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FAZ Review by Sandra Kegel
A world where rivers have a voice

Saša Stanišić
Photo: Katja Sämann

Taming dragons: In “Origin” (“Herkunft”), Saša Stanišić searches for answers about his identity with both the living and the dead.

What do you write to the Foreigners Registration Office in response to a question about your place of origin? In order to be granted German citizenship, writer Saša Stanišić had to submit various documents in March 2008, including a hand-written resume. He dutifully assembles a table with his life data, from attending grade school in Višegrad, a city in former Yugoslavia, where he was born in 1978, and later studying Slavistics in the German town of Heidelberg. However, he quickly comes to realize that these bullet points have nothing to do with his actual life. “I knew the information was correct, and yet I just could not leave it at that”, notes the narrator, starting afresh. He reiterates the date of his birth and then describes how it rained incessantly during those days, that lightning struck when he was born and that his grandmother Kristina, who took care of him those first few years, was a member of the mafia.

Saša Stanišić’s answer to the question of who he is and where he is from would end up filling a book of more than 350 pages. And "Origin” - the title of this autofictional tale - is not one page too long. Because origin is a complex topic and the simple question of what it refers to remains unclear to the author: “The geographic site of the hill where the delivery room was located? The borders of the state where the final contraction occurred? My parents’ provenance? Genes, ancestors, dialects?" All of it, he says, only provides a kind of costume you’re “meant to wear forever” once imposed. Viewed this way, “Origin” could be described as something of a costume fitting. Again and again, the narrator tries on new garments found in the treasure chest of his memories in order to observe himself in them in the guise of his former self, as a son, a refugee, a traveler, a grandchild or a dragon hunter.

Saša Stanišić: „Origin“ © Random House Saša Stanišić is one of the most successful German-language writers. His debut novel “How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone” from 2006, a literary reckoning with the Balkan War that was about to befall Višegrad, was received with so much enthusiasm that his first work was translated into 30 languages. In 2014, he received the Leipzig Book Fair Prize for “Before the Feast”, a story set in the Uckermark region of northeastern Germany. How fateful the political upheavals in Central Europe would prove for his life and that of his family is also main topic of "Origin”. Between the spare bullet points of “birth” and “university”, Saša Stanišić early on encountered war and flight, experienced a new start in a foreign land and began his artistic endeavors.

The narrator is 14 years old when the Civil War in Yugoslavia, which is breaking apart, begins to encroach on Bosnia. Due to ethnic cleansing and expulsions in their town the Stanisic family – a Serbian father and a Bosnian Muslim mother, the epitomes of what was formerly a multi-ethnic country, like others, are no longer safe and forced to flee. Their odyssey ends in Heidelberg, where they initially stay with an uncle. Circumstances force the parents to do hard work that is outside their academic qualifications in order to build a new life in a foreign country, living with second-hand furniture. To the narrator, Heidelberg represents both flight and a new beginning, precariousness, puberty, afternoons at the Aral gas station and his first poems, and at a certain point a "defiant self-confidence: Because I can!"

Not just the Foreigners Registration Office, but also his grandmother – the secret linchpin of this literary self-positioning – is a reason for the author, who now lives in Hamburg and has become a father, to do additional research into the Stanisic family. Again and again he visits his grandmother in Višegrad as she loses more and more of herself to dementia. It is with her that he visits the village of her forebears in the mountains, where only a handful of people still live. It is with her that he remembers her courageous sister Zagorka, who always dreamed of becoming a cosmonaut, but never made it to space. These prose vignettes recall garden parties under the cherry tree and how the child cannot yet interpret the first signs of a political crisis. The narrator becomes engrossed in the legendary soccer match between Red Star Belgrade and Bayern Munich in 1991, where Belgrade – against all odds –, emerged victorious on the eve of a no less inconceivable war.

Saša Stanišić’s writing is sometimes anecdotal, then thoughtful and often fantastical, because dragons also play an important role in this story. It is about joy and pain and being homesick for a country that no longer exists. The flashbacks are interrupted by reflections from the present where the narrator classifies, examines and reveals certain things. Such as his poetology, which he at one point explains to his grandmother. Fiction, he states, is a world of its own to him, one which does not depict reality, but instead a world "where rivers speak and great-grandparents live forever". Nonetheless, “Herkunft” is inseparably linked to the theme of parting. Because just as the children of the last residents of the mountain village of Oskorusa do not take over the farmsteads of their parents, Kristina increasingly sinks into oblivion and the adventurous cosmonaut has long since died. Saša Stanišić resurrects the dead in his enchanting prose as he writes to counter oblivion, crossing the boundaries between times. "No one is forgotten," says one villager at the grave of his great-grandparents. Saint George is not forgotten either, nor is the war criminal whose framed portrait the narrator is surprised to discover in a house.

“Herkunft” also demonstrates why Stanisic's prose has always been so closely tied to people and places and what it means for them to have been born somewhere they no longer can or want to live: Hardly any of his literary figures remain in one place, few arrive where they originally wanted to go, and they rarely speak of home.

For globetrotter Mo in the book, home is a place where you have to take on as little as possible. For Saša Stanišić, whose family now lives scattered all over the world after breaking apart with the disintegrating Yugoslavia and being unable to reassemble, home means something else again. Home, to him, is “whatever I am currently writing about”. This is likely one of the reasons he occasionally uses the plural “homes”. And since, in the logic of the book, origin is not something that can be traced back on a timeline in a linear fashion, but instead is made up of multiple paths, forks in the road, possibilities and improbabilities in a tree-like structure, “Herkunft" has not one, but many endings. Depending on how one reads the book, this deep dive into the story has various outcomes.
First published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on March 16, 2019. © All rights reserved. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung GmbH, Frankfurt, Germany. Made available by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Archiv.