In the last of the four quarterfinal match ups, BiH, represented by Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, goes up against one of the World Cup of Literature favorites, Germany and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.
Stanišic made it here first by bribing a judge and beating Iran’s represntative, The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi 1-0 and then by upsetting Honduras and Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness by a score of 5-3.
This one is going to be close . . .
Hal Hlavinka: Germany
Saša’s payment pending, the ghost of Sebald runs ragged.
Stephen Sparks: Germany
Although the exuberance of How the Soldier fared well against Senselessness, the methodical, evenly paced tenor of Austerlitz won the day for me here in the quarterfinals.
James Crossley: Germany
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone has a lot to recommend it where the World Cup of Literature is concerned: quirky chapter titles, some actual soccer content, and a flukish celebrity appearance on the hardcover dust jacket. (The designer used a stock photo—man playing accordion on the beach—without realizing that the subject was author/musician Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket.) Sorry about the tough draw, Stanišić, but that’s not enough. Literary landmark Austerlitz for the win.
Hannah Chute: Bosnia
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is what Catch-22 would be if Yossarian were an eleven-year-old Bosnian kid. It’s funny, touching, and all-around brilliant.
Nick During: Bosnia
Books, like soccer matches, often hinge on the unexpected. The depth and knowledge and verve of a truly great team can be defeated by the rare moment of creative brilliance at just the right time. Don’t get me wrong, Austerlitz is a truly great book, a Sebald classic that makes the reader search for hidden memories and mysteries in the buildings that surround us, but in the flexible paragraphs and sentences of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone lies the imagination that has gives the reader another look at the past, and in a different way that can free them from the weight of official history.
Florian Duijsens: Bosnia
Every Cup needs at least one slightly partial ref and, having taken both books out into a park today (the closest I could think of coming to the championship field), I will gladly to give my vote to Bosnia, and not just because Saša and I follow each other on Instagram. Where Austerlitz smartly and digressively peers into the past and its oblivion, How The Soldier Repairs The Gramophone brings a version of the not all that distant past to vivid life through the child narrator’s unobstructed observations, which manage to surprise as often as they stun with sudden bursts of painful truth.
Chris Schaefer: Germany
Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz are both haunting novels about savage twentieth-century European conflicts. Stanišić’s novel elicited more laughter from me than anything else I’ve read recently, but its creative tragicomedy could not compete with Sebald’s innovative and weighty erudition. The known quantity Sebald defends his reputation against the upstart Stanišić, but we can expect great things from the young Bosnian in the future.
And there you have it—the semifinals are set. On one side we have Chile (Bolaño’s By Night in Chile) going up against Germany (Sebald’s Austerlitz), and on the other we have Mexico (Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd) taking on the USA (DFW’s The Pale King).
See you tomorrow for the first of these matches!
The battle between Honduras and Bosnia and Herzegovina is a contrast in style. This is obvious as the two teams line up for pre-match ceremonies: on one side, Horacio Castellanos Moya’s understated Senselessness, with a few tasteful blurbs—from Roberto Bolaño, Russell Banks, and Francisco Goldman—adorning the back jacket; on the other side is Saša Stanišić’s gaudy How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, with its bold, ALL CAPS, multi-colored blurbs, pages and pages of extravagant praise, and a “Reading Guide,” designed no doubt to help palliate those readers concerned about the accents in the Bosnia author’s name. The packaging of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone feels compensatory, too showy. As it preens and struts, confident of its greatness, Senselessness gets right to work, scoring an early goal with its crisp opening salvo:
I am not complete in the mind, said the sentence I highlighted with the yellow marker and even copied into my personal notebook, because this wasn’t just any old sentence, much less some wisecrack, not by any means, but rather the sentence that astonished me more than any other sentence I read that first day on the job, the sentence that most dumbfounded me during my first incursion into those one thousand one hundred almost single-spaced printed pages placed on what would be my desk by my friend Erick so I could get some idea of the task that awaited me.
Honduras 1 – 0 Bosnia and Herzegovina
After these initial maneuvers, the Bosnians marshal their forces, realizing that a nifty kit alone does not a soccer team make, especially not in fevered battle against a righteously angry and caustic opponent. They launch an offensive, with a series of beautifully executed passes, backing the Hondurans into their own end. Stanišić’s use of chapter summaries (reminiscent of E.T.A. Hoffmann) is clever and worthy of appreciation. We learn, for instance, that Chapter Five will explain the following:
When something is an event, when it’s an experience, how many deaths Comrade Tito died, and how the once-famous three-point shooter gets behind the wheel of a Centrotrans bus
And that later, as the novel moves from more or less innocent childhood memories to war and genocide, we’ll understand:
What we play in the cellar, what peas taste like, why silence bares its fangs, who has the right sort of name, what a bridge will bear, why Asija cries, how Asija smiles
This seldom used tactic results in a goal by Stanišić’s side.
Honduras 1 – 1 Bosnia and Herzegovina
This might be the most fevered, high-strung match in the World Cup of Literature, with lulls in play coming few and far between. Each side seems intent on pummeling the other into submission, and goals are scored in bunches: Castellanos Moya’s wicked humor and coiled sentences spring into action, tilting things in Honduras’ favor . . .
Honduras 2 – 1 Bosnia and Herzegovina
. . . and Stanišić’s effective, if occasionally too cute heartstring-tugging getting the Bosnians back into the match . . .
Honduras 2 – 2 Bosnia and Herzegovina
. . . then, Senselessness gets really offensive with an STD, sending the Bosnians scurrying back on defense . . .
Honduras 3 – 2 Bosnia and Herzegovina
. . . after regrouping—nothing a little penicillin can’t cure, boys!—the Soldier and his Gramophone comes back strong, striking two goals in quick succession with a one-legged former soccer player, Kiko, and twenty pages of a No Man’s Land soccer match that involves cowardice, duplicity, a 6’9” tall lethal striker nicknamed Mickey Mouse, land mines, and a miracle comeback for the ages. The Hondurans are reeling, they can’t hold up against this onslaught. With their hyperactive exuberance, the Bosnians take the lead.
Honduras 3 – 4 Bosnia and Herzegovina
What do the Hondurans have left as we near the ninetieth minute? One last charge that falls flat against the nimble-footed Bosnian, who steals the ball, streaks toward the goal and deposits an insurance goal, putting How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone up for good.
Honduras 3 – 5 Bosnia and Herzegovina
You can be sure that a people who “sing even when they’re killed” will be celebrating in style.
Stephen Sparks is a buyer at Green Apple Books. He lives in San Francisco and blogs at Invisible Stories.
“Welcome on this glorious summer evening to another match in the 2014 World Cup of Literature! We’re here in beautiful Brazil, where Bosnia and Herzegovina faces off against Iran. I’m Chaz Flippo, here with the lovely Cindy Mignon on point to call the match for readers tonight.” “That’s right Chaz, we’ll be taking you through the pregame here momentarily as both countries get ready to square off with their strongest recent books: Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone for Bosnia and Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel for Iran.” “The books are in the tunnel now, getting their covers’ straight, stretching those sentences and phrases and prepping for any and all narrative turns.” “Chaz, what would you say is the goal for each team in this matchup today?” “Well, to put it bluntly, Cindy: goals! Ha ha!” “Ha ha! Indeed, Chaz, and when you get one strong chapter to the back of the net it only takes another to really help conclude the whole thing.” “That’s right Cindy, the key will be control, pacing, and, if we’re lucky, a little twist thrown in for good measure.” “I’ve heard that the Iranian book has a particularly nasty little turn set up for the start of the match, with the Colonel’s wife getting executed by his own—” “Tut tut, Cindy! We don’t want to get ahead of our readers here. That would be like jumping to the Bosnian war section of How the Soldier, where Aleksandar deliberately changes the name of—” “Chaz, please! Look at us here, giving all the spoilers away.” “We’ll be more careful, dear readers! It’s a wonderful day for a match, the field glowing green under the hot jungle sun, beating down on your head like you just spent all night in the jungle talking to god!” “That’s, uhmm, that’s right, Chaz!“And here come the books now! The Colonel is hand in hand with the youth escorts.” “My are those some spritely future football players accompanying The Colonel.” “Yes yes, to be sure, but I have to admit to you, Cindy, the Iranian looks a little old for this match—just a little too wrinkled walking out there hand in hand with the children.” “There was some talk in the WCoL’s Governing Powers about the The Colonel’s age, but apparently it slipped right through. One wonders, with these things, how much of this might have to do with a briefcase or two.” “Tut tut, my girl, let’s not jump to any conclusions. Conclusions make the head pound, and, to be frank, I had quite a long night last night. You see, I had something of and adven—” “Not now, Chaz, not right during coverage.” “Oh and how marvelous! Here comes How the Soldier, walking tall and proud as ever. You know, this Bosnian book really might have what it takes to make it deep into the later rounds. It has the playfulness, the rigor, the complexity to really mix things up here tonight and come out ahead.” “If it can manage to handle The Colonel’s dense, elliptical style, well, sure, but I wouldn’t count on it. The Iranians are lucky enough to be represented by a book that was banned in their own country, so you can imagine what a feat of writing it must be.” “It’s a dark book, to be sure, but one wonders, watching it warm up before the match, if it’s perhaps a little too relentless, a little too brooding. But really, last night was the most marvelous night of all my years.” “Don’t you think it can wait?” “Tut tut, Cindy! Always business first! Oh, and would you look at that! One of the Bosnian escorts is doing pirouettes right there on the pitch! How fun!” “He’s all hands and feet, isn’t he Chaz? All hands and feet, that one. My what a lovely cultural moment this all is. That’s really the only way you can put it, a lovely cultural moment.” “Cindy, I’ve been milling around the stadiums, and I’ve seen the beaches and the beautiful people and the architecture and all that’s peachy, but last night I saw something more.” “Yes, let’s just say peachy and end it there, Chaz.” “I’ve taken to spending lots of time outside the heavily guarded, fenced off areas of the cities, and Cindy, let me tell you about a friend I made last night named Mr. Huasca.” “Chaz I don’t think that’s very appropriate for our readers.” “No no, that’s alright, everything is alright now. It was all like the dream of the breath from a god playing a flute.” “. . .” “I awoke this morning with birds all a flutter in my head, deep in the jungle, ready for the game, and ready to tell my story.” “Well we’re just a few minutes away from kicking off the next exciting match in the World Cup of Literature, and—” “And, if you’d excuse me for one moment, I can tell you what it feels like to squirm around in football’s primordial soup.” “Chaz, please, not ag—“ “No no no, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s topical. You see, I was staying over at my grandparents house, the ones that grew up right around Kent—this was, say, forty years ago, in the vision of course—and, and this is all in my head, you see, because my grandma and papa are long since dead, but here I found myself, lying on my back under their kitchen table watching all of their feet stir by, their loafers and slippers speeding past, keeping to the rhythm of the music coming from the gramophone, the kind you hear in a dream, sleigh bells and clarinets and French horns—oh yes, the French horns!—filling up the space like a vapor, my grandparent’s making laps around the—” “Chaz, I really thi—” “kitchen shuttling plates from counter to counter, and I can hear my parents in the other room drinking cocktails with my auntie and uncle, prattling on about my marks—or lack thereof ha ha!—in voices that seem almost to well up from inside my own head and pop out and around a little hale from ear to ear and then slip right back inside, breaking apart into a million pieces, these voices, and out of nowhere—and this was really out of nowhere, you see, like out of some void right there at the room’s edge—comes a giant black dog, skulking low and sniffing—” “It’s really not appro—” “at every surface, pushing his giant maw under every shoe, every chair, the table cloth, the placemats, everything, coming closer and closer, the size of a pony, smelling of meat and sweat and garbage, and he’s coming closer and closer, pushing the chairs out the way now to put his giant nose right in front of me, right over my head, and then he’s opening his mouth, he’s baring his teeth, his tongue dangling loosely over my hair like the floppy flaps in a car wash, and I hear a rumbling coming from the pit of his stomach, and then a heaving, a heavy, hollow, heaving pushing right up out of from his belly and through his chest, and my hands are bound by my sides with some invisible force—I was a worm, in fact, my hands and feet were no longer separate dangles but all one body, one worm-body, so I’m totally helpless beneath this table, this music, these people, this dog, and just as I’m sure he’s going to vomit all over my head, what comes out of his mouth, but a giant football. And I knew right then and there just what I had to—” “CHAZ! Chaz, listen to me here. Are you okay? You look faint. Would you like me to get you a doctor?” “I ate it.” “Ate what? You really should drink some water and maybe get some sleep. You look as white as a—” “The vomit football.” “. . .” “In the vision, I wiggled up like a worm and ate it.” “Chaz, this is hardly the time.” “I used my tongue to scoop it up and once it was in my throat it just dissolved—” “We’re just seconds away from the start of this round’s match—” “and I felt a great calm.” “—between the Bosnians and the Iranians for the chance to take on Honduras in the semi—” “I was like a child again.” “—finals, the chance of a lifetime to play for country—” “Like a little boy hiding.” “—people—” “Like a little coward, ha ha!” “—and literature.” “There I was, a worm under a dog beneath a table inside a dream, munching on a football!” “And the match starts, with The Colonel taking possess—“ “Let me just get down here on the ground and replay the scene. Would you kindly hold my pants?” “Chaz, no!”
Bosnia-Herzegovina: 1 — Iran: 0
Hal Hlavinka recently moved from Chicago to New York to take over as the events coordinator at Powerhouse Arena. As a result, he sends out approximately 500 email announcements a day.
Each month the GBO selects a German book in translation to feature on their website. This month they selected How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić, which is coming out from Grove in June. The author will be in the States for the PEN World Voices Festival at the end of April, and this is a title we’re planning on reviewing. Sounds really fun:
Aleksandar Krsmanović grows up in Višegrad, a small town in Bosnia. He has inherited a talent for imaginative story-telling from his grandfather, and through these stories, Aleksandar infuses his world with a fairy tale-like vibrancy and childhood innocence. Suddenly, this idyllic world disintegrates into violence and bloodshed as civil war grips the country. Aleks and his parents flee to Germany, where Aleks’ story-telling plays a vital role for him and his family. He is able to keep alive the happiness they knew before the war and to stave off the difficulties of assimilation. Gradually, Aleksandar begins to crave a deeper understanding of what really happened in his country and what forced his family from their home. His fantasies collide with reality, and Aleks must decide where to end his stories and let reality into his life. How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is an accomplished, tragic-comic tale that magnificently captures the space between fantasy and reality.
The book has already received some serious praise, including this gushing blurb by Colum McCann:
“I love this book. It’s funny and it’s heartfelt and it’s brazen and it’s true. Find some space on your shelf beside Aleksandar Hemon, Jonathan Safran Foer, William Vollmann and David Foster Wallace. This is a great rattlebag of a book that will stay with you on whatever long journey you choose to go on. What a welcome voice rising up amongst the great voices. Saša Stanišić. Or Sasha Stanishitch. We should all learn how to pronounce his name, because he’s here to stay. “
In addition to all that, there’s a very funny story about how Lemony Snicket accidentally ended up on the cover playing the accordion. Basically, no one realized the picture on the cover was of Daniel Handler until someone mentioned it to Grove publisher Morgan Entrekin at sales conference . . . It’s a nice pic, and I especially like Handler’s quote about this:
“They asked me if I objected,” Handler says. “I said: ‘I think you should check with the author.’ I’d be kind of annoyed if my new novel had my friend Rick Moody on the cover. Not that Rick Moody is not a good–looking man.”
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
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Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .