re One of Them is comprised of three short stories and two novellas told in first-person by African children. The gorgeous, heartbreaking cover shows a little girl running away, and combined with the title immediately brings to mind your worst fears of Rwandan-style genocides.

It’s definitely important and sincere. I read the first story.

A mother is helping her baby sniff glue to kill his hunger pains, while waiting for her twelve-year-old daughter to come home from streetwalking, so maybe they’ll have enough money to buy food for Christmas dinner. It was beyond sad, it was quietly appalling. When I turned the page and saw that the following novella was about a man determined to sell his children, I’m embarrassed to say I closed the book.

I urge others to read it. Akpan is a smart, concise stylist. He shoots from the heart. But as a choice for a reading group, I hesitate. Asking a group of readers to take an emotional nose-dive is asking a lot, and sometimes my instinct for emotional self-preservation puts on the brakes.

But for important books you take a chance.

The Translator  I’m glad I took the chance of reading Daoud Hari. I would personally urge any reader interested in memoirs or Africa to read his superbly humble The Translator: Memoir of a Tribesman of Darfur. He’s the guy who, after surviving the first wave of massacres, decided to use English as his weapon and guided the major news media into the horrors of Sudan, alerting the world to what was happening. The last eighty pages of the book, as the documentary filmmaker and Hari are caught and imprisoned, beaten and tortured, were so gripping I was sitting straight up in my armchair, a psychological wreck. It’s a short, brave, important book. It took me days to shake it off. If Africa or current events are a group interest, there could be no better introduction to the situation in Darfur. It’s written by a relentlessly upbeat guy, utterly likeable, who plays down the scenes where he’s tortured with a shrug, and has a big-hearted weakness for camels. You endure the horrors because Daoud Hari goes with you.

It’s a trick to see the human comedy when you’re suffering. In the midst of pain and loss, it’s hard to be honest and grapple with multi-sided reality and still include laughter as part of the mix. Which is why of all the novels I’ve read lately, none remains quite as respected and genuinely loved as Aravind Adiga’s The White TigerWhite Tiger  It’s quick and tight and wildly funny, dealing with the deadly repression of caste in a realistic, modern day India. Balram Halwai, chauffeur, tells you from the start that he’s taken his employer’s life, but you read relentlessly to find out why, since his boss seems to be the only guy who’s nice to him. Balram is a hustler, determined to make you like him, and he keeps you laughing. You see through him, and you only like him more. I’m still pondering what he does and what happens afterward. The novel is morally brilliant like Vanity Fair is morally brilliant. In fact, I’m eager to re-read it before our group discusses it at the end of June.

Through humor, Adiga relaxes my moral guard and lures me into understanding why Balram acts the way he does. This book will get a different response from every member of our group, because every reader’s reaction to Balram will be so personal. One thing for sure: everyone will finish this one, because yes, it’s a story with sadness, it’s about the unfair darkness of the world, but Adiga’s glimmer of genuine laughter and provocative storytelling keep you helplessly turning the pages right through the utterly satisfying, morally confusing ending.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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