The magic boy
Is THE title of this debut novel by a young Bosnian writer the punch line to a darkly satirical joke? Not exactly, but it does offer a key to Sasa Stanisic’s juggling of the tragic and the absurd to evoke the diabolic horrors of civil war. Aleksandar Krsmanovic of Visegrad, Stanisic’s precocious boy narrator, believes that he rates high “on the eccentricity scale,” a distinction that runs in his family. His maternal grandfather was so obsessed with the beautiful yet abused Drina River that he drowned in its embrace. His paternal grandfather presents him with a cardboard magic hat and a magic wand and tells him, “The most valuable gift of all is invention, imagination is your greatest wealth . . . you remember that and imagine the world is better than it is.” With that command, Aleksandar assumes the role of storyteller and proves to be preternaturally observant, inadvertently hilarious and unfailingly tenderhearted.
Stanisic joins a long line of writers who use a child’s-eye view to expose the folly and brutality of war. Aleksandar is simply too young to understand the context and significance of the bizarre, barbaric acts he witnesses as his already precarious world plunges into chaos. Once Yugoslavia disintegrates, neighbors abruptly become enemies, and another round ensues in the confounding, cruelly fracturing sequence of war in the Balkans. Aleksandar’s attempts to make sense of catastrophic change yield funny misapprehensions and devastating insights, while his innocence and charm make the shock of tyranny and bloodshed all the more harrowing. A mischievous, curious, and kind boy who is crazy about fishing and soccer, he often repeats the wistful refrain, “If only I were a magician who could make things possible.”
As the sanctity of family, home and the living world are violated, as life is smashed to bits, as tanks churn streets into rubble, as the fortunate escape while others suffer, Stanisic dams the narrative stream and parcels out Aleksandar’s story in fragments, creating a patchwork of unnerving fables and parodies about a life-or-death soccer match, a determined catfish, a woman kneading bread dough, a dancing horse and a rabbi left to die on a frozen lake.
Richly translated by Anthea Bell, Stanisic’s story is loaded on each page with galvanizing details, desperately making an inventory of an imperiled world. He maintains a delirious, jump-cut pace as words flash dark-to-light-to-dark, and sentences coil and snap, conjuring a macabre carnival atmosphere. Take the party to celebrate the new “inside loo,” at which tempers flair, a pistol is waved about and ethnic slurs are hurled. As the son of a Muslim mother and a Serbian father, Aleksandar is stricken. He has already been challenged in the schoolyard with the taunt, “What are you, really?” Now he wishes he “could be something not so vague.”
On the hellish night of the soldier and the gramophone, a pack of thuggish soldiers takes over Aleksandar’s apartment building at dinnertime. Aleksandar is frightened, but he keeps his wits about him. He knows that “if you have the wrong sort of name they drive you away in the truck with the green tarpaulin.” Confident that he has “the right sort of name,” he protects Asija, an orphaned Muslim girl. When his besieged mixed family flees Visegrad for Germany, ties to Asija are severed, but Aleksandar never stops thinking about her and later returns to Bosnia to learn her fate.
Smart and adaptable, Aleksandar holds his own in Germany, in spite of overt hostility toward immigrants. And what a revelation it is to discover that the monumental ethnic conflicts destroying his homeland mean nothing to outsiders. As he writes in one of many undeliverable letters to the phantom Asija, “Here they call us Yugos . . . it’s simpler for everyone.”
Like his boy-wonder narrator, Stanisic is the son of a Muslim mother and a Serbian father. He too was born and raised in Visegrad, exiled by war and granted sanctuary in Germany. As Aleksandar matures, the fabric of fiction is stretched awfully thin and the author nearly subsumes his imaginary alter ego. Nonetheless, this crazy-quilt novel, a sensation in Europe, is a bold, questing work of art deeply rooted in the complex history of a blood-soaked, bone-planted land. Fully aware that he is contributing to a long-running saga of invasion and conquest, Stanisic specifically engages with “The Bridge on the Drina,” a centuries-spanning novel by the controversial Ivo Andric, the sole Bosnian to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1961. But at its vital heart, the story of the Balkans is the archetypal human story of love and home, hate and terror, exodus, survival and renewal.
Aleksandar drolly imitates ludicrous communist directives when he announces, “I’m against endings, I’m against things being over. Being finished should be stopped! I am the Comrade-in-Chief of going on and on. . . . I’m going to be the artist of the lovely Unfinished!” As all serious writers are. Even though we fail, generation after generation, to free ourselves from prejudice and war, we persist in seeking enlightenment in the magic of story and art. Stanisic is an exceptionally talented, impish and caring writer who has walked the edge of the abyss. One hopes that he will continue to grapple with the paradoxes intrinsic to the human condition and tell many more empathic, revealing and imaginative stories full of cathartic laughter and feeling. *