From Bosnia, via Germany, to Seattle

An international author arriving for the first time in his life on the West Coast isn’t likely to find his internationally bestselling novel for sale at the airport bookstore. Sure, everyone in Germany may be reading the novel, and sure, it may be a phenomenal, prize-winning success throughout Europe, but that doesn’t mean squat when it comes to airplane reading. Air travelers want it light, easy, fast and American.

Sasa Stanisic  Except when Sasa Stanisic stepped off the plane at the Sea-Tac International Airport, he walked into the bookstore and found, to his amazement, the American edition of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, in hardback, on the rack for sale!

It’s an easy book to spot, because it has one of the most unforgettable covers this summer. A framed photo, hanging against floral wallpaper, shows an apparently deserted stretch of beach where two dogs are running across the sand while a lone young accordion player faces the viewer, playing.  How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone

It took our author’s Dutch publisher to point out that the accordion-player in the copyright-free photo used on the American book cover was actually the author Daniel Handler, better known by his pseudonym Lemony Snickett, creator of the thirteen-volume children’s epic, A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Sheer goofy coincidence.   Sasa Stanisic 1

Stanisic, the thirty-year-old author of this year’s winner of the German Book Prize, was in Seattle to speak at another bookstore, and made time to meet with me at University Book Store the afternoon before – although he was an hour late, since his taxi delivered him to the wrong bookstore. It was worth the wait.

Having escaped from Bosnia with his family at the age of fourteen, and currently living in Germany, Sasa (pronounced Sasha) speaks fluent English and is a great fan of Seattle music. Besides an obvious love for Nirvana and Pearl Jam, his current favorite band is Death Cab for Cutie. His novel, an autobiographical recapturing of the Bosnian village where he grew up, presents a harrowing slice of history, and makes its heartbreaking points about what happened honestly, but intermixed with the horrors are the light-hearted best of humanity.  Sasa Stanisic 2

I went out of my way to meet this guy because his novel literally sucked me in and wouldn’t let me go. I didn’t mean to read it. The first chapter alone is breathtaking. Stanisic is way too gifted for his age. What he’s done is a kind of deconstruction of storytelling. In the aftermath of war, stories have become broken fragments. The narrative is in literal pieces. “Storytelling can heal a lot,” Stanisic said to me today, “but it cannot restore the past. We don’t need storytellers anymore, we need the truth.”

His book may be a bit of a reach for some readers. There are unfamiliar Slavic names, and lots of them. Events seem to be told chronologically, but then the chronology starts up all over again halfway through. Nevertheless, there are so many obvious flashes of brilliance on almost every page that I’ve decided to make it our book club’s July selection. I’m convinced that the heart of the work – the childhood voice of Aleksandar – is so emotionally honest that it can reach and touch anyone, and that everyone who reads this novel will be glad they did.

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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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